Norm Lewis: Broadway’s late blooming leading man

“We’d watch The Wizard of Oz every year,” Norm Lewis recalls of his childhood in western Florida. “But I didn’t know much about Broadway musicals.”

“I sang in church,” explains Lewis, who brings a program of holiday songs and theater music to Feinstein’s at the Nikko next weekend. “But theater was the furthest thing from my mind.”

After high school, Lewis went to college to study business, not show business.

By the time he was in his twenties, he was settling into a career at The Orlando Sentinel newspaper. “I started out in the production department and eventually moved into marketing.”

But Lewis had a bit of a karaoke habit on the side.

Star Search was popular on TV at that time, and a few bars around town had contests that would emulate it. I was doing that and eventually I won Grand Champion. I think I got $200 or $500 bucks.”

While a few hundred dollars might not have been life-changing, there turned out to be a much bigger prize for Lewis.

“One of the judges worked for a cruise line,” he recalls. “He offered me a four-month job. That was kind of a crash course for me. It made me realize I could pursue performing as a career.

After his time at seas, he moved to New York and started auditioning.

“I set a goal for myself of making it to Broadway by the time I was 30.”

Sure enough, in 1993, after a few regional theater gigs, Lewis was cast in The Who’s Tommy on Broadway. Soon a Broadway staple, he’s  since played the likes of Javert in Les Miserables, Billy Flynn in Chicago, and Porgy to Audra McDonald’s Bess.

But the stage role that Lewis may always be best known for is the title character in The Phantom of the Opera. He’s heralded as the first African-American actor to play the Phantom on Broadway (Robert Guillaume had previously played the role in Los Angeles).

“You know, the whole African-American thing wasn’t as important to me as the fact that its just a great leading role, and I wanted a chance to play it.”

Among the other plum parts he’d still like to get a crack at, Lewis singles out Harold Hill in The Music Man as a particular favorite.

While Lewis has gained widespread recognition from his television role as Scandal‘s Edison Davis and confesses to accompanying his personal housecleaning chores with a soundtrack of beat-heavy electronic dance music, he’s brushed aside plenty of film offers and suggestions that he record an R&B or pop album.

“I think of myself as an actor now as much as a singer, and I get real satisfaction from acting out a song. something with words you can follow through a beginning, a middle and an end.  Music theater is where my heart is.”