Unsurprisingly, Norm Lewis sounds a little overwhelmed. An hour before we speak it was announced that from May 12 he will be the new Phantom of the Opera, and he’ll be the first African-American actor to play the role on Broadway. “I’ve known for about a month and couldn’t say anything,” he says breathlessly. “Now it’s out there and I can tell people—and, yes, something of this magnitude…” His voice tails off.
Robert Guillaume, who played the Phantom in Los Angeles in 1990, best known to TV audiences as the title character on the sitcom Benson, is the only other black actor ever to have played the role. Lewis says Guillaume “paved the way” for him on Broadway, where Phantom has been running for over 25 years—the longest running show there.
“It’s taken 26 years,” Lewis says, laughing, “but this has been a dream role of mine. And it is about so much more, it’s so much deeper, than me just doing it. It hopefully shows other people of color that lead roles, key roles, which do not have a ‘color’ attached to them, are open to them if they have the talent. I hope this sets a precedent. I want people to see that.”
Does he think Broadway is racist? “I wouldn’t say that about an entire industry,” Lewis says. “I would say that there is a certain image shows are used to portraying, a certain image in their minds when they are creating a show. I don’t think there’s a blatant ‘We will not cast a black man in this role’ operating. But sometimes it takes a different creative mind to conceive of something else.” He says being black means he couldn’t play roles like Huck Finn in Big River or Willie Conklin in Ragtime. But where there is no explicit color to a character, he says, “there do need to be more opportunities for Asian, Latino, and African-American actors. If there is an opportunity to cast them in roles, producers should give them the chance to show their wares.”
One young black actor was in tears, congratulating Lewis on his Phantom role; they see him, he says (not boastfully or grand-standingly), “as an inspiration.” His lineage of characters shows he has long broken the glass ceiling: the 51-year-old has played Javert in Les Misérables, King Triton in The Little Mermaid, and the title role in Sweeney Todd. Early in his career, he recalls, he played John in Miss Saigon, a role usually played by a white actor. TV audiences today may recognize him as Senator Edson Davis in the demented ABC political potboiler, Scandal.
It seems amazing that in 2014 that this should be so momentous. “It was only in 2008 that America elected its first black president,” Lewis says. He applauds Phantom’s producers, Cameron Mackintosh and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber “for taking a chance and making this happen.”
Lewis isn’t sure if he has faced racism—he has played a variety of roles on stage and screen, he says—“but I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes.” He was very upset when Audra McDonald, his co-star in the much-acclaimed 2012 production of Porgy and Bess, faced comments like, “Why is this species playing this role?” when she portrayed the Mother Abbess in the live NBC production of The Sound of Music. “Actually,” Lewis says, drily, “there was a black Mother Superior at that time, in another convent, close to Austria. I wish audiences would accept the truth of a character and see past the actor’s color.”
Lewis has heard stories from producers that 20 years ago black actors didn’t “show up” to audition for roles. He doesn't posit why, but if that is true, perhaps it was as much down to those actors feeling they wouldn’t be cast, or given a fair audition, so why bother—racism at its most insidious and inhibiting.
Lewis grew up in Florida, and sang in church, choir, and in school. While working in the advertising department of the Orlando Sentinel, he sang in bars and at events. Someone saw him perform, he says, and offered him a job singing on cruise ships. His boss at the paper encouraged him to go. “She said, ‘You don’t want to be 85 and feeling, ‘coulda woulda shoulda.’” She told Lewis he had a job to come back to if he wanted it.
Instead, Lewis went to New York at the age of 25, and started working immediately, eventually getting hired for A Chorus Line, “because they needed a black guy.” The highlights of his career have been singing Javert in the West End and on Broadway, and at the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables. Then there was Porgy and Bess alongside McDonald, for which Lewis was nominated for a host of awards, including a Tony, in 2012.
In Phantom, his co-star will be Sierra Boggess (portraying Christine), who played his daughter in The Little Mermaid. “We always say she’s my daughter and I’m her daddy,” he laughs. “And doing Phantom will add an extra dynamic, as the Phantom is very much like a father, as well as a child, and he does guide her—well, misguide her.”
Appearing in Scandal gave Lewis a different level of exposure, and he laughs that his character hasn’t been killed off and is occasionally referred to by name, so may yet turn up again in that whirlpool of skullduggery and intrigue. He also appeared in the recent Colin Farrell movie, Winter’s Tale. “I love working on TV, but if there was nothing else I could do for the rest of my life it would be the stage,” says Lewis.
His idols and inspirations, he says, were Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Lewis also loved “all the crooners, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin,” as well as Robert De Niro. To underscore the cultural and political importance he attaches to his role in Phantom, Lewis is co-producing a black-tie gala event at Carnegie Hall in June, Live The Dream: The Black Stars of The Great White Way, A Reunion.
“We’ll celebrate people like Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, and Eubie Blake,” he says. “There’ll be musical casts from shows like Dreamgirls [which he himself starred in].” Ben Vereen and James Earl Jones will be honored. “It won’t just be about how they all have enriched or enrich African-American culture, but a whole culture of the arts. I stand on the shoulders of all these people. I simply would not be doing what I am doing if it wasn’t for them. And you never see men celebrated like this, it’s always women, the divas.”
Last year, Lewis turned 50: he celebrated, regally, by having three parties, in New York, Los Angeles, and Ibiza. That life landmark now passed, he says there are two roles he’d love to play that he hasn’t yet: Billy Bigelow in Carousel, and Harold Hill in The Music Man. He is single, but not averse to being partnered, “as long as she can put up with my schedule and I can put up with hers.”
Most of all, Lewis is immensely moved by the young black people who approach him for his autograph. “I didn’t realize I had such an impact just by going to work,” he says.
Norm Lewis appears in The Phantom of The Opera from May 12.