Norm Lewis Talks Sondheim & Hollywood Bowl

In conversation with Actor and Singer, Norm Lewis, who performs live at Hollywood Bowl in “Everybody Rise! A Sondheim Celebration.”

PHOTO: Peter Hurley | The South Pasadenan | Broadway singer and actor Norm Lewis.
PHOTO: Peter Hurley | The South Pasadenan | Broadway singer and actor Norm Lewis.

Los Angeles audiences have been blessed these past few months with multiple sightings of multi-talented, multi-hyphenated actor and performer, Norm Lewis. Known for being the first African American Phantom in Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera“, the first African American man to play the role of Javert in “Les Miserables,” originating the role of King Triton in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway, and myriad roles in television and film, Lewis was most recently on stage at the Ahmanson in “A Soldier’s Play.” While he was in town for the run of that play, he graced us with his solo show, “Moonlighting” at the iconic Catalina Jazz Club. I was fortunate enough to attend “Moonlighting” and let me tell you, it is an unforgettable experience to hear Lewis sing live – he had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.

Well, Angelenos, we have another chance to see Lewis – this time at the Hollywood Bowl, where he joins a staggering cast of Broadway luminaries for Everybody Rise! A Sondheim Celebration on Sunday, July 30, 2023. I recently spoke with Lewis about his career, singing, and Sondheim.

PHOTO: Joan Marcus | The South Pasadenan | Norm Lewis as Captain Richard Davenport in the National Tour of “A Soldier's Play” playing at Ahmanson Theatre May 23 through June 25, 2023.
PHOTO: Joan Marcus | The South Pasadenan | Norm Lewis as Captain Richard Davenport in the National Tour of “A Soldier’s Play” playing at Ahmanson Theatre.

With the voice that he has, it’s hard to imagine that Lewis didn’t always have a dream of his kind of Broadway and Hollywood success. But his trajectory was pretty atypical. Raised in the small town of Eatonville, Florida, Lewis was brought up in the church – his father was a deacon, his grandfather a preacher and as he tells it, “singing in the choir was a rite of passage. My friends were doing it and so I said, “why not? Let me just – giving myself to God – and I sang in the choir. We weren’t necessarily known for being a fantastic choir but we did make a joyful noise every once in a while.” He loved singing and music but, surprisingly, he never thought he had a voice or that it was even something he could do. It was just something he did with his friends. It wasn’t until high school, when, on a lark, he chose choir as an elective rather than home economics thinking it would be an “easy grade”. And that is where the first “Aha” moment came. He had to audition for the choir and when the choir director led him up and down some scales and had him sing a little something, he told Lewis that he had a nice voice.

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“That was the very first click of that” he says, “and then, as I sat and listened to them sing – and it’s just this wall of beauty that I had never really experienced before. Up until then, I’ve only sung mainly gospel music, but this was classical. And we got into American standards and a little Broadway – and I had never experienced any of that. So I became more curious about that world.” The next year he auditioned for show choir and had his “Glee” moment, singing his first solo, singing at assemblies and events, and that was when other people began telling him more and more that he had a good voice. “People were very kind and that’s where I got my love of wanting to do more in that regard.”

PHOTO: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade | The South Pasadenan | Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess in the original Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera.
PHOTO: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade | The South Pasadenan | Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess in the original Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera.

Lewis majored in business at Lake City Community College. He got a scholarship to sing in their choir but he still didn’t consider himself a professional singer so business seemed practical. But in his second year he ended up in their production of “Grease” and he was officially bitten by the theatre bug. Still, when he went off to Rollins College, he chose to major in Economics. Midway through his time there, he was offered a job in advertising with the newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, and life took another turn. He worked there full time with the idea of earning enough money to complete his education, all the while singing at night in local spots, entering singing contests.

As fate would have it, a judge for one of the contests was a producer for a cruise ship who ended up offering Lewis a job singing on his ship. Bless his supervisor at the Sentinel because when Lewis asked her about it she told him, “you don’t want to be 85 years old saying coulda, woulda, shoulda. So go for it.” He was grateful for the advice because, as it turns out, it paid off. Lewis left to work on the cruise where he worked alongside professionals who had been on Broadway and he says, “I was so intrigued by them! They were very complimentary to me and they said I should go to New York.” Which he did, and it wasn’t long before he was working. Like many before him, he auditioned, got jobs and, between waiting tables, bartending, and acting gigs, he built his resume and momentum. His first national tour was “Once on This Island” and not long after that he landed “The Who’s Tommy”, which was his first Broadway show.

PHOTO: provided by artist | The South Pasadenan | Actor Norm Lewis
PHOTO: provided by artist | The South Pasadenan | Actor Norm Lewis

As someone who didn’t go the “normal” route of drama school, Lewis says one of his regrets is not diving into training and working with a vocal coach as soon as he got to New York. Instead, he learned on the job. He felt that his voice seemed to be getting him in the door, so he eventually focused his sights on deepening his acting skills at the Howard Studios and then with private acting coach, Alan Savage, who Lewis says “opened up an entire mindset for me to think about how I approach acting. But finally, finally after about a year into “The Who’s Tommy”, I got a lead role in “Miss Saigon” up in Toronto – which has major solos and I said ‘well, maybe I need to start studying voice.’ And I found it through a miracle. I was in the back of a cab in Toronto and someone had left their card stuck in one of the seats of the cab – and it was an opera coach. And I said, ‘that must be a sign from God’.”

Lewis studied with him for six months and then was called to do the role on Broadway, where he began working with a New York colleague of his Toronto coach. So he continues working with that coach and moves on to others and eventually gets cast in “Side Show”. Meanwhile, he got his real estate license(!) and is selling real estate during the day and performing on Broadway at night. I told you his trajectory was atypical. He eventually landed, by way of Kristin Chenoweth’s ENT, with his current vocal coach who he says, “opened up a whole new horizon of singing for me.”

In “Moonlighting”, Lewis takes his audience on a journey through everything from standard jazz to pop and his iconic Broadway roles and yes, Sondheim. “It’s a party for me,” he says. “Even if I’m with a symphony orchestra, or if I’m with a trio or just a piano, I just like, hey, you’re invited to my space. And let’s have fun.”

Which brings our conversation to Sondheim. Lewis remembers singing one of Sondheim’s most iconic songs, “Being Alive” when he was in high school, not even knowing who Stephen Sondheim was. Once he got to New York, he of course began hearing more and more about him and remembers watching “Sweeney Todd” on Great Performances and being blown away by it, thinking, “Oh my God, this is amazing! I then did a deeper dive and finally I got to play Bobby in “Company” at the Helen Hayes in Nyack with Donna McKechnie. So that was a lot of fun.” Through the years he and Sondheim would see each other, work together, and “we did hang out a couple of times,” Lewis remembers fondly.

PHOTO: Peter Hurley | The South Pasadenan | Broadway singer and actor Norm Lewis.
PHOTO: Peter Hurley | The South Pasadenan | Broadway singer and actor Norm Lewis.

In Lewis’ solo show, “Moonlighting”, he sings some Sondheim including “No One is Alone” from “Into The Woods.” Lewis reflects, “He writes the emotions for you, so you don’t even have to act. He writes it for you. All you have to do is just trust the words and trust the melodies – and even if they sound different to your ear – it’s written for a reason.” At the Bowl, Lewis is excited to tell us he will be singing a duet with Sierra Boggess, that they will be doing group numbers from “Sunday in the Park with George” and something from “A Little Night Music” and more. “Yeah, I’m excited,” Lewis tells us, “I get to do a duet with one of my really close friends, and someone who I’ve admired for a long time, Brian Stokes Mitchell. I get to be on stage with Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster and Skylar Astin. I mean, this entire cast is fantastic. I’m still overwhelmed.”

Lewis says he considers L.A. a second home and is loving all these opportunities to get back here. The last time Lewis sang at the Bowl was the “Little Mermaid” event where they screen the film and then singers come out to sing the musical numbers. “It was me, Titus Burgess, Darren Criss, and Sara Bareilles was my mermaid. And we got extended for three performances and I got to sing with the original Little Mermaid, Jodi Benson,” Lewis remembers affectionately. “Singing at the Hollywood Bowl is incredible. I mean, seeing the thousands of seats out there – it’s just so much fun to know that people are wanting to be entertained, but also so eager to see you perform and to enjoy the music that you’re bringing them. It’s great. I cannot wait to get back out there.”

And a grateful L.A. audience can’t wait either! See you at the Bowl!

Everybody Rise! A Sondheim Celebration will have one performance only at the Hollywood Bowl this summer: Sunday, July 30, at 7:30pm. Tickets are available now at hollywoodbowl.com, or via phone order at 323.850.2000 (10am-6pm daily) or in person at the Hollywood Bowl Box Office located in the Plaza, outside of the Main Gate:
2301 North Highland, Avenue Hollywood, CA 90068

 

PHOTO: Adam Latham | The South Pasadenan | Hollywood Bowl shell with fireworks.
PHOTO: Adam Latham | The South Pasadenan | Hollywood Bowl shell with fireworks.