I remember several months ago sitting home and watching the news. A story about the musical Cats return to Broadway was featured, complete with interviews of old and new cast members. The story also included some history about the show and the broad international numbers of people who have attended performances. As the footage rolled showing rehearsals preparing for the reopening of the show, I noticed a familiar cast member. Yes, it was British singer Leona Lewis. She was in full cat costume, preparing for the show. Just two weeks ago the run at the Neil Simon Theater ended. Leona Lewis now moves on with some great memories. For those of you who may not know about Leona Lewis, let’s go back and tell a little more of her story.
Leona Louise Lewis was born April 3, 1985 in the London Borough of Islington, London. As her parents began to realise Lewis’s passion for singing, they enrolled her at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and later to the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, the Ravenscourt Theatre School and the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology until they could no longer afford to do so, making cutbacks when necessary to help their daughter meet her dream of being a singer. Lewis wrote her first song at the age of 12; she initially trained in opera, before moving into jazz and blues, and eventually into popular and contemporary music.
At the age of 17, Lewis decided to leave BRIT School to “get out there” and pursue a career in music. By this point, she had already begun to write and record her own material, and worked as a receptionist at a solicitor’s office and as a Pizza Hut waitress to fund the studio sessions. Lewis continued to record demos and later recorded a track from the album called “Private Party” which became a hit on the underground urban music scene in London in 2005. Lewis said “I tried to secure a record deal by doing things my way. I worked very hard but I never managed to land a contract. That’s why I decided to audition for The X Factor. It’s programs like these which offer the best place to showcase fresh new talent.”
Leona Lewis was right. She auditioned for the third series of The X Factor in 2006, singing “Over the Rainbow” for judges Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh, Sharon Osbourne and guest judge Paula Abdul. She was placed in the 16-24’s category, with Cowell as her mentor. Throughout the course of the show, Lewis was compared to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, performing songs by all three of them. Lewis was declared the winner of the competition in December 2006, beating runner-up Ray Quinn, garnering 60% of the public vote; more than eight million votes were cast. Upon winning, Lewis said: “I’m just shocked. It’s unbelievable. I feel like my dream has come true, the dream I’ve dreamed since a little girl has come true. There were points I thought, ‘You know what, I don’t know if this is going to happen’. But with the help from my friends and my family, they all kept telling me to believe in myself and keep on doing it and I did and now I’m here and thank you so much to them.”
For Leona Lewis, the dream was just beginning. In February 2007, Lewis signed a £5 million (US$9.7 million) five-album contract in the United States with Clive Davis’s record label, J Records. The first album, Spirit, was released November 9, 2007. The album debuted at number one in nine countries, including the United Kingdom, United States and Germany, and peaked in the top five in a further eight countries. It held the record for the biggest digital album sales in a week ever for a new artist. The album was the sixth biggest selling of 2008 in the world.
Last year Lewis released her fifth studio album I Am. She is the second best-selling act to have emerged from The X Factor franchise, having sold 20 million records worldwide. Lewis has won one Bambi Award, an MTV Video Music Award and three World Music Awards. She is also a seven-time Brit Award and three-time Grammy Award nominee.
All of Leona Lewis’ career accomplishments have led to her well documented appearance in the Broadway musical Cats. Of course, she is not the first recording artist to find her way to the Broadway stage. Toni Braxton, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and Deborah Cox have all successfully appeared on the Broadway stage. Heather Headley, Ariana Grande and Stephanie Mills all started recording careers after Broadway beginnings. Leona Lewis is in very good company as there have been many other big name artists who have enjoyed success in both venues.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats is one of the most recognizable musicals and a great place for a début. Especially since Lewis was cast as Grizabella, the “Glamour Cat” in the musical production. It is her character that sings the very popular song Memory. Many of you may remember Betty Buckley performing the song during Cats first run. Betty Buckley won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical in 1983 for playing Grizabella.
Will Leona Lewis return to recording music or is another Broadway run in her future? At thirty-one years old the answer might be yes to both. Keep you eyes opened and listen out for more music. Broadway might not be just a memory for Lewis, it might be the beginning of much more.