Jesus Christ Superstar’s Norm Lewis Was Almost an Ad Executive

Seth Rudetsky   Jesus Christ Superstar’s Norm Lewis Was Almost an Ad Executive
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth reveals how Forbidden Broadway became an Off-Broadway hit and how Norm Lewis became an actor.
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Norm Lewis Courtesy of NBC

Shout out to Texas! I’m coming this Thursday with my SiriusXM dueling diva, Christine Pedi, to do a fundraiser for the downtown arts area. Come see me deconstruct and watch her brilliant impressions! (Tickets here.)

Then on Saturday, I’m with the lovely Vanessa Williams in Scottsdale, Arizona! (Tickets here.)

And now, a study in contrasts: I spent all last week in sunny Los Angeles.

James Wesley, Keala Settle, Seth Rudetsky in Los Angeles
James Wesley, Keala Settle, Seth Rudetsky in Los Angeles

Now, I’m in a full snowstorm in New York. Now, we live upstate and it’s a nachtmare to get anywhere when it snows. Hoping to get to NYC tonight to see Broadway Backwards, the big benefit put together by Bob Bartley for BC/EFA. It’s where men sing women’s songs and vice versa.

Seth’s dogs Mandy, Bagel, and Mateo outside today
Seth’s dogs Mandy, Bagel, and Mateo outside today

Speaking of which, I just came across this video of the late great Nora Mae Lyng in Forbidden Broadway with the song that put the Off-Broadway parody show on the map. If you don’t know the show’s history, Forbidden Broadway began at Paulson’s, which is now called The Triad. The show was always hilarious, but it became a mega-hit because of a review that was printed as a sort of F.U.! This is the story I heard: The show opened in January 1982 and, due to it’s limited budget to get the word out, there weren’t many reviewers who showed up. Around a month before the opening, John Lennon was shot and killed. Dakota resident Rex Reed was interviewed and mentioned how scared all the residents of the Dakota were because it happened right in front of their building. He happened to mention Lauren Bacall as one of the residents. Well, Lauren Bacall then publicly said that celebrities in the Dakota were scared because people like Rex Reed were announcing who lived there! And thus a feud began. Forbidden Broadway was playing right down the block and word got to Rex that there was very dishy song about Lauren Bacall featured. The original lyrics to “One of the Boys” from Woman Of The Year are:

I'm one of the gals who's one of the guys
So put up your dukes and I'll blacken your eyes
Behind all the Gucci and Pucci and pearls
I’m one of boys although I'm one of the girls

The parody was this:
I’m one of the girls who sings like a boy
My voice is as low as the tunes I destroy…
And what is the secret not told to a fan?
I sing like a boy because I’m really a man!

Yes. The entire song states that the reason Lauren Bacall’s voice was so low was because she was actually a man. Rex Reed went to check it out, loved all the hilarious parodies and wound up giving the show a full page rave in the Daily News! Other reviewers then came to see the show and it became a huge, huge hit.

Here’s the original version, which you should listen to so you can appreciate the parody.

Here’s the parody.

Nora Mae Lyng recently passed away and I was an enormous fan. Here’s a deconstruction I did featuring her brilliance at the very end.

So, last night was Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on NBC. So many amazing performances, but Norm Lewis was my absolute favorite. First of all, those low notes! Not since Lauren Bacall. Then the amazing vibrato on closed consonants with the handsomeness outlined by eyeliner. Perfection!

P.S. Norm almost didn’t pursue Broadway. In the ’80s, he had a “real” job working in advertising for a newspaper in Florida where he’s from. In his late 20s, he wound up winning a local talent contest. One of the judges offered him a gig singing on a cruise ship! What to do? He was on an advertising path and this would put everything on pause He told his boss that he had a chance to sing on a ship, but it meant leaving his job for a few months….maybe forever. She told him that he didn’t want to be an old man saying “Coulda Woulda Shoulda” and that he should take it. He took her advice and, after the ship, decided to move to New York—and then our paths crossed. I had just been hired for my first big regional music directing gig, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Candlewood Playhouse in 1989. Norm came to the open non-Equity call. I was music director but also the audition pianist. I remember his audition very well because he plopped down his music for me to play and it was literally music from his high school chorus. And I mean literally! It was divided into soprano/alto/tenor/bass and he had highlighted the bass part. Of course, I busted him for not just having a solo version written out but I wound up being blown away by his voice and he was cast at the brother who sings “Those Caanan Days”!

Here he is doing the version of that very audition song he wound up putting on his album. It’s from his CD release show at Barnes and Noble and yet again I’m playing for him.

We’ve worked together so many times since then so I thought I’d end with some amazing highlights from our times together:

Here I am deconstructing him singing from Once of this Island and Les Miz:

And here’s a deconstruction of his CD with his mind-boggling high notes:

And here’s some amazing footage of the sitzprobe we did for Broadway 101, featuring my “dancing, ” Andréa Burns, Julia Murney backed by a big, fat orchestra, and Norm’s final “high”note. Enjoy and peace out!

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