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Q&A: Norm Lewis of ‘Once On This Island’

Category Actor Spotlight

|by Jeryl Brunner |

We got the lowdown from talent titan Norm Lewis

Tony nominee Norm Lewis enchants as the god Agwe in the hit musical Once On This Island. He made history as the first African American Phantom in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. The beloved Broadway actor has starred in Porgy and Bess, Sweeney Todd, Sondheim on Sondheim, Les Miserables, The Wild Party, Side Show and more. He also plays Edison Davis on Scandal and recently performed in his cabaret show, Norm Lewis: Santa Baby!, at Feinstein's/54 Below. Originally on Broadway in the early 1990s, Once On This Island is a soul-enriching musical with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. The show joyfully pays tribute to the power of love. 

Norm Lewis (Photo: Feinstein’s/54 Below)

Norm Lewis (Photo: Feinstein’s/54 Below)

When did you know you had to make performing your career?
Norm Lewis:
When I was in my junior year of high school I discovered I had a voice. But the bug to actually perform as a life-long profession didn’t really hit me until I was around 26 or 27. I was working in advertising for a newspaper. People knew that I was a singer so they would hire me to sing with a wedding band or, believe it or not, at fashion shows. I sang at a lot of beauty pageants.  And every once in a while I entered singing contests. Some of the them paid a little bit of money. Others rewarded with a trip.

For this particular contest the winner got a trip to New York along with an opportunity to tape an audition for Star Search. You didn’t actually get on the show, but it was an all-expenses paid opportunity to fly to New York to do this taping. I won the contest. One of the judges was a producer for a cruise ship. After the contest was over, he asked if I would like to sing on his cruise. And I had to think about it. I was heading straight into this advertising career. My supervisor said, “You know what? You don’t want to be 85 years old saying could’ve, would’ve, should’ve. So go for it and see what happens.” That is what I did. 

Why do you love performing in Once On This Island?
Norm Lewis:
It is one of my favorite musicals of all time. I love being able to revisit it after 25 years. Besides the beautiful music, it tells the story of love and how love conquers all. 

What is the joy of playing Agwe?
Norm Lewis:
I get to sing one of my favorite songs [“Rain”]. It’s just the island version of “King Triton” from The Little Mermaid.  [Lewis originated the role of King Triton in the Broadway production of The Little Mermaid.]

What was the first Broadway show you ever saw? 
Norm Lewis:
When I won that singing contest and came to New York City, I saw 42nd Street, which was my first Broadway show. Funny enough, around 20 years later I was in the same theater performing in The Phantom of the Opera. Before Phantom came into the Majestic Theater, 42nd Street was there.

42nd Street was fantastic. I remember that great tap dancing number on the dimes. I had never seen anything like that. I didn’t grow up with musical theater. And Broadway was the pinnacle. It is still the phoenix of what live theater is all about. I continue to be amazed every time I go see a show. Even if, sometimes, it’s not the best show, it’s still special having a collective group of people in that room all together. And if somebody had said to me one day, in this very theater you will be onstage as the Phantom, I would say, ‘You’re nuts! You are out of your mind.’ But it came to fruition. 

What do you like to do when you are not working? 
Norm Lewis:
I went to school for economics and I love business. I learned about real estate investing. I’m running a company that deals with real estate investments. My sister and I are starting an E-commerce company. Chad Kimball [the Tony-nominated actor currently in Come From Away], his brother and I teamed up. I am an investor in their clothing company Lolly Clothing. I don’t want my money to go to waste or to be frivolous. So I invest it in business. 

The reality of show business is that only a few people get to work at one time. Even the most successful of us, unless you see them every night on television, are trying to find their next gig. Most people have to wait on tables or cater. I did all of that. But then, later on as I was progressing, I got my real estate license so I did real estate on the side. When you work for someone else, you have to ask them permission. I remember asking someone, could you switch shifts with me? It’s hard enough being an actor or fulfilling your passion. So I decided early on to be an entrepreneur. I say learn some sort of home-based business. That will give you the luxury and freedom to pursue your dream.

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