When I heard that Norm Lewis, Heidi Blickenstaff, James Clow, Julia Murney, and Eleasha Gamble would all be together in the cast of First You Dream: The Music of Kander of Ebb, I was so excited! I’m a huge fan of theirs. I didn’t know much about Matthew, but now I am a fan, and can’t wait to see him as Fabrizzio in The Light in The Piazza at The Philadelphia Theatre Company, which will also star two -time Helen Hayes Award winner Sherri L. Edelen and will be directed by Helen Hayes Award winner Joe Calarco.
Before the show opened, I asked director and set designer Eric Schaeffer to tell us about the show he was bringing into Signature’s Max Theatre.
Joel: Let’s start with the music. Tell us about the orchestra and the new orchestrations for First You Dream.
Eric: Signature’s production of First You Dream will feature a 19 piece orchestra which will be thrilling in our theatre. How many 276 seat theatres in America have an orchestra that size? Only one I can think of – Signature. It will be so wonderful to be able to have this amazing sound coming from all these musicians. All of the 35+ songs in this special theatrical event have new orchestrations by Bill Brohn, and it’s so exciting to see what he’s done. It really promises to be an amazing night of theatre for anyone who loves the American musical
Joel: Tell us about your design for the show.
Eric: Well, it would be easy to say let’s just do a concert but we never just wanted to do that. First You Dream is an entire theatrical event that promises to be really special. We have an amazing cast of 6 wonderfully talented people that sing Kander & Ebb to the rafters. The set features our 19 piece orchestra on the stage and the actors are right there among them singing their hearts out. The look of the show is smart and sexy – featuring costumes from Macy’s along with neon and lots of glossy black surfaces. Audiences in Washington have never seen anything like it – especially in such an intimate setting.
Joel: Is there a theme that flows through First You Dream?
Eric: The whole theme of the show is to celebrate the musical world of Kander & Ebb. We do songs from every musical they have ever written, as well as their movies. It’s an eclectic mix of styles and meaning. That is what makes them so wonderful – they know how to tell a story or explore the human heart.
I think one of the most exciting things about this show is people are not going to expect what they see and hear. The singers are just amazing and the musical sound is so rich. It makes you fall in love with Kander & Ebb, if you haven’t already. You’ll be laughing, and you’ll be crying. There is no better way to spend in an evening in the theatre!
I met Norm Lewis after a performance of Side Show, and I have been an admirer of his ever since. Yes, he has that golden, velvety voice, but it’s Norm’s pleasant personality, his willingness to spend time with his fans, and his charitable work that I admire most. I couldn’t wait to interview Norm, so when he called me for this interview, well – Kander and Ebb said it best – “Gee, how lucky can you get”
Joel: Take us on your journey from growing up in Eatonville, Florida to living and working in The Big Apple.
Norm: I was born in Tallahassee, Florida, but grew up in a small city outside of Orlando called Eatonville. I was in the church. That’s where I got my vocal training basically. I sang in church until I was 17. I then got into choir in high school, and that’s where I found my love for classical and musical theatre. I didn’t really train until a long time after that. I got into some stuff in college, but majored in business.
From there, I just continued singing in choirs, and doing some plays here and there, but I was determined not to just be in the business world.
Then I left the business world to pursue this acting thing, and I’m still going. I didn’t have my professional vocal training until I was age 30, when I was appearing as John in Miss Saigon. I found an opera coach in Toronto, Canada.
I got to NYC 20 years ago. In fact, September 28th will be my 20th anniversary, so now I’m a native.
Joel: Let’s talk about your duet “Love and Love Alone” (from The Visit) and “Life Is” (from Zorba!), which was stupendous.
Norm: They were trying to figure out which songs to put together, because there is a whole string of songs that follow my duet – “Dear One” (from Kiss of the Spider Woman), which Heidi, Eleasha, James and Matthew sing, and then it’s followed by Julia singing “I Don’t Care Much” (from Cabaret). The way we tried to do the vignette was that I am walking in the park, and I see this young lady who has been through some rough times, and I’m kind of like, Wow! – I’ve been there. I understand. When you are young and feeling strong, what can prove you wrong? Love and love alone. That is something that will always get you.
As I finish that last line, they bring in that fabulous intro for “Life Is”, and I realize to myself, “You know what? Love is a strong thing, but you have to keep going on, and life is what you do. While you are waiting to die, you have to live life to its fullest”.
Joel: You also sing “Seeing Things” (from The Happy Time) with local favorite Eleasha Gamble. What’s it like working with Eleasha?
Norm: I met her at a benefit for Jane Pesci-Townsend, and people kept saying I must hear “Eleasha Gamble”, and so I finally got to hear her sing at the end of the night, and she was wailing up there in her beautiful, beautiful belty voice. And then we started rehearsals, and I found another side of Eleasha, and I’m like “Wow!” She has this beautiful soprano voice, and not a lot of people have both capacities. I am a huge fan of Eleasha Gamble! Now, I understand why people come down here to see her. Being selfish. I want her to come to New York.
Joel: Let’s talk about your duet with Matthew Scott of “I Don’t Remember You” (from The Happy Time) – which is my all-time favorite Kander and Ebb song – and “Sometimes a Day Goes By” (from Woman of the Year).
Norm: They tried to tie in the duet I had with Eleasha, when we both say goodbye to each other, with this “I Don’t Remember You”, and I thought it worked perfectly. A lot of these Kander and Ebb songs I am singing I have never heard before, so it was so refreshing to have some new material to work on. It was a nice challenge to see if I could find some depth to them for me, out of context with the show. “I Don’t Remember You” is so beautifully written, and it has so much truth about it. If you have ever fallen in love and then you’ve broken up, it’s that grieving period that’s in the song. I have definitely been there, and I’m trying to bring some of that to that song. And it’s great to sing with Matt, who a great tenor voice. It’s an honor to be singing with him.
Joel: What was the rehearsal process in New York like working with Eric Schaeffer and John Kander?
Norm: It was great. I had worked with Eric before, and he allowed us to feel our way through each song and vignette, and he guided us to make a story for the evening. He is very patient, has great ideas – throwing them all out and putting them all together. With John Kander, I was so enthralled and honored to be in the same room with him, especially with the volume of work he created with his partner Fred Ebb. John helped us understand what he wrote, and certain phrases and passages of songs, and where the music was going. It gave us some subtext to work with, in order to present the song we were singing on stage. It was just amazing!
Joel: How long was the process?
Norm: Before you saw it – only 8 to 10 days.
Joel: That’s it?
Norm: Yes. Sometimes we were on the stage just trying to remember our words.
Joel: Well, you did just fine!
Joel: Let’s talk about the other members of the fabulous cast of First You Dream. Have you worked with any of them before?
Norm: Yes. Julia Murney and I have worked together before.
Joel: You worked on Chess in concert.
Norm: Yes, and we have done some benefits together. We have become really good friends over the years,
Joel: I know you have worked with Heidi Blickenstaff before in The Little Mermaid.
Norm: Heidi was Carlotta-The Maid in the beginning of the run, and then she left to do [title of show], which became a huge hit Off-Broadway (and then transferred to Broadway), and then she came back to The Little Mermaid for 6-8 weeks to do Ursula, my sister. It was so nice to work with her.
Joel: And Matt?
Norm: I never met Matt until rehearsals began, and he’s a little firecracker! That guy is just amazing. He’s this really nice guy, is sort of laid back, and all of a sudden he opens his mouth, and he’s like, “BAAM!” – he knocks you out! It’s awesome being able to hear him every night.
Joel: And James Clow?
Norm: I’ve known Jim over the years, but have never – until now – worked with him. I can’t even describe him. I saw him play Bobby in the 1995 Roundabout revival of Company, (where he understudied Boyd Gaines) and he was phenomenal. It’s so nice that he rounds out our cast.
Joel: How would you describe a Kander and Ebb song?
Norm: Lyrically, they are so smart and well put together. Musically, they were such a good team, Each song is unique. They cover a whole range of genres, from jazz to infused music to the big brassy Broadway sound, to that whole thing with Cabaret and the accordion sound.
Joel: What is your favorite Kander and Ebb song and show?
Norm: I’m loving what I am singing in this show: “Life Is” and “I Don’t Remember You”. This stuff is all new to me. The only thing I really knew of their work was Chicago and Cabaret and a little bit of Steel Pier. I love singing the songs from Curtains, but I have to say that the one that sticks out the most for me – well, there are two of them – and even though I love my songs, I love listening to Matthew sing “I Miss the Music” (from Curtains), and “My Own Space” (from The Act), which James Clow sings.
And then you have Heidi singing “Maybe This Time” (from Cabaret). I love all their songs and music, and can’t really pinpoint it. They all do it very well.
Joel: It’s not easy making a living in the theatre. Looking at your career, what has kept you in the business so long?
Norm: I think just tenacity. I love what I do and I just keeping going. I haven’t stopped working. Today, when I get off the phone with you, I will be on the phone with my agent and my manager. I have some other contacts in other countries, and I have friends who do other things. I am working on writing a screenplay. I am always busy, and trying to keep my head in the business all the time. You don’t sit back and rely on your agent to get you a gig. You have to go out and pursue it yourself, and then you can come to your agent and say, “Well, I heard about this. What can we do?” I hate sitting around. I need to do something. People are very complimentary about the way I sing and act, and sometimes on the way I move, although that’s very rare! I know there are people who are as good as me, 10 times better than me, and look better than me, so you always have to keep your face out there, and keep networking
Joel: You just finished playing King Triton in The Little Mermaid. I liked the show very much, and was shocked by the thrashing it took from the NYC critics, but despite them, it had a good run. What was that experience like?
Norm: I knew going into it that Disney is not beloved by critics. They don’t rely on reviews to make their business run. I loved the experience because I love working with director Francesca Zambello, because she wanted to find some humanity in this mystical world that we were in. We are walking around with tails on our butts, and tentacles coming out of our asses, so we wanted to make this story a very human story people could relate to. The movie was very human and the music is wonderful including the Oscar winning song “Under The Sea”, and “Part of Your World”. Being on the stage, we had to bring some “oomph” that people couldn’t get on the screen. I loved all the elements we had to do, the sets, the lights, and I thought the lighting and the projections were awesome. I also liked when they had the sound playing – a subliminal sound of being underwater – that “blup, blup, blup, blup, blup”. You didn’t really pay attention to it, but you knew it was there, and you felt like you were underwater.
I had a great time! It was two years of my life that I dedicated to making people happy. And what was really amazing was seeing the faces of the kids. You’d see the kids and their eyes would light up. I had people come up to me and say, “He’s never or she’s never sat through an hour of anything, and he/she was mesmerized by what you were all doing on stage”. There were kids as young as 3 years old who were coming to see the show.
It was an awesome experience, and I am glad I got the chance to do the show. I met and worked with some great people, and got to be in the Disney family, and it also allowed me financially to complete my project – to finish my CD.
Joel: Tell about about your CD - This Is the Life.
Norm: Nice segway! My CD was coming for a long time. I’d be asked by many people at concerts I did, and they’d say, “Do you have a CD?” and I would say, “No, I don’t!” They would be disappointed and I’d be disappointed going to these concerts empty handed. I buckled down and wrote down maybe 200-250 songs I loved, and then whittled it down from there. So, I talked to some friends of mine – Buryl Red and Joseph Joubert. These guys were just awesome.
I belong to a gospel choir Broadway Inspirational Voices, and they have been part of them for years, and they have many years experience in recording and sound, and arrangements and orchestrations, so I went to them to see if they even had time for my little project, and they said, “Yes”.
So we got together, we put a couple of songs together, and I told them my ideas of how I’d like the songs to go, and they brought me back this amazing gift of arrangements and orchestrations, so we went and recorded them. It was a labor of love, although there were certain days when I said, “Uch! This is just not going to work!” It finally came to fruition and I am very proud of it. It’s a mix of Broadway tunes, standards, and a couple of pop tunes – songs that have influenced my life, since I have been in New York, and throughout my life. I have the song, “It’s Not Unusual”, because I love Tom Jones, and my Mom loved him too, and I also love Johnny Mathis, and his song “Misty” is on my CD too. It’s a nice mix, but then I have the song, “Before The Parade Passes By” that’s a song sung by a woman in Hello Dolly. It was my first rehearsal song when I came to NYC, because I knew no other guy would sing it.
Joel: That was a smart move.
Norm: And I got a lot of jobs because of that!
Joel: You’ve worked at Signature before. Many will remember you in the old space as Sweeney Todd . Talk about that experience. You were the angriest Sweeney I have ever seen. How did you prepare for that anger?
Norm: I’m know as “Mr. Nice Guy”, and up to this point, I was always playing roles that were very nice, and very charming. Eric Schaeffer saw me do Side Show, and then he said he wanted to bring me in for Sweeney Todd. I felt I was too young to play Sweeney, and that they probably wanted me to play Anthony. I told him, “I’ll go out for Anthony!” and he told me, “No! I am seeing you for the title role!” First of all, I was floored because I was 36, and was honored that he wanted to see me for Sweeney Todd at my age, and I had never heard of an African American playing this role! I said, “Let me go for this. When am I ever going to get this opportunity again?”
I knew the role was challenging and intense, but I had no idea how intense!
So, as we got into it, Eric said, “You need to bring out Sweeney a little more. You are a little too nice”. So we sat for almost an hour discussing things and he said, “What you are doing vocally and acting-wise is great, but we’ve got to do something else – you are missing a certain spark. I want you to go home and think about it.” And, that night, ironically, I went home and I saw footage of people being hosed and dogs being set out on them in the 60’s during the whole racial disruption in the United States. I got so upset about that, and I said, “That’s it!” That’s where I got the anger. I was trying not to be angry on one note. I wanted to bring that vengeful quality that Sweeney has to avenge himself going to jail and his wife and daughter being taken away. Hopefully that is what you saw with the anger coming through.
Joel: You scared the hell out of me. It wasn’t the Norm Lewis I knew. (Norm laughs!) Tell me something about yourself that only your friends know.
Norm: I like dinner, a movie, and a walk in the park. (Laughs!) My favorite thing is going to a beach and chilling out. I’m kind of a boring guy. I do a lot of things on stage, and sometimes I need some down-time. Some people don’t know that I am somewhat of a businessman. I run and am a partner in a couple of businesses, and I do some real estate investments.
Joel: What advice would you give young actor, student, and singer who are considering making singing and/or acting his/her career?
Norm: Make sure they really want to do it, and make sure they study and are prepared when they go in to audition. They need to know that a lot of “No’s” they will get have nothing to do with them, and they should not be devastated about it. If they did everything within their power, there’s nothing that they can do. Their job is to get a callback, and if they don’t get a callback, then move on. Keep going. When I first moved to NYC, I went to every audition. Unless they specifically called for blonde hair and blue eyes , I showed up. It’s all about showing up!
Joel: Why should DC theatergoers come and see First You Dream: The Kander and Ebb Concert?
Norm: Kander and Ebb are a staple in the Broadway community and have been around for years. People know Chicago and Cabaret. They know the song “New York, New York”. But if you don’t know a lot of the other songs in the Kander and Ebb songbook, you’ll be blown away! Before seeing and being part of this show, I would have said that my favorite was “All I Need is Love” (from Chicago, which I got to sing as Billy Flynn in the Broadway production in February and March 2004)). But right now, we haven’t even touched all the songs they have written, but we tried to do as much as we could in a 2 hour period. I am so overwhelmed. I have a new-found love for Kander and Ebb, and I have found this music to be fascinating. William David Brohn’s arrangements are brilliant.
Joel: It’s like listening to these songs for the first time.
Julia Murney is a powerhouse of a singer, and when I saw her as Elphaba in Wicked, Queenie in The Wild Party, and Florence in a concert version of Chess, I fell in love with that incredible voice. When you hear Julia sing “Colored Lights”, “I Don’t Care Much” and “The Money Tree” in First You Dream, you’ll fall in love with her too.
Joel: Tell us about yourself.
Julia: Well, for general bio-type info, you can go to my web site, www.juliamurney.com which I have to push simply because I just made it! As for anything else, I have lived in NYC most of my life. I would love someday to have a house on the ocean and a boat to go with it, and my dog’s name is Pepper, and she’s a rock star!.
Joel: How did you get involved in First You Dream: The Kander and Ebb Concert?
Julia: Eric Schaeffer and David Loud were so kind as to just give a call and ask if I was available. That doesn’t happen often, but when someone says, “John Kander is going to be involved”, then I don’t think twice. He is an amazement.
Joel: What is it about a Kander and Ebb song that is so special?
Julia: John and Fred’s songs sneak up on you! They don’t seem outwardly difficult, but then when you try to inhabit them, they are so complex and rich. Sometimes they are just plain sexy or just plain fun, but they are always complex.
Joel: What is your favorite Kander and Ebb show and song?
Julia: My favorite show is probably Chicago because I did it at camp as a kid (very appropriate for kids), and then again in college, and I harbor a secret desire to try to tackle Velma in NYC. My favorite song is probably “Colored Lights” from The Rink, which is such tender piece of pastry to try to figure out.
Joel: You were fabulous as Elphaba in Wicked, which you performed in NYC and in the national tour, and as Queenie in The Wild Party at MTC. How did you relate to Elpheba and Queenie?
Julia: Well, thanks for the nice words! I don’t really relate to Elphaba as a green witch or to Queenie as a drug addled beat-up vaudeville dancer, but there is in both characters a person trying to find her way. I think most everyone can relate to wanting to find your place of purpose in the world as we know it.
Joel: What do you remember about walking on the Gershwin Theatre stage for the first time as Elphaba?
Julia: I remember thinking I was very grateful to be there, and very grateful to be there with Kendra Kassebaum and Sebastian Arcelus, as we had all done the tour together. And hoping that I didn’t fall off the stage.
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Joel: You have played some challenging roles that have great songs to sing: Evita, Mother in Ragtime, Mrs. Walker in Tommy, Cathy in The Last 5 Years, and Florence in Chess. Which role was your favorite role, and is there a role you haven’t played yet that you really want to play?
Julia: They are all favorites in a way because they all pay off such dividends. I got to spend more time with some than with others, so it would be fun to revisit some of them. The number one role I would love to play is Dot in Sunday in the Park with George.
Joel: Here’s a chance to plug your solo CD I’m Not Waiting.
Julia: I am plugging my solo CD I’m Not Waiting! I’m very proud of it, and some people really seem to like it, so go pick it up and decide for yourself. It’s on itunes and on the aforementioned website. Plug, plug, plug.
Joel: Why should DC theatergoers come and see First You Dream?
Julia: To hear a 19 piece orchestra and some of the finest singer/actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – sing the music and lyrics of a national treasure known as Kander and Ebb – seems reason enough to me. Also, I hear there is some really good food around the Signature Theatre.
See Julia sing “I’m Not Waiting” from her CD. here.
First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb plays through September 27th in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre. Watch a trailer of performances, including Norm singing “Life Is”, and purchase tickets here.