Interview with Tony nominee Norm Lewis

Recently my colleague Dom O'Hanlon had the opportunity to interview Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis at the Barrow Street Theatre, where he is currently starring in the title role of the hit off-Broadway production of Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Norm Lewis is a veteran of the Broadway stage, earning a Tony nomination in 2012 for his performance as Porgy in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and becoming the first-ever African American to play the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. His other credits include Sondheim on Sondheim, Disney's The Little Mermaid, Les Misérables, Amour, The Wild Party, Side Show, Chicago, The Who's Tommy and Miss Saigon.

He has also appeared off-Broadway in the "Shakespeare in the Park" production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, Lincoln Center Theater's Dessa Rose and Manhattan Theatre Club's Captains Courageous, The Musical. His screen credits include recurring roles on Scandal, Daytime Divas, and All My Children and film appearances in Winter's Tale and Sex and the City 2. He also starred as Javert in Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary in 2010.

Dom O’Hanlon: What is it like to be taking on the role of Sweeney? Is it a role of a life-time?

Norm Lewis: Well, I’ve done the role twice before and each time it was different because I was at different ages. I did it in 1999 and then I did it ten years later in 2009 and now I’m doing it here in 2017. There’s just been different worlds of experiences each time. When I hear the music or speak certain words, they mean something different and resonate differently with me. It’s amazing how deep this show is. I love it. I’ll play it until I can’t play it anymore!

DOH: What resonated differently for you with this production in particular?

NL: What is so interesting is the fact that the orchestra is only three instruments and it’s so beautifully crafted, arranged and orchestrated. Of course, I knew the score so well, but hearing it at this age and being so close to people and looking into their eyes – I know I’m repeating myself – but it just resonates differently. There’s no skillset you can learn in college or high school for this particular way of presenting a show. It has really been a learning experience for me and what a great learning experience because it’s in a show that I love!

DOH: Immersive theatre is all the rage at the moment. What is your favourite thing about the genre?

NL: The fact that as an actor I have a lot of control. When I stare at someone, I can stare at them until they no longer stare back. You know what I mean? I win the contest because I’m in control. There’s so much power behind what you’re saying as an actor because John Caird – the great director – told me one time that when you look out into an audience, especially when you’re by yourself doing a soliloquy or just a solo, if you look at each individual person out in the audience, they are your different thoughts. That’s exactly what I do. I use different people as my different thoughts. Being so close, people feel a part of the show and so we’re feeding each other.

DOH: How do they prepare you for the nature of an immersive production in rehearsal?

NL: When we rehearsed, we just learned our lines and our music and they just said: “You have to do it in order to really experience it.” So, the first time we ever got a chance to really experience it was at our invited dress rehearsal. That was intimidating for all of us. But now it’s kinda fun to stare someone down and be right in their face. It’s great!

DOH: Did you explore the specifics of the East End of London and Fleet Street and their importance for this particular production?

NL: Yes. We did go into a little bit of detail, but we had such a short amount of time to rehearse. In fact, I remember walking along those streets and seeing that particular barber shop when I was in London. I love London and what was so great for me, being there for a whole year, was that I was able to visit so many other countries too because you’re only ever a couple of hours away by train or plane. So, that’s an invitation for anyone who wants to bring me back over there! (Laughs)

DOH: What particularly appeals to you about Stephen Sondheim’s music?

NL: Gosh! What don’t you like about Sondheim’s music?! I always remember calling him the Shakespeare of Musical Theatre. No matter what, I find something new every day in this show, like the deeper meanings of particular phrases. The guy is otherworldly.

Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is booking through to December 31, 2017 at off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre.