Norm Lewis starred in the 25th anniversary of “Les Miserables” in London in 2010, received a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” in 2011 and spent time in Los Angeles last year while being a regular on the television show “Scandal.”
He is returning to his roots on Feb. 8, however, when he does a one-man concert at the Garner Performing Arts Center as part of the Broadway Voices concert series.
Playbill calls Lewis one of the most versatile performers on Broadway, and his resume is filled with lead roles in shows such as “Les Miserables,” “Chicago” and “Sondheim on Sondheim.”
Broadway World.com says, “(Lewis’) voice is smooth as butter, particularly on his dazzling high notes, and his smile is contagious. This is a man you want for your best friend, and not just because he is famous.”
He was cast as Inspector Javert in the 2006 Broadway revival of “Les Miserables,” and later was asked to move to London for the 25th-anniversary production, which was made into a PBS special.
Lewis left “Les Mis” to join Audra McDonald in “Porgy & Bess.” McDonald won her fifth Tony for her performance, and Lewis received a Tony nomination. He followed that with his recurring role on “Scandal.”
‘Who you really are’
But he still enjoys an occasional concert. The intimate events allow him time to connect with other human beings.
“People come to the theater and they get to know a character,” Lewis said. “It’s ... just on the surface. In a concert or cabaret, you can’t hide behind a character. People get to know who you really are and you get to know them.”
He enjoys talking with fans, something Raleigh’s Gene Furr learned after waiting to speak to Lewis at the stage door after a Broadway performance of “Porgy & Bess.”
“He made me feel like I belonged instead of being an outsider,” Furr said.
The imposing baritone has roots in North Carolina, too. He has learned in recent years that his great grandfather was a civil rights activist in the state, who fled after a bounty was put on his life, perhaps in the wake of the Wilmington riots of 1898.
“I never knew that part of my ancestry until recently. I’m finding out about a part of my history, and I’m finding relatives that I never knew,” he said.
‘Lucky to get him’
The audience is in for a treat, according to Raleigh’s Lauren Kennedy, who knows Lewis from her Broadway days.
“Norm is one of the most outstanding actors and musicians (not to mention human beings) to grace the Broadway stage that I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” Kennedy said. “And the Triangle is so lucky to get him down here. I think it speaks volumes on how we are on the front lines of creating a community of arts and culture for the residents of the greater Raleigh area!”
Lewis is well known in the Triangle after several years as the featured performer in the Duke Children’s Classic in Durham, and he was the lead in N.C. Theatre’s production of “Ragtime” in 2004.
The whole showtime life is a surprise to Lewis, who grew up in Eatonville, Fla., just outside of Orlando. He had a great love of singing, listening to the classic crooners and falling in love with the songs of Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney. His favorite singer was Johnny Mathis, who probably had the biggest impact on his own baritone style.
But he didn’t know he could sing until he was in high school. He never considered an entertainment career, although he’d sing at weddings, pageants and at an occasional club. He was a business major and was working in advertising at the Orlando Sentinel newspaper when he was offered a cruise ship gig. That led him to New York, where he was completely intimidated.
“I wasn’t a trained singer, and I didn’t have a lot of experience,” he recalled. “But I had a dear friend tell me that all these other singers and actors were no better than I was and I was no better than they were. He told me to try out for everything.
“I think that is the key to my career. I’m still trying out. I’m still showing up.”