Norm Lewis wasn't one of those kids who heard his calling while listening to a cast recording at age six. Discovering Broadway scores at the relatively wizened age of 17, Lewis was on his way to becoming a Volvo-driving yuppie until an unusually supportive boss urged him to give performing a shot. Hence he arrived in New York 19 years ago, and after paying his dues as a cater waiter and bartender, Lewis landed his first Broadway gig in 1993, as an ensemble player in the original cast of Tommy. The talented baritone has worked steadily ever since, appearing in blockbusters Chicago, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, cult favorites Side Show, The Wild Party and in off-Broadway Dessa Rose, Two Gentlemen of Verona and regional productions Baby, Sweeney Todd, Company and many more. Now he's is making himself at home in Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre as a super-fit King Triton in Disney's smash-hit The Little Mermaid. Broadway.com met with Lewis in his dressing room on a recent evening as he arrived straight from a visit to the gym. Sipping Gatorade, he discussed the appeal of the show, the challenge of performing for infants and the experience of going onstage topless and glittered.
So, it's nearing 7PM. When do you start feeling the curtain-up crunch?
Not until 7:30. When we first started in Denver, there weren't enough people to help do makeup and hair, so the principals would come in at 7. But now there's a routine, so most people get here within a half hour. Some come in earlier; Sherie [Rene Scott as Ursula] has to have her makeup applied. So do Sierra [Boggess as Ariel] and Tituss [Burgess as Sebastian]. I do my own makeup. They gave me a step-by-step guide, and I just kept following and following it. Now it's really easy. I just throw glitter on my body, put on the skirt and that's pretty much it.
I see some leftover glitter on your neck.
It's all over the place in my house, too. I had my own shower in Denver, and I would scrub off immediately after the show, and it would still be on. Here, I wipe my makeup off and wash my face, but I can't get it all off. People look at me on the subway like, "Hmmm, I wonder what you do?"
They probably think you're coming from the clubs.
Maybe. Yeah, a go-go dancer or something. Who knows?
How has performing shirtless eight times a week influenced your gym habits?
In Denver, that's all I did. I didn't know the city that well, and didn't really have any friends there. So I would just go to the gym. When I got back here, I had my life again and everything, but…yeah, I was still pretty diligent [laughs]. Obviously you want to look good and not be out of shape for something like this. But there's some healthy aspects, too, like my cholesterol level's gone down. It's not just about looking good. I'm hoping people who come to the show think I look good.
The audience at The Little Mermaid is a lot younger than for the other Broadway shows you've done. Has that taken some time to get used to?
We've had six-month-olds here. We've had three-month-olds here. They don't know what they're looking at obviously. But it's Disney. Families feel like they can bring their children.
What sort of reactions do you hear during the show?
You hear a lot of noises. Kids get frightened by some of the sounds, all the lights and the flashing. And some of us look pretty intense and maybe a little scary, so it's intimidating. Once, after I destroyed Ariel's human stuff while singing the reprise of "The World Above," a kid screamed, "I gotta get outta here! I gotta get out!" One night, the prince and Ariel were having their moment, and a kid shouted, "Kiss her!" You can tell they love what's going on. You can see it in their faces.
What about offstage? Have they offered any unfiltered, "from the mouths of babes"-style criticism?
Not to me, specifically. But a kid did comment on how Ursula was too pretty to be a witch, and that she was too pretty to be mean.
I'm sure Sherie didn't mind that.
No, she didn't hearing that at all!
The critics were pretty hard on The Little Mermaid. Were you expecting that?
I knew going into this that I couldn't look to reviews to gauge if the show was successful or not. I just knew that the story would be enough. I loved the Hans Christian Andersen version of it. Everyone's always told me this is their favorite character and their favorite movie from the Disney catalogue. Then you throw in Alan Menken's songs. I mean, I knew it was a hit.
Having grown up in Orlando, did you spend a lot of time at Disney World when you were a kid?
We'd go on family trips there, usually when cousins would visit. All three of my proms were there. My grad night was there. There's a real Disney community down there.
Did you ever work there?
No, they never hired me. I auditioned there six or seven times, and I always got called back, but I never got the gig. I finally got hired the seventh time, but it was right after I got hired for a cruise ship. I chose that instead.
When did you first start singing?
I'd been singing in church since I was a kid, but I didn't really get notices on whether I had a good voice or not until I was 17. I joined the high school choir, but only because I wanted to get an easy grade. That's when I discovered all this classical music and Broadway stuff and was like, "Wow, this is really cool." Until then, I'd only sung gospel music.
Didn't you work for the Orlando Sentinel at some point?
Yeah, I started off in telephone classifieds. I basically just sat at a desk with a headset on, saying things like, "Orlando Sentinel classifieds, this is Norman, can I help you?" It was like Craigslist. People would call to put their ads for garage sales and used cars. Once, someone wanted to offer freeze-dried urine.
It was during a time when everyone was getting drug tested, so someone was selling clean freeze-dried urine. We couldn't print it, of course.
What other calls do you remember?
Two calls really bothered me, emotionally. One was from an elderly woman. She had a room to rent, and I was helping her save money by abbreviating certain words and taking others out. She said, "As long as I have word 'available' in there. Because my lawyer says if a black man comes down my walkway, and I don't want to rent to him, then I don't have to." And I said, "Oh…okay," then gave the call to my supervisor. Another guy needed a housekeeper. Again, I was helping him save money with the wordage, but he got frustrated and said, "I really would just like to put 'I want a big fat black n-word woman to come and cook and clean my house'." So I said, "Hold on…" and gave the call to my supervisor.
Those moments aside, did you enjoy that sort of work?
I was definitely moving up. I got involved in telemarketing and was ready to transition into the advertising world and outside sales. But all that ended when I got the cruise ship gig. My supervisor was like, "Go for it. You don't want to hit 85 thinking 'coulda-woulda-shoulda.' If it doesn't work, you can come back."
What did you do on the cruise ship?
One of those revues, like "Songs from the '30s to the '80s." This was in the mid- to late-'80s. There were six guys, three women, and we changed costumes very quickly. In fact, when we got to the '80s, I did the Tom-Cruise-in-the-underwear thing. What song was that?
"Old-Time Rock and Roll"?
Right, I slid onstage in my underwear and in my shirt singing, "Just take those old records off the shelf!" We also did goofy Madonna songs and "Begin the Beguine." I was on the ship for four and a half months. It was exciting in the sense that it was my first real "theater acting gig," quote-unquote.
How did you get from a cruise ship to Manhattan?
On the ship, I met a lot of great people from different countries, including some who'd been on Broadway or had done the regional thing. I was thinking I'd go back to Florida, take some classes, work in commercials or at Disney World, and then go to New York after two years. But they talked me out of that. They said, "You should just go to New York. You've got the talent. You've been saving and you've got the money. Go and see what happens." So I came to the city in 1989.
And what happened?
I immediately went to two temp companies [laughs], and got work as a receptionist or doing word processing. But I was always committed to making sure I got up at six o'clock to wait in line at auditions. I tell young people that it's all about showing up. When I first got here? Unless they specifically asked for blond hair and blue eyes, I was there. I got hired as Richie in A Chorus Line because I was the only black who showed up for the audition. And I can't dance! I mean, I can move. But Richie's supposed to be, like, the best dancer in the show. They didn't even see me dance. They just said, "Would you play Richie?" Luckily, I didn't have to do it, since I ended up getting the lead role in [a regional production of] Pippin. But just show up, just show up, just show up…
This has been a notable year on Broadway for African-Americans, and you, of course, recently played Javert in Les Miserables. Do you think you would've been cast as King Triton a decade ago?
I don't know. I mean, Brian Stokes Mitchell started knocking down a lot of walls with things like Kiss Me Kate. People see him as someone who can cross over, and there've been a couple of people who've been able to do that since, like Michael McElroy and myself. But, as I've said in many interviews, The Phantom of the Opera has been on Broadway for 21 years There's been a black Phantom—Robert Guillaume played it in Los Angeles—but there's never been a black Phantom on Broadway. I know there are people who can play that role. I know people who can sing that role. I can sing that role. It's interesting. Or just frustrating.
Have you ever auditioned for it?
I went in twice for it, back when I was doing Tommy, my first Broadway show. They saw Michael McElroy and me. I went in again a couple of years ago for Phantom in Las Vegas. I had a pretty decent audition, I thought. But whatever, forget me. I just know so many guys who can sing that role. And you're behind a mask! Not to mention, I think it would add a little flavor to it. Even though it's not stated that this person's blaaaack, there'd be an added presence of someone being African-American and an outcast in this world.
Still, the fact that Disney cast an African-American as not only the Sea King but as the father of a red-headed mermaid seems significant.
I don't like calling it "non-traditional" or "color-blind," really. Whatever the case may be, I'm grateful that [director] Francesca Zambello and [producer] Thomas Schumacher were open-minded enough to just put the people who are talented enough onstage. Asian, black, Italian—everybody is on that stage.
You've got a new album in the works. What can we expect?
The CD is done, actually. I'm singing some Broadway tunes and some standards. It's got "Misty," because Johnny Mathis is my hero. He's the reason why I'm singing. I just love his voice. I grew up loving that whole crooner mentality, like Frank Sinatra. Dean Martin was another icon of mine. And Tom Jones! I do "It's Not Unusual." And I thought I'd throw an Alan Menken song in there, too, so I did "Go the Distance" [from Hercules].
Is there a story behind each song?
There are a lot of stories. "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods, which is usually sung by several singers—we've arranged it as a solo. The song first got my attention because I had to sing it at a memorial service a couple of years ago. So I put it on the album as a dedication to my friend. There's also "Before the Parade Passes By" [from Hello, Dolly!], which is not normally done by a guy. But that was my audition song when I first moved here, and I got a good job by singing it! So I had to put it on the CD.
You always hear performers say they don't read their own reviews. Is that true in your case?
I try not to read reviews of shows that I'm in. I just can't. I've had people call me and say, "Congratulations on your review!" And I'm like, "Thank you, but please don't tell me." Because you're disappointed if it's bad, and if it's good, you might start believing it and patting yourself on the back a little too much. Either way, it's not a good thing. What I will do, though, is save them and read them after the show [laughs]. But just for…giggles, as the saying goes. Just for blank and giggles.
See Norm Lewis in The Little Mermaid at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.