Some people are born knowing that they must be on stage. But Norm Lewis wasn’t really sure until he was in his mid-twenties and five years into a serious career working in advertising for a Florida newspaper. “The bug to actually do this as a life-long profession didn’t really hit me until I was around 26 or 27,” explains Lewis, who stepped into title role of The Phantom of the Opera in May.
“I knew I could sing, so I would be hired to sing at weddings, fashion shows or even beauty pageants.” Every once in a while he would enter singing contests. “I’d win some, I’d lose some,” he explains. “But some of them paid a little bit of money. Sometimes you’d win a trip to New York.”
But it was one of those singing contests that changed the course of his life. Not only did he win (of course), but as luck would have it, one of the judges was a producer for a cruise ship and asked if Lewis would sing on his cruise. “I was going to get married and was heading straight into this career in advertising,” says Lewis. “But my supervisor said, ‘You don’t want to be 85 years old saying could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. So go for it and see what happens.’” And what happened? A stellar Broadway career, a Tony nomination and a TV resume that includes playing Senator Edison Davis on the hit series Scandal.
Here, Lewis takes us through a busy two-show day that included morning meditation, a TV interview and a backstage visit from a very special friend.
After I got up, I did a meditation where I have 15 minutes of quiet time. I like to do it every day. Every morning also get out the juicer and do a shot of an actual lemon and ginger. It’s a great power boost.
I go the gym to do 30 minutes to an hour of cardio. I come back home, check emails and messages from social media and answer phone calls. I try to rest my voice so I can be ready for the show. But this was probably one of my busiest days. I had to get my clothes together for a 10:00am car pickup.
A car came to take me to CBS studios to do an interview with CBS News about being the first African-American Phantom on Broadway. It’s been a tremendous joy to get all this attention. I was just glad to be invited to the room — to do a role that I’ve always wanted to do. I’m happy that they gave me the opportunity to come in and audition and thought that I was the right person. I definitely stand on the shoulders of Robert Guillaume, who was the very first African-American to play the role some 20-odd years ago in Los Angeles. I liked the interview. And CBS was very kind. They knew I was on a time crunch because I had two shows that day. We had a good time.
I had a matinee and got to work early. I usually get into work early so I can get my makeup on and have to be there earlier than anyone else. I did some basic vocal warm-up exercises. After I had my make-up done, I did some more cardio to get my body warm. I do jumping jacks and lunges. Then I stretched my body so it can be all prepared and loose so I can climb ladders and crawl into tight spaces for the show.
I don’t do any of my own makeup. I leave that up to the makeup artist. And I leave my costume to the wardrobe guy, who is called the wardrobe engineer. I just put on what they tell me to put on. I sit still and let them apply whatever they need to apply.
It was time to do the show. I don’t know how I get the stamina for it, but I try to get as much sleep as I possibly can. It was a good show. Sierra Boggess [who stars as Christine] and I always try to give 110 percent each show.
I don’t really get an intermission, because I’m changing costumes and making sure the makeup is on. I may get five minutes, if that.
After the show, I had special guests came backstage: Audra McDonald [his Porgy and Bess co-star], her husband Will Swenson and their family came to see the show. We do a Thursday matinee. It’s a great schedule so people in other shows can come see my show. We took a lot of pictures backstage. Audra and I have been friends for years. It’s great to see her on stage. I saw her opening night of her Billie Holiday show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. It’s so great. And I get excited when she comes to see my show, just like any of my other friends. She and I are really close friends and it was great seeing her and Will and their family. It was fun.
I rested for a little bit and had some pasta delivered from a restaurant called Daniela’s. The carbohydrates gave me some extra strength for the next show. I get a lot of different things but I had Penne ala Vodka this time.
I continued to rest before the next show. It’s hard to really do anything else but this role. I just finished producing a show at Carnegie Hall this past Monday [The Black Stars of The Great White Way Broadway Reunion: Live the Dream]. I’ve been working on it for about two years. That has consumed a lot of my time. When I got the Phantom, it was having double duty for the past couple of months. And so I’m glad that we did what we did, and it became a major success.
I did the show for the two and a half hours. I am just happy that they gave me the opportunity to come in and audition and thought that I was the right person to play the Phantom. When I was just staring out, if someone had said that I would end up playing this role, I would have told them they were crazy. They were out of their minds. But I built confidence as I progressed with my experience. And so little by little I kept getting better and I started learning.
I signed autographs by the stage door after the show. Then I jumped in the car to go home.
When I got home, I can’t really do anything because the show is so exhausting. I usually try not to eat so late before I go to bed. But every once in a while I get hungry. So I had a little snack. One of my favorites is apple and peanut butter. But sometimes I’ll do a protein shake.
If I make myself go to bed, I can get to sleep by 1:00, sometimes 1:30. If I get caught up in some television show or on the computer somehow, I could stay up until 2 and 3 in the morning. But I try not to do that.