Norm Lewis

Norm Lewis is ready to be in front of a live audience again.

On July 2&3, Lewis will headline a pair of intimate concerts hosted by Berkshire Theatre Group (Pittsfield, MA). Held under an open-air tent in The Colonial Theatre parking lot, BTG’s summer concert series boasts an impressive lineup that also features Kelli O’Hara, Carolee Carmello, Krysta Rodriguez, Stephanie J. Block, Kate Baldwin & Graham Rowat, and Rachel Bay Jones.

Tony-nominated for his iconic portrayal of Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Lewis has led an illustrious career that also includes shows such as Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, Hair, Chicago, The Little Mermaid, and Once on This Island. In 2014, he became the first Black actor to perform the title role in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway (26 years after the show’s opening). In addition to his theater work, Lewis appeared in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live, TV shows like Scandal, Younger, and Pose, and films including Sex and the City 2 and Da 5 Bloods.

Speaking to me on the phone, Lewis divulged what fans can expect from his upcoming Berkshires concerts, what it feels like to be performing in-person for people again, his thoughts on Broadway reopening later this year, and more.

What can fans expect from your upcoming solo concerts with Berkshire Theatre Group?

I have to do the greatest Norm hits, the things that I’ve been involved in over the years. But there will also be a few surprises here and there. There are some songs that I don’t normally do that we thought would be fitting for this concert. It’s going to be really nice!

I would say come prepared to be entertained. Come prepared to have fun. Come prepared to not just sit back and look at me. Be prepared for me to talk to you. I love audience interaction. Don’t think I’m going to do a conga line or anything, but just know that it’s a party. I’m going to have a good time on that stage. I’m definitely going to sing some songs that you want me to sing. I know that there are certain songs that I’m known for, so you won’t be disappointed in that regard. But then there’s going to be some nice surprises that will be like, “Oh, okay, that’s great that he added that to the list!”

So just come and have a good time!

How are you curating your setlist for these shows? Is there a particular story or narrative you’re telling with these songs and how they flow from one to the next?

No, no. I find that boring. What I do is I pick songs and tell stories about each one and what it means to me. Sometimes, I’ve even been doing a concert where I’ve changed the number and just told the pianist, “Let’s not do that one tonight. Let’s do this one.” I want the audience to have a good time. I don’t like it to be a show or a concert. It’s a party!

How has coming out of quarantine impacted you as a solo performer? In other words, how are you a different performer today than you were before the COVID-19 pandemic first hit?

I don’t know if I’m different. It’s just the excitement and enthusiasm of actually getting in front of a live audience again! I got to do it at Lincoln Center recently for their Restart Stages program. That was so exciting because it was 15 months after the last time that I performed in front of an audience. And then just recently, I was in Denver singing for an audience as well. There’s just nothing like the immediate connection that you have with a live audience.

What type of creative itch does getting to perform on stage as yourself versus as a scripted character scratch?

Norm LewisYou go and you do subtexts, and you do a lot of the studying of what this character is all about. You try to find the truth and authenticity of what that character is, and you try to bring that as opposed to yourself to the stage. Each song has its own individual sort of character to it. For example, if I do “Stars,” I have to bring Javert into that performance. If I do “Music of the Night,” I have to bring the Phantom, or at the very least a little snippet of him. But then in between songs, you get me. There’s lots of storytelling, laughing, joking, and connecting with the audience.

After your Berkshire Theater Group concerts, where can yours fans catch you next?

I have another concert coming up in Milwaukee. I also have two concerts happening in Washington, DC at Wolf Trap on July 30th and 31st. I have another concert coming up in San Diego right after that. And we’re discussing doing our Christmas show again at 54 Below. It will have more thrills and chills, more guests, some familiar songs, and some new ones. It’s always a party!

Your last solo record, The Norm Lewis Christmas Album, was released in 2018. Do you have plans to release any new solo music?

There’s some talk about that. Some of the creators behind the scenes and I have been talking about new material and having that recorded. So it’s in the works. I can’t give you an exact date or anything, but we’re definitely having conversations about that. It’s just about funds. It’s about which songs to pick and the arrangements to be made. But yes, that’s on the horizon!

There seems to be a resurgence of movie musicals this year – In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, West Side Story, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and Tick, Tock…Boom! to name a few. As an artist who goes back and forth between the stage and the screen, what are your thoughts on how to best turn a musical into a movie?

That’s a tricky one. I wish I had the skill set of doing that because I think there’s an art to translating stage to screen. When it’s a movie turned into a musical, like Legally Blonde, that’s a different story because you have license to do that sort of thing. Turning a musical on Broadway into a movie takes a lot of skill. Les Mis was a challenge to be done properly. They did it, I guess, in a successful way, in some aspects. Obviously, they got Oscars and stuff.

I’m most looking forward to In the Heights. I just know that I love the music. I love Lin-Manuel Miranda. I love this cast that’s on screen. I can’t wait to see that.

What’s the biggest takeaway from your time working with Spike Lee on the film Da 5 Bloods last year?

Wow. That’s a great question. I got to work with an icon in this industry. And I got to work with some amazing talent that I’ve admired for so many years, and even some new talent like Jonathan Majors, who has just taken over movies and TV. I definitely would love to work with Spike again. He knows what he wants, when he wants it and how he wants it. But also because he’s an actor, he knows how to be an actor’s director. He’s very loyal to a lot of people he’s worked with before, and so I look forward to the time that I get to work with him again.

What are some of your musical theater bucket list roles?

I’ve actually pretty much played all the ones that I’ve dreamt of! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought of a few that I could still probably play, like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, things like that. I think I’m a little too long in the tooth for Carousel, so forget that one.

For the most part, I’m looking forward to the new pieces that are coming out. There’s so much material that’s been out there for so long, and I’ve done readings and workshops of different things. I look forward to seeing those. It’s great to go and do revivals of things, but I actually would love to delve into some of the new work!

What aspects of Broadway reopening are you most looking forward to?

I can’t wait to revisit a lot of the shows that were already playing, and to see all of the new ones that are going to be coming in. I love being an audience member, and I also love being someone who is on stage performing. I’m looking forward to both aspects of that. I know I’m saying this over and over again, and it’s a cliché, but it really is all about that connection that you have—that visceral connection that you get live, whether you’re on stage or as an audience member.

What are changes you’d like to see made on Broadway when theaters reopen?

There’ve been a lot of things going on last year since the pandemic. The George Floyd tragedy kind of opened the door for people to tell the truth. Hopefully there will be a lot more diversity, both onstage and offstage. And then just equity inclusion, making sure that a lot of different stories are being told.

CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to see Norm Lewis on July 2 & July 3 at 7pm Outside Under the Big Tent in The Colonial Theatre Parking Lot (Pittsfield, MA).

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.