By Karu F. Daniels
The Great White Way recently received a long overdue splash of color when Norm Lewis took on the title role in The Phantom of the Opera— becoming the first African American to star in Broadway’s longest-running show. Lewis, 51, has been treading the boards for over two decades— starring in a bevy of popular shows including Les Misérables and his Tony Award-nominated turn in 2012’s The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess—but he gained national notoriety playing Olivia Pope’s love interest, Senator Edison Davis, on ABC’s Scandal.
Here, the veteran musical theater actor opens up about racism in his native Florida, playing his toughest role, his guiltiest pleasure and sharing kisses with Kerry Washington.
Growing up in Florida… I never really experienced any blatant racism until my junior year in high school when someone called me a nigger, [which] was an eye-opener. I was stopped in my tracks emotionally, physically and the whole thing. I was like ‘Wow, this shit really happens.’
My light bulb moment… [happened while] I was working in advertising at the Orlando Sentinel and I was singing on the side. One night, a guy who was a producer for a cruise ship [offered me a job]. I had a choice. My supervisor at work said, ‘You don’t want to be 85 years old saying coulda, woulda, shoulda.’
No one gave me… affirmation that I had a voice. I just sang for God. I joined the choir when I was around nine or 10. You gave your life to God, you confessed in front of the church and you joined the choir. It was a social outlet.
My toughest role ever… was Porgy because of the physicality, the emotional aspect of it and the eight shows a week. The Phantom is definitely very intense because you have to come out blazing and there’s no stopping. And there’s a lot of climbing, I have to go on some scaffolding, I have to climb ladders.
My guiltiest pleasure… is a warm brownie with ice cream and bananas. I’m semidomesticated. I still like to go out and have dinner. But, because I live alone, it’s hard to cook for myself. So, unless I have someone over, it’s a challenge.