Norm Lewis on How He Came to Sing in ‘A Soldier’s Play’ and Revisiting the Phantom of the Opera

This article first appeared as part of Jenelle Riley’s Acting Up newsletter – to subscribe for early content and weekly updates on all things acting, visit the Acting Up signup page.

In “A Soldier’s Play,” Captain Richard Davenport isn’t meant to sing. But when you cast legendary baritone Norm Lewis in the role, you take advantage of his talents. Lewis can be seen in the national touring production, currently playing at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre — and it’s thanks to director Kenny Leon that audiences get to hear Davenport sing at certain points it the show. 

Written by Charles Fuller, “A Soldier’s Play” is set on an Army base in 1944, when the military is still segregated. Captain Davenport, a rare Black officer, is sent to investigate the shooting of Sergeant Vernon Waters. Though Black himself, Waters despises and persecutes Black men who he feels perpetuate old-fashioned stereotypes. 

“A Soldier’s Play” debuted Off-Broadway in 1981 by the Negro Ensemble Company in a production that starred Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Adolph Caesar. It won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for drama and spawned a film version, “A Soldier’s Story,” in 1984. The play had many notable revivals over the years but only made its Broadway debut in 2020, with Leon directing a cast that included Blair Underwood and Grier, now playing the role of Waters — a performance that won the actor a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play. 

A Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award nominee, Lewis has a long history of tackling iconic roles — he’s appeared on Broadway as Javert in “Les Misérables,” King Triton in “The Little Mermaid” and in “The Phantom of the Opera,” becoming the first African American actor to play the title role in the Broadway production. “A Soldier’s Play” is only his second straight play, following his turn in 2021’s “Chicken & Biscuits.” 

California residents can also catch Lewis on June 12 at the Catalina Jazz Club and at the Hollywood Bowl on July 30 as part of “Everybody Rise! A Sondheim Celebration.” In New York he will appear at 92NY’s Midsummer MusicFest’s “An Evening with Norm Lewis” on July 11. And in August, he will reprise his role of the Phantom in a concert version of the “Phantom of the Opera” musical sequel “Love Never Dies” in London’s West End. 

Variety caught up with Lewis in his rare downtime. 

I’m so happy Davenport sings in this production, as do the soldiers. How did this come to be? 
That was Kenny’s idea. He decided to add some musical elements to the show to help with the transitions. He has the cast singing what they call work songs — songs men would sing together, particularly in jail. The idea was to [show that] these men are in jail even though they’re on an army base. They’re being trained to fight, just doing dirty work. 

Now, as far as me singing — he wanted to use our assets. When Blair Underwood did it on Broadway — Blair is a sex symbol, you know? So when they were in rehearsal, Kenny would go, “Hey, can you unbutton one more button?” By the time the show opened, he was shirtless. In addition to his acting ability, that’s part of his talent. So Kenny was like, “Why don’t we give people what they want?” So there’s a snippet of me singing. We liked the idea that maybe he was a frustrated singer that happens to be in the army. 

Though it premiered in 1981, “A Soldier’s Play” feels more timely than ever. I’m curious to know what your relationship is with the show — had you seen or read it before? 
I never saw the play, unfortunately, but I saw the movie back in the mid-’80s. I remember it being something that changed the scope of what I knew about history, especially Black men and the 1940s. The movie was amazing — and that cast! Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend. And the guy who I always say was Denzel before Denzel, Howard Rollins. 

Though it was written and set so long ago, it feels timelier than ever. 
We talked about that a lot. Charles Fuller wrote it during the late ’70s or early ’80s but it was set in the 1940s. Yet it’s still so prevalent during this time. Without giving too much away, there’s a lot of scenarios that mirror what’s happening in 2023 today. It’s a murder mystery but it’s shrouded in this situation of racism of self-hatred. Charles Fuller crafted a beautiful show. I guess that’s why it won the Pulitzer. 

What are some of the challenges of doing a play — particularly this one — versus a musical? 
I’m using the same muscles and the intention is the same but I just don’t burst into song. And I have three major monologues — this is the most I’ve ever had to say in a show. And I want to respect Charles Fuller’s words and say them correctly and with great intention. And just to be true. 

You’re going to reprise the role of the Phantom at a concert performance of “Love Never Dies.” What’s it like to get to revisit that role? 
It’s great because I had coveted the part for so long. I saw the original back in 1994 and said, “I have to be in this show somehow.” And 20 years later, I got to do it. So dreams can come true. Also, you can’t say no to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. 

What do you think is the enduring appeal of the Phantom? People are just fascinated by him. 
I think part of the appeal is he feels like an outsider. And we can all feel that way. He’s always trying to make sure his mask is on correctly for people to accept him in the real world and we all do that metaphorically or literally. I think people see themselves in this guy, as tragic as he is. 

Minus the murdering, hopefully. 
Right, exactly. And I’m sure so many people relate to this idea of a love that has slipped away in our lives. 

Since we’re discussing past roles, have you been able to see “The Little Mermaid” movie where Javier Bardem is playing Triton? 
No, I really want to! I’m so excited because it looks great and that cast is amazing. I mean, Javier Bardem? I can’t wait to see what his interpretation is. I remember seeing “Aquaman” and thinking if they ever did “The Little Mermaid,” this is how it could work. And I’m sure it looks even better now, with technology having advanced. 

Since you have played so many parts, what is it people most recognize you from? Is it “Scandal” or something on stage? 
I get “Scandal” a lot, of course. And there’s a faction that knows me from my Broadway career. But for the most part people will say, “Oh, you look familiar to me…” Someone came up to me and said, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Norm Lewis?” I was like, “Yeah, I get that all the time.” 

A Soldier’s Play” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 25. For tickets and information visit:  https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/ahmanson-theatre/2022/a-soldiers-play/

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