‘Porgy and Bess’ star Norm Lewis to don Phantom’s mask

April 2, 2014

via wikipedia.org

After more than 25 years on Broadway — the longest run of any Broadway production — “The Phantom of the Opera” rarely makes headlines anymore. The production has remained virtually the same since the 1980s, with a series of talented yet unknown actors cycling through the many roles.

There was a 25th anniversary celebration last year, which was commemorated by fan favorite and “Little Mermaid” star Sierra Boggess taking over the role of Christine. However, even that momentous anniversary was not able to stir up much conversation about the trademark production.

But just recently, news of the Phantom sent social media into a frenzy with the announcement that Broadway veteran Norm Lewis will be playing the title role opposite Boggess starting in May.

Lewis, best known for his Tony-nominated role in the much-praised 2012 production of “Porgy and Bess,” carries name recognition far beyond that of most actors who have played the Phantom. He is arguably the first star to take on the role in recent years.

Additionally, Lewis played King Triton opposite Boggess’ Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” so fans are likely eager to see the co-stars reunite on stage. Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda even began tweeting lyrical mashups of the two musicals using the hashtag #PhantomMermaid.

However, the real cause of the buzz surrounding Lewis’ casting is that he will be the first black actor to play the iconic role, which was originated by Michael Crawford.

This casting change marks a significant step forward for colorblind casting on Broadway. Over the years, “Phantom” has created its own legacy. While it exists within the 19th-century France of its setting, “Phantom” has expanded far past that limited scope. It is a fixture on Broadway —  the Phantom’s mask has loomed over Times Square for decades at a time. And why shouldn’t a black actor slip behind that mask?

In a season with 12 new musicals on Broadway, only two — “Aladdin” and “After Midnight” — feature people of color as their leading characters. While shows like these, as well as the currently running “The Book of Mormon” and “Motown,” do feature many people of color, seeing a black actor take over a role that has been played by a white man for 25 years is a refreshing change of pace.

The new Phantom does not diminish the importance of new musicals, which are key to expanding the representation of diversity onstage, but it is essential to show that actors have the opportunity to play established roles, regardless of their own race or the race of the people who originated the parts.

Regardless of these sensitive implications, Lewis is sure to be fantastic in the role. Visit the Majestic Theater starting May 12 to see him don the Phantom’s mask.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 2 print edition. Dylan Jarrett is books/theater editor. Email her at djarrett@nyunews.com.

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