By Gloria J. Browne- Marshall
“A Talented Sexy Phantom: Norm Lewis” Norm Lewis is the “Phantom of the Opera.” Tall, dark, and handsome, Lewis is the first African- American to play this role on Broadway.
Lewis commands a show where chandeliers rock, fire erupts, and men fight for love.
He is a talented sexy Phantom. His rich baritone voice weaves a story of desire in the darkness, promising seductive embraces, and melting resistance.
Admittedly, I am a Phantom fan. I have seen “Phantom of the Opera” six times in its 26 years on Broadway.
It is the longest running show in history. This musical based on the novel by Gaston Leroux is about a masked Phantom who haunts an Opera House, and falls in love with Christine, a young soprano, whom he is secretly tutoring.
This Phantom, a lonely musical genius, wears a mask to cover a disfigured face, and lives beneath the Opera House.
Norm Lewis, 50, was born in Eatonville, Florida. The first all-Black incorporated town made famous by writer Zora Neale Hurston. He has had many lead roles: in “Les Miz” “The Little Mermaid,” “Chicago,” and “Miss Saigon.” Audiences may remember Norm Lewis from his role as Senator Edison Davis in ABC’s “Scandal.”
He was nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway performance in “Porgy and Bess.” But, his heartfelt wish has long been to play the Phantom of the Opera.
Lewis remembers the audition for Phantom. “I stood on the Majestic stage and just took a deep breath, and I felt the souls of people who have passed – Paul Robeson, William Warfield – but also people who are still alive, like Andre’ De Shields and Larry Marshall and Ben Vereen, and especially Robert Guillaume, who played this role, say: ‘Go for it – show these people what you got. That’s all you can give them.”
Robert Guillaume of television’s “Benson” played the Phantom in Los Angeles in 1990, but never on Broadway.
At one time, Michael Jackson and Sammy Davis, Jr. asked to play the Phantom.
But, Norm Lewis is the first African-American actor to get the part on Broadway.
There are relatively few Broadway shows with African-American actors in lead roles.
Most Broadway shows featuring African-Americans usually draw majority African-American audiences.
There may be an expectation more diverse audiences will see this wonderful show now that Lewis is the Phantom. Lewis began his dream job May 12.
Lewis, as the Phantom, surpasses expectation. When Lewis is not onstage the show sags just a little.
But, there is plenty of action.
His velvety smooth voice gives this musical show, already filled with sexual undertones, even more passion.
Lewis sings of “A Point of No Return” where bodies intertwine, fantasies unwind, and flames of lust consume.
The audience feels his yearning and loneliness.
Lewis can move from tenderness to seduction and then thunderous rage.
Sierra Boggess is marvelous in the role of the conflicted Christine Daae’.
She is drawn to the Phantom, this man of mystery and music, but also fears him.
Raoul, her outraged fiancé, brilliantly played by Jeremy Hays, and Christine are White.
Lewis is the only African- American to lead it; 16 actors have played the Phantom.
This racial mix adds to sexual tensions that already existed. With an African-American in the role, there is a historical take on the plot that deepens it.
Lewis played in “The Little Mermaid,” with Sierra Boggess, when she was a child actor.
But, now an unintentional eroticism runs through this musical, which was created by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe.
But, talent, not race, had everything to do with casting Lewis.
New York Director Harold Prince is quoted in the New York Times as saying that Norm Lewis as the Phantom is not “in any way radical – I think we’ve passed that time,” he said. While Phantom’s Producer Cameron Mackintosh stated Lewis was “good and right for the role.”
But, given the sensual lyrics and love-triangle plot, this racial mix provides an unspoken storyline.
Even those of this more diverse age should receive a heightened theatrical experience.
“Phantom of the Opera” opened on Broadway in 1988. It is the longest running show due to its story, haunting music, and talented performers.
That legacy now includes the gifted Norm Lewis.
Performances are Monday evenings at 8, Tuesday evenings at 7, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8, with matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays at 2.
Ticket prices range from $27 – $137 with Premium Tickets also available. To order tickets, visit http://www.telecharge.com/ or call (212) 239-6200. Student tickets are also available.
Gloria J. Browne- Marshall is a writer and professor at John Jay College (CUNY). Her forthcoming book is “She Took Justice: 100 Black Women from Salem Witches to Civil Rights Activists Challenging Race and Gender Laws.” @GBrowneMarshall