For Broadway’s Kecia Lewis, There’s No Business Like Show (Even When Her Knees Are Killing Her)

Kecia Lewis and Paige Faure in Cinderella.

Kecia Lewis and Paige Faure in Cinderella.

It’s the first day of the cold spell that rocked Philly, and I’m on the phone with Broadway’s Kecia Lewis as she is sitting under an umbrella and staring at a palm tree in Florida. Lewis, who will be heading to the Academy of Music to star as the Fairy Godmother in the iconic Rogers and Hammerstein musical Cinderellais literally taking the show on the road: she’s driving, with her son, Simon, and her dog, from city to city on her own for the duration of the show’s national tour. Riding cross-country was always one of her dreams, but, as she’s finding out, it isn’t a cakewalk.

“It has been a rough day with my Simon,” she tells me. “The balance of homeschooling him and performing and tour life and this first leg of the tour is pretty strenuous. Today was one of those days, but you get through it one day at time. It’s not horrible, but when you get to a city, as soon as you settle in, you’ve got to pack up and move on.”

Lewis has been in show business for 30 years, starring in the iconic Broadway productions of DreamgirlsOnce on This Island, and The Drowsy Chaperone. She’s had stints playing Mama in the wildly successful Broadway revival of Chicago, and hammed it up in the terribly funny Shrek: The Musical. But, when she looks back at the young woman that she was, her success in the theater could almost be considered an accident. She attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts (now called LaGuardia High School), but it took two auditions for her to actually “get in.”

“At that time, there were two separate schools: music and art and performing arts,” she explains. “I wanted to go music and art to study voice and move in that direction. At the time, we lived in Queens, and my father felt that the commute would be too much for me, so he wouldn’t sign off on auditioning for the music and art school, but he would for performing arts school. I scrambled—I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to act,’ so I started working on monologues. Preparing for that audition made me realize how much I enjoyed acting. I had to audition twice: the first time: didn’t get in. The second time, I got in.”

Kecia Lewis.

Kecia Lewis.

She studied at the high school for three years before she made her big break by being cast in Dreamgirls on Broadway; it’s where she first learned to actually sing.

“It hits you: this is a lot of singing—it is eight shows a week. How am I going to do it?” she recalls.

Now, years later, she’s traveling the country, wearing gowns made by legendary designer William Ivey Long, an icon himself in theatrical design. It’s enough to make any Broadway diva jealous, except for one minor thing.

“We joke that most of the women must have been extremely hot all the time,” she says. “[Long is] so true to the period that we wear it all: the bloomers, the tights, the undergarments. The gowns are on the heavy side, so there is lots of back stretching. But, they are beautiful and they make us feel beautiful.”

What is also beautiful about this show is the fact that Lewis and her cast members get to sing the music of Rogers and Hammerstein, the geniuses behind such memorable musicals as The Sound of MusicThe King and I, and South Pacific. To Lewis, who has been in four Rogers and Hammerstein shows, the music is a gift.

“Their music is brilliant and the orchestrations on this are really lovely,” she says. “Everything is so laid out for you [as a singer], that there’s not much interpreting. Musically, it’s so put out there for you that you do not have to do much.”

Additionally, in this version of the show, which differs slightly from the made-for-television screenplay that everyone knows and loves (originally starring Julie Andrews, then Ginger Rogers, then Brandy and Whitney Houston), there’s a revised book by Douglas Carter Beane that incorporates songs that were cut from other Rogers and Hammerstein shows. For instance, the song “Now is the Time” was cut from the original South Pacific; it’s in this production, though.

“The updates to the book make for a very contemporary feel,” says Lewis. “Douglas Carter Beane is so wise in the way that he writes

A scene from Cinderella.

A scene from Cinderella.

because he takes things that might be corny to our sensibility, but he writes them in a way that we, as actors, can wink at it. We get the humor.”

It’s hard to find someone like Ms. Lewis, who has persevered in show business for such a long time. I had to ask her what advice she’d give to all of the young folks who are sure to flock to the Academy to see her wave her magical wand to transform a pumpkin into a carriage.

“Always study as much as you can in any aspect of this business,” she answers. “Talent is not enough. You have to be wise. You can be talented, and that’s great, but that’s not enough. Study make-up, hair, business, dance, as much as you can learn.”

Lewis takes her own advice: she recently dabbled in producing theater, something she enjoyed quite a bit, and hopes to return to in the near future.

“Trust me: these bones are now creaking, and they don’t like eight shows a week,” she jokes. “My knees are like, ‘Girl, what is your problem?'”

Cinderella runs November 25 through November 30 at the Academy of Music. For more information, visit their webpage.