One of Broadway's most dependable and versatile musical theater actors, Norm Lewis is celebrating his first Tony nomination for his starring role as the cripple Porgy in Porgy and Bess. Paired with Audra McDonald, Lewis undergoes a startling physical transformation and delivers a heart-wrenching performance in this new adaptation of the classic Gershwin opera. His distinct baritone voice has been highlighted in musicals ranging from Side Show to Les Miserables to Sondheim on Sondheim. Broadway.com caught up with friendly star to talk about Porgy, the benefits of controversy and finding his freaky side in Side Show.
Let’s talk Porgy and Bess: Marquee name, Tony nomination, Audra McDonald, Diane Paulus. Are you living the dream?
This is beyond my dreams. It’s overwhelming! It still hasn’t hit me that I’m playing Porgy. To be part of this amazing cast and to finally get a chance to play on stage with my really good friend [McDonald], whom I’ve known for years, is beyond my dreams.
What was it like after over 20 years on Broadway to get this Tony nomination?
Oh, it’s so exciting! To hear your name be announced in that early morning ceremony—I had to rewind. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I waited patiently in front of the television, and when I heard my name, a little tear fell. I was thinking about my parents, and I wish they were here to be a part of this. I am so lucky that I have been able to work over these past two decades. I’ve done some really good pieces that I’m very proud of, and to be validated in this way is wonderful. I get to celebrate [on Tony] night with people who are celebrating theater—live performances—and that’s really cool at this age.
Are there any other roles you felt deserved Tony recognition?
I never really thought about it. People would come up to me after Side Show and said, “Wow, you should have been nominated for that role,” and even after Sondheim on Sondheim there were rumblings that there would be a possibility of me being nominated. I just wanted the work to speak for itself and I really wanted to do good work and be respected for that. This is the perfect time. When you’re ready, your time will come and I think I was ready this time.
How is working with Audra different than when you did the benefit concert of Dreamgirls in 2001 [as Deena and Curtis]? What will you remember most about working with her in Porgy and Bess?
Well, we are much older now [laughs]. It’s been just amazing to watch this master at work, and I’ve learned a lot. [I’ll remember] the bond we have as a community and as a cast because of Diane Paulus at the helm. Also, the “controversy” made us stronger; we just really really depended on each other during those times.
As you mentioned, there was controversy during the out-of-town tryout over the idea of Porgy and Bess being revised and shortened for Broadway. Did you worry that it would derail the show?
There was a slight fear because we did hear that some of the investors were concerned about it. The thing is: We knew we had something special, and we wanted the work to speak for itself. We knew that it was a very respectful piece of musical theater. The [Gershwin] family saw what we were doing; they gave us permission, and they also pulled the reins on some things. We definitely wanted to bring Porgy and Bess to a broader audience, and most of our audiences know the music but they have never seen the show. We are introducing this to a new audience.
Let’s talk about the physical demands of playing a crippled man eight times a week. Can you walk us through what happens with your leg, onstage and off?
A physical therapist who works with physically challenged people came in and basically showed me, Diane Paulus and Ronald K. Brown, our choreographer, the muscles to use and not use. From that, Ronald and myself developed what we have now. I just let that leg go and relax all those muscles, and then I put all the muscle pressure on the other leg, the “good one,” and I become Porgy. I stretch more than I’ve ever stretched before just to keep myself OK. I see a chiropractor every week, I see a physical therapist every week and I’ve started seeing an osteopath, as well, just to make sure everything is in line. They all keep telling me I’m doing OK.
Is it draining to do this show eight times a week? Are you able to leave the sadness of Porgy behind at the end of night?
I actually leave it all on stage because this show is the most challenging I’ve ever done—physically, emotionally, vocally, all of that. I definitely have to leave it here because I would go nuts if I took it with me. I’d be in therapy all day.
Is it true that you worked at The Orlando Sentinel in your 20s? How did you make the transition into acting?
I worked in advertising—that was going to be my career, and I loved it, but I always sang. I was in choirs, in bars in town, and, back in my day, there were all these little Star Search competitions around town. A guy who was a judge was also a producer on a cruise ship and he “discovered” me and said, “How would you like to sing on my cruise?” That was my first professional gig, and I realized I wanted to do this. From that, I met people who encouraged me to go to New York.
Let’s talk Les Miserables. What did it mean to you to play Javert all over the world and to be immortalized in the 25th anniversary London concert?
Wow, how about that? [Laughs.] I was blown away. When Cameron [Macintosh] called my agent and said, “How would you like to play Javert in the 25th anniversary?” I said, “What?! Yeah! That would be so cool!” He’s been a very big champion of my work from Miss Saigon to Les Miz on Broadway and on the West End. I spent a year in London and I loved it. I found new things every day, and it was a nice challenge to make it new every day. It was exciting to be in London, where the show originated.
What was your experience on Side Show like? Why do you consider it one of your favorite shows?
I think as a Broadway community, we see ourselves as a side show [laughs]. We feel like we are different from a lot of people; we are all kind of freakish in our own way being in this business of show itself. Also, people who came to see the show saw themselves on that stage on a universal level. It touched everybody. “Who Can Love Me as I Am?” resonates with all of us—we all have our own little quirks and qualms. We all saw our freakishness through them.
What attracted you to The Little Mermaid? Did it make you feel like a kid again? Any mishaps with the skates?
When they told me I had an audition for that show, I was immediately thinking it was for the crab. Then when they told me they were bringing me in for King Triton, I was like, “All right!” For Disney to put an African-American as King of the Sea, I had to give kudos to them. I did fall once. Someone stepped on my tail and I couldn’t get my balance back, then I fell again when my skates got caught in my skirt. How many times can I say that?
You mentioned being part of Sondheim on Sondheim. What is he like?
I’ve admired his work for years, of course, and I had met him a couple times, but to get notes from him was like a master class. I consider him the Shakespeare of musical theater because [his songs are] so deep and rich that you find something new every time you do those words. So for him to come in and coach us and direct us in certain ways was an overwhelming honor.
What is Norm like offstage? What are your hobbies?
I love to read books on business, since that is what I studied in college. I’ve run a couple businesses in the past. I’m invested in a company called Lolly Clothing with my friend Chad Kimball [Memphis Tony nominee]. It’s getting ready to do some amazing things within the next year. I also want to do more concerts. I want to be the male Audra McDonald—she does her concerts and she loves it. [laughs].
What’s next for you after Porgy and Bess?
Right now I’m concentrating on finishing this run, but I’m hoping to do more TV and film work. I’d love to do what Patrick Wilson and Matt Morrison are doing, but being able to come back to theater, because theater is my first love.
See Norm Lewis in Porgy and Bess at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.