ORLANDO, Fla. – The mention of Central Florida makes Norm Lewis smile, and he smiles even bigger when asked whether he knows he’s a history maker.
“I try to be as humble as possible, but, yes, I do know that I’ve made an impact,” he said. “Yes, I have made history.”
Before he made history by becoming the first African American to play coveted Broadway roles, such as Javert in “Les Miserables” and the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera,” Lewis spent his years growing up in Eatonville, a town located just to the north of Orlando.
“I had a really, really good childhood,” Lewis said. “I didn’t want for anything.”
He said his parents were entrepreneurs who raised him, his brother and his sister.
“It was a community of people that looked out for each other,” he said. “I remember my mom and dad saying, ‘Hey, if he gets into trouble, take care of it,’ to our neighbors. ‘You can definitely discipline him in whatever fashion, and then let us know, so we can discipline him.’”
Lewis said he found his voice singing at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville, and he accidentally stumbled into theater while attending Edgewater High School.
He said he was trying to get out of home economics class.
“I said, I don’t want to do that. I’m not really into sewing and cooking at this age. There’s nothing wrong with that. I just was not into it,” he said. “I thought, you know what? I sing in church, so why not try to sing in school? Somehow, they let me in, and that’s when I heard this music that I’ve always heard all my life but never sung it. It was my ‘a-ha moment’ as Oprah would say.”
Lewis said that moment catapulted what would become his passion and his career.
He appeared in several Broadway musicals, such The Who’s “Tommy” and “Miss Saigon.”
In 2006, Lewis became the first African American man to play the role of Javert in “Les Miserables,” and one year later, he originated the role of King Triton in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway.
Then, he said, he auditioned for one of the biggest roles of his career – The Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“I knew that they had like 20-plus years that they had never had an African American on Broadway, so I never really knew if they would hire me,” he said. “I thought I would have to be a star like Robert Guillaume, but somehow, the tides came in and the moon was in the seventh house and the whole thing, and they needed someone to come in.
“Before I stepped out there (to audition), I felt the souls of people I’ve known and admired for so many years -- either dead or still alive -- and I heard voices. I literally heard voices saying, ‘Go get it.’ I walked out there, I sang my heart out, and then I said, ‘You know what? That’s it. I did my best, and if I’m accepted, hopefully, I’ll be accepted. If not, then I’ve done my best,’” he said.
Lewis landed the part.
He played The Phantom for more than a year, while continuing to be cast in television roles.
He said he hopes his success will make a difference to someone in Central Florida.
“I know that being a person of color -- being someone who is Black -- there are people who are looking at me as someone that represents an entire race,” he said. “(There is) this little kid that is possibly saying ‘Hey, I can do that now.’”