Tony nominee Norm Lewis will make history May 12 when he becomes the first African-American actor to play the title role in The Phantom of the Opera.
Norm Lewis has played many celebrated roles over the last 20 years — Inspector Javert in the 2006 revival of Les Misérables, King Triton in The Little Mermaid, Porgy in the 2012 production of Porgy and Bess — but each time he was interviewed, Lewis cited one role that he wanted to play more than any other: The title character in The Phantom of the Opera.
Now that dream has come true; Lewis will slip on the iconic half mask May 12, becoming the first African-American to play the Phantom on Broadway in the show's historic 26-year run.
Robert Guillaume, who succeeded the original Phantom Michael Crawford in the Los Angeles run in the early '90s, is the only other black actor to have played the part in a major production. And as much as he wanted the role for himself, Lewis said he wanted it as a sign of encouragement for other actors of color.
"Seeing someone who looks like you up there onstage allows you to have that dream," he said. "I think about the people who inspired me: Ben Vereen, André De Shields, Robert Guillaume, and all these other people who had that opportunity to play amazing roles. And so I've always wanted to play this role."
Lewis's commitment to diversity is also the motivating force behind "The Black Stars of the Great White Way," a concert he's producing at Carnegie Hall June 23. "It's usually women who get a diva's concert," said Lewis. "Men don't get celebrated, whether they're black, white, blue, or green. So I decided to put this show together to celebrate African-American men."
But race wasn't a factor in his getting the Phantom job. "He nailed the audition," said the show's legendary director Harold Prince. "He was so focused and erotic. Also, he has great presence and energy." Nor was Prince bothered by the fact that the role is typically sung by a tenor. "He's got a terrific voice for it," Prince said.
Despite his vocal prowess and seductive looks, Lewis wasn't one of those kids who always dreamed of a career in show business. He sang in the church choir as a boy growing up in Eatonville, FL, a small all-black town near Orlando, but he said he never took singing seriously until, to fulfill an elective in high school, he joined show choir. "I would sing a solo and people would clap. And I was like, 'Wow, I kind of like this,'" he recalled.
Even so, he opted to study business in college, participating in local talent contests for fun. A judge at one competition offered Lewis a job singing on a cruise ship. His cast mates, several of whom had worked on Broadway, encouraged him to try his luck in New York. Two weeks after he arrived in 1989, he booked his first job as in a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Candlewood Playhouse. A steady flow of jobs followed, leading up to his Broadway debut in The Who's Tommy. "I vowed that I wanted to make Broadway before age 30 and I did it," said the actor.
Lewis has appeared in nine Broadway shows since then, often taking roles like Javert and Billy Flynn, the slick lawyer in Chicago, that are usually played by white actors. "I just never thought 'I'm just going to go for a show that has a black theme.' I went for everything," he said.
Yet, his favorite role thus far turns out to be what is probably the most famous role for a black actor: Porgy. "It put me, I guess, in a different category," he said of the part that earned him a Tony nod. "People who had never seen me before, despite the number of shows I've had, came to see me and discovered [me]."
Among them were the producers of the hit television show "Scandal," the political thriller about skullduggery in Washington. They ended up casting him as a love interest for star Kerry Washington. "They said, 'We didn't know who you were, but we're glad we met you,'" he said.
For now Lewis is happy to focus on the Phantom. He's looking forward to reuniting with Sierra Boggess, his Little Mermaid costar, who will be his Christine. And he's already sought advice from the departing Phantom, his old pal Hugh Panaro ("I'm going to steal everything I can from him," he joked).
He knows how demanding it'll be. "You have to take care of yourself," he said. "So that you can give 100 percent eight times a week."