Two-and-a-half years after The Last Five Years, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott are — like the movie ads of old — Together Again! They met making Rent, and now (at the Imperial Theatre) they cross paths again. The third time is definitely the charm.
With John Lithgow, they form a dizzily spinning triangle in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The guys own up to the gold-digging title roles — competitive con men at play on the French Riviera — and Scott is the rich, young and pretty prey who romantically ensnares them.
All this farcical footwork has been worked before in films — two of them, in fact: 1988's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" with Steve Martin, Michael Caine and Glenne Headly, and 1964's "Bedtime Story" with Marlon Brando, David Niven and Shirley Jones — and now Jeffrey Lane's new musical, based on the 1988 MGM film, has touched off a Full Monty complement of re-creators: songwriter David Yazbek, director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell.
Even when their friendship was flowering offstage, the course of true love never ran smoothly onstage for Butz and Scott. When both stepped up to the Broadway plate for Rent, taking over from the original cast, no love was lost between them — literally: she replaced Idina Menzel as the lesbian Maureen, and he followed Adam Pascal's Roger in hopeless love with Mimi. Then, as the entire two-and-only cast of The Last Five Years, they did connect onstage — or more precisely disconnect, that being the melancholy memoir of a nose-diving marriage delivered in musical monologues (he recalls from first date to finish while, simultaneously, she recalls the opposite). Given the harsh realities they're coming from, is it any wonder both are blissed out to have some fun finally staring them in the face eight times a week? At long last, levity!
When Dirty Rotten Scoundrels bowed at Jack O'Brien's Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, Butz scampered off with the reviews, practically winning a manic of-the-year title. He credits the craziness of his character, Freddy Benson, for his over-the-top free fall. "He's sort of a grownup with Attention Deficit Disorder — that's the way I like to think of him. He's incredibly impulsive and very pure in the pursuit of what he wants."
He swings wildly because he knows the director would rein him in if need be. "Jack keeps challenging us, urging us to play The Absolute Truth of the scenes, to resist the allure and 'quick fix' of the easy laugh. What you have to learn to do — and it takes practice — is to actually shut out the audience, create a very insular space onstage and pursue this serious nature of the objectives, as if you were doing Ibsen or Shakespeare."
Loftier goals than musicals lured Butz and Scott from the Midwest — he from St. Louis, she from Kansas — so O'Brien's argument to root comedy in reality wasn't lost on them: Butz had a yen for the classics and earned his Equity card with the Alabama Shakespeare Company; Scott was star-struck by the works of Geraldine Page and Joanne Woodward.
"I came to New York because I wanted to learn and grow," she admits, "and I knew, if I wanted to do good work and make a living, I had to come to New York. I never thought in terms of a career. I still don't. I don't know what that means. A dentist has a career."
Rent rerouted their professional goals, and, as strangers in a strange land, they bonded. "Although we didn't work that much together on that show," Butz recalls, "we became fast friends offstage. She had just gotten married [to record producer Kurt Deutsch], and I'd just had the first of my two daughters. We've been dear friends for a long time, and there's nobody that I'd rather be onstage with in New York than that girl."
Understandably, the bonding intensified when the two went through the rigors of Jason Robert Brown's close-to-the-bone portrayal of a flailing, failing marriage, The Last Five Years. Although they took it from opposite directions in the actual show, they rehearsed it once in synchronized sequence. "It didn't have the emotional impact theatrically," allows Butz, "but, for us as actors, to use each other as partners in songs was hugely important."
The trust and chemistry Scott has with Butz, she believes, can only help her as an artist. "Norbert is not someone I work with. Norbert is now a part of my life. For somebody who is as deep as he is, and as much of an actor, he doesn't carry around a lot of that image stuff that he has to keep up offstage. I think probably that's why we get along."
Another possibility is that they're three-name phenomenons. She laughs. "I think I even made fun of Norbert for that when I was in Rent. You know: 'Do you really need all those names?' I didn't have three at that time. I had to have three for union reasons. When I joined Screen Actors Guild, there was already a Sherie Scott so I went with my whole name. I thought, 'Well, isn't that just instant karma on me? Here I was, making fun of Mary-Louise Parker and Sarah Jessica Parker and any other Parker — and Norbert — and now I have to have three names.' Just goes to show you not everyone is as pretentious as you think they are. Sometimes there are practical reasons for things. Now I don't care if people think I'm pretentious. I have three names because I have three names. Period."