Unforgettable performances in musicals like “Porgy and Bess” and “Les Misérables” helped make Norm Lewis a Broadway icon, while recurring stints on “Scandal” and “Daytime Divas” showcased his talents on television. But the actor and singer admits his dream of becoming a classic crooner ― in the vein of Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis ― remained elusive until recently.
That began to change in 2015, when Lewis debuted his first-ever Christmas show at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York. The concert was an instant smash and has been brought back for return engagements every December since then; its current incarnation, titled “Nutcracker Cool,” opens Dec. 17. This year, he got the chance to capture much of the show for posterity with “The Norm Lewis Christmas Album.”
Released in November, the 18-song collection maintains the intimacy of Lewis’ live act, with jazzy arrangements of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” “The Little Drummer Boy” and other classics. But Lewis bucks convention throughout, too. A slinky version of “Jingle Bells” morphs into a cover of “Fever,” made famous by Little Willie John and Peggy Lee, while fans of Lewis’ theater work will be thrilled to find music from “The Wiz” and, of course, “Les Misérables” also included in the set.
And “The Norm Lewis Christmas Album” boasts a refreshingly spontaneous feel, as Lewis, executive producer Jeremy Katz and longtime director Richard Jay-Alexander opted to include bits of seemingly unscripted studio banter scattered throughout the songs.
Recording a Christmas album had always been one of Lewis’ goals, he told HuffPost that America’s divisive political climate convinced him it was time to move ahead with the project.
“The past couple of years have been pretty challenging emotionally, spiritually, financially ― all that kind of stuff,” the Florida native, who starred in “Jesus Christ Superstar Live!” with John Legend in April, said. “My process with this album was to bring some sort of relief, some sort of solace, some sort of safety, some sort of joy. Hopefully, people will get that.”
Nowhere is Lewis’ mindset more apparent than on his version of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic, “What’s Going On.” What begins as a fairly straightforward cover soon becomes a snapshot of modern issues, with Lewis alluding to climate change, women’s rights and migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as the song hits its climax.
“I remember that song being played all day long [after Sept. 11]. It was on repeat the whole day,” he explained. “Right now we’re trying to make our way through this whole mishmash of what’s going on. It also poses a question for the beginning of the new year: “What can I do now to make this better?”
“The past couple of years have been pretty challenging emotionally, spiritually, financially ― all that kind of stuff. My process with this album was to bring some sort of relief, some sort of solace, some sort of safety, some sort of joy.” Norm Lewis
In keeping with the spirit of the holidays, however, Lewis was determined not to end the album on a dismal note, and strategically followed up “What’s Going On” with jazz artist Rachelle Ferrell’s “Peace on Earth.” The album concludes with “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day?,” an original track by Jay Landers and Walter Afanasieff, the latter of which co-wrote “All I Want For Christmas Is You” with Mariah Carey.
And Lewis is hopeful that, like Carey’s ubiquitous smash, “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day?” will leave listeners with “a feeling of giving, a feeling of being kind” that continues throughout the calendar year.
“I want that feeling to be carried on,” he said.