How Norm Lewis Found New Rhythms in ‘Chicken & Biscuits’

The fan-favorite Broadway veteran Norm Lewis is doing something he’s never done before: starring on Broadway in a play. After a career marked by many of the great roles in musical theater (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Porgy and Bess”), the actor’s turn in the new comedy “Chicken & Biscuits” is giving him the chance to create a performance without having a musical score around to back him up.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

“I wanted to dive deep into a character without having the limitation of following a cadence of music,” Lewis said on “Stagecraft,” Variety‘s theater podcast. “In a musical, you have to stay restricted within those meters and within those measures and that rhythm, whereas in a play, you can kind of make your own rhythm. One day I might get mad by yelling at someone, or I might get mad and stay very quiet or intense. It was all those kinds of elements that I wanted to explore.”

He added, “When I was doing ‘Phantom’ [in 2014] I had to live like a monk. I didn’t speak during the day. A lot of my social activities were put on hold or never existed. Doing a play — I’m not saying that it’s not as difficult, but it’s not as precious when it comes to making sure that you sound the same way you did on Tuesday as you do on Sunday.”

That 2014 stint in “Phantom” made history when Lewis became the first Black man to play the title role on Broadway. On the new episode of “Stagecraft,” the actor explained why playing the part became a mission for him.

“I love the show, I love the music, but I never thought that I could play the Phantom because I thought I had to be a star,” he explained. “But I just kept going on with my career and people kept asking me, ‘What’s your dream?’ And I said ‘Phantom.’ After a while it became more than just wanting to play the role. I wanted to also set a precedent and hopefully show that African Americans are doing more than ‘The Wiz.’ ‘Phantom’ is the pinnacle of male musical roles. When people know that you played the Phantom, they go, ‘Oh!’ … If you’ve worn the mask, you’re somebody who’s special. That’s why I wanted it.”

He went on, “I would meet people after the show who were from India, from Brazil, from China, who would say, ‘Now I feel like I could play the role.’ And so it became that for me: Being that representation for these people who were hopeful to be a part of the show.”

Also on the new episode of “Stagecraft,” Lewis revealed why “Chicken & Biscuits” reminds him of his own family; talked about his work with Black Theatre United; and extolled the virtues of mushroom coffee.

To hear the full conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and the Broadway Podcast Network. New episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.

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