‘Da 5 Bloods’ star Norm Lewis leads ‘Simply Sondheim’ at Signature

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Simply Sondheim' (Part 1)

He was the first Black actor to play “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway before recently starring as one of the four Vietnam vets in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” (2020).

Now, Norm Lewis headlines the musical revue concert “Simply Sondheim,” which streams on the Signature Theatre website via Marquee TV now through March 26.

“We closed our doors in the middle of March like everybody else,” director Matthew Gardiner told WTOP. “We pivoted to a digital season, which will include five shows. The first of those is ‘Simply Sondheim.’ … We filmed it over the course of three days [in the fall]. We spent several months editing it and perfecting it and finally it’s available.”

Lewis headlines a star-studded cast of acclaimed theatre artists, including visits by Conrad Ricamora (Broadway’s “The King and I”), Solea Pfeiffer (Kennedy Center’s “West Side Story”) and Emily Skinner (Broadway’s “Prince of Broadway”).

You’ll also see various Signature Theatre regulars, including Nicholas McDonuagh (“Grand Hotel”), Donna Migliaccio (“Sweeney Todd”), Christopher Mueller (“Titanic”), Katie Mariko Murray (“Miss Saigon”), Tracy Lynn Olivera (“Assassins”), Awa Sal Secker (“Gun & Powder”) and Bobby Smith (“Passion”).

They will perform over 30 Sondheim hits, including “Finishing the Hat,” “Another Hundred People,” “Losing My Mind,” “The Worst Pies in London” and “Goodbye for Now,” featuring new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and a lush 16-piece orchestra.

“I got lucky with ‘Being Alive’ [from ‘Company’] and ‘Is This What You Call Love?’ from ‘Passion,'” Lewis said. “It was a nice challenge to revisit it. I did it on Broadway.”

Lewis has done just about everything in his prolific career on stage and screen.

“I didn’t know I could sing until I was 17,” Lewis said. “In high school, they put me in home economics as an elective … so I went to the guidance counselor and said, ‘I need another elective, I sing in church, I’ll make an easy grade, sing in school choir, get an ‘A,’ meet some girls, the whole thing. That’s when I had my ‘a-ha’ moment.”

After college, he landed a job singing on a cruise ship and was inspired to move to New York City to make his Broadway debut in The Who’s “Tommy” (1993).

He soon starred as Billy Flynn in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Chicago.”

“People always ask me, ‘Out of all the characters you’ve ever played, which one is closest to you?’ and I say Billy Flynn,” Lewis said. “It was a dream come true.”

He also starred in “Les Miserables” on Broadway and the West End.

“I’ve had several incarnations of that show and it’s new each time,” Lewis said.

He became the first Black actor to play King Triton in Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid.”

“I want to give kudos to Disney as they had the foresight to have someone of color,” Lewis said. “It did open the door because a lot of times around the country when they did regional productions and things, they did specifically look for someone of color.”

He made history again as Broadway’s first Black “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“I just remember going into the audition with these amazing other guys we all know,” Lewis said. “I felt the souls of people who are living and passed away of Black men I knew — Paul Robeson, William Warfield, Andre De Shields, Ken Page — I felt their voices say, ‘Go get it.’ I relaxed after that. The next thing I knew, I ended up getting it.”

He earned a Tony nomination across Audra McDonald in Broadway’s “Porgy & Bess.”

“I didn’t really think I was going to win … But there was that slight moment right when they were ripping open the envelope and I said, ‘What if?'” Lewis said. “When they said Steve Kazee there was a double feeling of, ‘Ah, I’m disappointed,’ but ‘Ah, thank God.'”

In 2018, he played Caiaphas in the live televised “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Easter.

In 2019, he starred in “The Music Man” at the Kennedy Center, returning to the D.C. area, where he played the title role in “Sweeney Todd” at Signature Theatre in 1999.

“I saw Norm Lewis play Sweeney Todd,” Gardiner said. “I was in high school.”

Most recently, Lewis starred in “Da 5 Bloods,” which just won Best Picture by the National Board of Review and is likely to earn nominations at the Academy Awards.

“Spike Lee is a genius,” Lewis said. “We were in Thailand for three months, then we went to Vietnam and shot some of the exteriors. It was just great to be in the mix of people I admired: Delroy Lindo, Isaiah Washington, Chadwick Boseman and Clarke Peters. … Even the new person, Jonathan Majors … he’s going to blow up.”

He said the cast didn’t realize Boseman was dying before their very eyes.

“We were there six weeks before he got there and had a boot camp to learn how to shoot guns, hold them, run on terrain — he was doing exactly what we were doing,” Lewis said. “Now to know that he was sick during that whole time. … I’m so inspired by him, even now in his demise, to give my all. You never know when your time is up.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Simply Sondheim' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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