Saying Chicago’s “energy is wonderful — it reminds me of New York, but so much cleaner,” actor and singer Norm Lewis called the other day to report his upcoming performance as the headliner at the Goodman Theatre’s annual gala will feature “what I jokingly call ‘Norm Lewis’ Greatest Hits.’ ”
The entertainer’s plans for the May 21 event include a healthy selection from what is known as the Great American Songbook of familiar standards.
“People know me mostly for doing musical theater, so I definitely will give them songs people know well and are very fond of. But, in the mix I will also include some jazz and some contemporary things people might not be expecting me to sing.”
Lewis said he’s very much looking forward to doing this cabaret-style show at the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel later this month. “I’m very much a person who is very comfortable on stage in a relatively small setting, and I want the audience for the Goodman event to feel comfortable with me as well.”
In recent years, Lewis has scored rave reviews on Broadway — as well as a Tony Award nomination — for the 2012 production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess.” He made musical theater history in 2014 when he became the first African-American to star in the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Calling it “a dream come true because the show is so iconic,” Lewis noted he has always been “a huge fan of what Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote, but to have that title [of first African-American to sing the lead] is significant in the sense that it will hopefully open doors to other people of color to be a part of something they want to be a part of. As long as there is a universal appeal to it.”
While he hastened to point out “we still have a long way to go,” Lewis said he is encouraged by the diversity that increasingly is being showcased in theater, TV and film productions — “a real game-changer from where we were, even just a decade or so ago. It’s good to see the entire variety of all ethnicities being represented.”
Speaking of game-changers, a great deal of attention has been focused on “Hamilton,” thehip-hop musical about our first secretary of the Treasury that isconstantly being calledBroadway’s biggest new chapter in decades.
Lewis is a huge “Hamilton” fan, but he pointed out that Broadway always comes up with new concepts that “change our ideas about musical theater. It goes in waves, but I do think people today are more open to newer pieces of musical theater.
“Bringing back things like ‘The King & I’ will always happen, and that should always happen with the classics. ‘Hamilton’ is a phenomenon, but let’s not forget that ‘Rent’ also had its huge impact when it was first produced. Plus we also need to look to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ I still am in awe of what Andrew Lloyd Webber did at that point in the 1970s — expressing such emotion though rock ‘n’ roll.
“Being a kid when I first heard about it, it sounded kind of scary to know they were mixing up that kind of music with scripture. People were talking. They were saying, ‘They can’t do that! That’s sacrilegious!’ But then when people saw it and listened to it, they could see the raw emotion that Andrew put into that show.”
Along with his long theater background, Lewis is also enjoying arecurring TV role, playing Sen. Edison Davis on the hit ABC political series “Scandal.” The actor laughed as he compared his supporting role on that show to his many years as a star performer on the Broadway stage.
“It doesn’t even come close. The impact of being on television is huge. I’ve never experienced anything like it. People recognize you left and right. They don’t know my name, but they’ll go, ‘You’re that senator on ‘Scandal!’ ”
His casting on the mega-hit was something of a fluke. “I was so lucky to be in ‘Porgy and Bess.’ [Co-star] Audra McDonald was in ‘Private Practice,’ and the same creators [who also did ‘Scandal’] came to see our ‘Porgy & Bess.’ I just happened to be some guy on stage with her.
“They said, ‘Who are you?’ The great news: That led to my being cast on the TV show. That was my audition!”
TheGoodman gala takes place May 21 at the Fairmont Hotel, 200 N. Columbus. For details and tickets, go to GoodmanTheatre.org.