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Norm Lewis Interview: 'The Gershwin's Porgy And Bess' Star On The Tony-Nominated Remake

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This is one in a series of nominee snapshots in the lead-up to the Tony Awards Sunday night.

Norm Lewis' Tony-nominated performance as Porgy, the disabled titular lover in "The Gershwin's Porgy And Bess," has been singled out as much for Lewis' shuffling gait as anything else. But at a recent Tonys junket, Lewis told us the physical challenge of his role was "the easy part." The tough part? Working with director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to carve the 4 hour opera into a lean 2 hour update, one the New York Times lauded as the closest of any version to the opera's original spirit.

The Tony committee took note. The show's 10 nominations, including for Lewis and co-star Audra McDonald, makes it second only in prolificness to "Once," which took 11 nominations. If Lewis wins, it'll be for the first time.

Still, Lewis told The Huffington Post he's using his well-honed performative skills to keep his enthusiasm in check until the results are announced. Read on for his take on remaking one of the greats, crushing on his co-star, and the single controlled tear he cried when he heard he was nominated.

Where were you when you found out?
I was home. I was going to play that nonchalant role and wait for the phone to ring but I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep at all. I had the DVR set already but I basically got up and watched the news until it came to that point. My heart just started pumping the closer it got and when they mentioned my name there was a little tear that came down, and I had to rewind a couple of times just to hear my name again (laughs).

What’s been the biggest challenge of working on “Porgy And Bess”?
Bringing the emotional journey of this character has been the challenge, trying to find the truth in what our story is trying to say. We dug really deeply into the book, really deeply into the opera, and even the music. Not even so much the dialogue, but the music, just listening to certain emotional ways that the Gershwins have configured all this music, and just making sure that we honor this iconic piece.

What’s it been like working with Audra McDonald?
We’ve been friends for years, so we’ve known each other for a long time. I’ve always had a crush on her, you know like a little secret crush, and with permission from her now-fiance I get to kiss her 8 times a week! (laughs) But yeah, we trust each other so much. I learn every day from her. And we just we get to play.

How familiar are you with Gershwin’s work?
I know of the music from listening to variety shows -- what we call the greatest hits: “Summertime,” and “I Got Plenty Of Nothing,” those things. I also got to be in “Porgy And Bess” with the Orlando Opera Company -- I was part of the chorus, because they needed black people on stage back in the eighties (laughs). So I have that history, but I didn’t really know the story. So when I got a chance to do the show, I went back and read the book.

It must have been great to do something so classic. You must feel like you’re now part of history.
I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of the originals: Todd Duncan and William Warfield and all these people who’ve played these roles. I never thought I would even play this role, because it was in the classical world, whether it be on Broadway or the opera stages. Maybe Sportin’ Life, but never Porgy.

What are you up to next? Another big show? A movie?
From your mouth to God’s ears! But no, I’m just gonna ride this out right now and just enjoy this and we’ll see what comes along. I feel that good things are gonna happen.

How did you celebrate?
I still haven’t yet. I’m trying to contain myself right now, but we had a nice little meeting yesterday. I think the show was a little more hyped last night.

Finally, is there a show you’ve seen this year aside from “The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess” that you’d recommend to our readers?
I would say, “Best Man.” “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I love both of those. And musicals! I mean I want people to go see “Leap Of Faith,” gosh, “Newsies.” “Newsies,” yeah. Absolutely.

Gazelle Emami and Brad Balfour contributed to this piece.

WATCH Norm Lewis perform "I Got Plenty Of Nothing," from "Porgy And Bess":

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