Interview: Norm Lewis Tackles His First Broadway Play With Chicken and Biscuits
The Tony nominee has never done a non-musical in New York before. Now's his chance.
One of Broadway's most beloved leading men, with a dozen musicals under his proverbial belt, Norm Lewis has seemingly done it all – except appearing in an actual Broadway play. That finally changes this month when Lewis takes on the role of the paternal Reginald Mabry in Douglas Lyons's new comedy, Chicken and Biscuits, at Circle in the Square Theatre.
TheaterMania recently talked with Lewis about the play, his thoughts on the upcoming Broadway season, his work on the last season of TV's Pose and the upcoming telefilm Christmas in Tune opposite Reba McEntire, and why he's returning to Feinstein's/54Below in December.
How would you describe Chicken and Biscuits?
It's a fun, frolicky, feel-good play about love, family, and redemption. Still, while it is basically a comedy, it has some poignant and serious moments that may make you cry. But I think the best thing about it is, no matter your background, you will recognize your own family in these characters.
After having done about a dozen musicals on Broadway, this is your first straight play. How does the experience differ, especially in terms of daily preparation?
The thing is, I don't have to worry as much about my voice. And while I still do those top of the teeth, tip of the tongue exercises, it's great to know I can still communicate even if I get a little bit of a sore throat or something. Another thing I noticed is that this rehearsal process is much quicker than with a musical. The first week a lot of other people were off-book and I realized I had to catch up.
Post-pandemic, many people were hoping for a "different" Broadway, especially in terms of racial equity. How do you think Broadway is doing so far in terms of achieving this goal?
Things are changing this season. However, is this going to be a one-off? Who knows? Either way, though, we need to take advantage of it and show that these pieces are marketable. More importantly, I want every little Black boy and girl or every trans person to see that they have a voice. I want representation for every story and every person.
You were remarkable in the last season of Pose, in which you played Billy Porter's ex-lover – and kissed him on national television. Tell me what that experience was like.
Billy and I had talked about me being on the show pre-pandemic, and then I went off to do concerts, and then during the beginning of the pandemic, I didn't even leave the house. So when Billy called me last October to talk about the job, I was so happy I would have the chance to be on a show I admire so much. When they told me the actual storyline, I said of course — because of Billy. We've known each other over 30 years! Still, we were both nervous about our kiss. So, we did it once before taping to get it over with. He said it was like kissing his brother, but he also said he was so glad it was me rather than some actor he didn't know. And that was good, since I think we did like 30 takes. Anyway, I was just glad I didn't have to do drag, because I do not look good as a woman!
You're coming back to 54 Below with your annual holiday show in mid-December, even though you'll still be in the play. Why is doing this show every year so important to you?
What I love about the holiday season is that everybody is nice — even mean-ass people — no matter their religion. It's something in the air, I think. I also love the decorations and I love giving presents that mean something to others, although I don't bark at receiving gifts either. To celebrate that time of year is so important to me, which is why I love to do my holiday show at 54 Below; it's my version of a holiday party!
You also have a holiday movie coming out on Lifetime called Christmas in Tune with Reba McEntire and John Schneider. How was it to shoot?
Reba is so giving, so friendly, and so on top of it as an actress. She's also an amazing person. We filmed in Nashville, and I ended up doing a benefit concert for Patrick Cassidy's theater down there. I invited her and she not only came to hear me, which was an honor, but she stayed after the show and took pictures with people. As for John, I grew up with this guy on my TV on Dukes of Hazzard, like so many of us, and he still looks the same! Plus, he's funny and a great singer. I wouldn't say working with them had been on my bucket list, but I am really glad that wish got filled anyway!