There was a time that Norm Lewis never knew he had a voice.
As a boy, he joined the church choir as a rite of passage — “My dad was very high in the church and my grandfather was a preacher, so it was basically expected,” he said — and then skirted home economics by singing in high school his junior year.
The accolades came and went. He won some local talent shows, and lost others. He auditioned for Disney seven times, and never got hired. He was the “romantic singer” at beauty pageants around Florida — “You are so beautiful, to me,” the velvety baritone sang over the telephone from his home in New York, where he finally moved from Florida in his mid-20s, with little musical training.
“I got here and I was scared to death,” he said. “But I just showed up and did it — and got hired! I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’ I got hired for a lot of things.” Lewis, now 55, would make his Broadway debut in 1993, launching a multi-faceted career from stage to screen and back again — a taste of which he’ll bring to Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Monday, July 9, as part of the “Music Mondays”
“I’m someone who likes to throw the party, to be the host. I try to make everyone comfortable — it’s almost like I’m inviting you to my living room — and I want you to react,” he said of his live concerts. “I want you to maybe talk to me — not be obnoxious, but we can have a conversation. It’s about us; it’s not about me. It’s about
us, and enjoying ourselves. I’m gonna have fun, and I want you to have fun, as well.” The evening will feature the best of his stage work, Lewis said, from Porgy in “Porgy and Bess” — which garnered him a Tony nod for Best Actor in a Musical” — to Javert in “Les Miserables.” In 2008, he originated the role of King Triton in “The Little Mermaid” and, eight years later, made history as the first African American “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway.
“It wasn’t even so much about being the first African American to play the role on Broadway, but it was more about making sure that I do well with this role because it’s an iconic role. It’s a role that so many people want to be a part of. They deem it to be on the upper echelon of what male musical theater is,” he said. “Once they know
you’ve done the Phantom, they go, ‘Oh, wow, you’ve done the Phantom.’
“I had been thinking about that show for so long and I wanted to be a part of it for years, whether it be ensemble and hopefully being an understudy,” he continued. “But to get the chance to be considered and then actually play the role was a dream come true.”
While Lewis said he has his sights set on more film and television — fans may recognize him from “Scandal,” “Chicago Med,” “Gotham,” “The Blacklist, “Blue Bloods” and the recent NBC special, “Jesus Christ Superstar – Live in Concert!” alongside John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper — he is always thinking toward the stage, never forgetting his earliest days navigating the theater world.
“I am that scared kid — I still am that scared kid,” he said. “In fact, a few of my colleagues and I have talked about this before. We think we’re gonna get found out, that we’re a fraud.”
He laughed, and continued. “You’re always nervous about doing your best and doing
what people expect of you. There’s a little bit of pressure on that. Every day, I’m like, ‘Lord, thank you for the opportunity, thank you for the stuff that’s happened in my
life to get this far.’ You just hope it continues.”
Norm Lewis will perform “Songs for a Summer Night” on Monday, July 9, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor, as part of the “Music Mondays” series. Tickets range from $59 to $89. Additional performances will include Lucie Arnaz on July 16; Isaac Mizrahi on August 6; Charles Busch on August 13; Bobby Conte Thornton on August 20; and Mandy Gonzales on August 27. For more information, please call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.