In anticipation of the 2002 Tony Awards June 2, Playbill On-Line is revisiting interviews from the past season with artists who are now Tony Award nominees. This Q&A with Norbert Leo Butz, who is now nommed for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his work in Thou Shalt Not, first appeared Feb. 12.
You may not have heard of him before, but Norbert Leo Butz is certainly making a name for himself this season. The actor — who made his first impression on New York theatre less than five years ago replacing Adam Pascal in Rent on Broadway, and went on to play the Emcee in the national tour of Cabaret — is now starring in his second original musical of the year. The first was Susan Stroman and Harry Connick, Jr.'s Broadway effort Thou Shalt Not, in which his turn as the deceased, but still dancing Camille won the show what few positive notices it saw. Now, he's recreating Off-Broadway the role he originated in the world premiere of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years at Chicago's Northlight Theatre. Butz sat down with Playbill On-Line as he closed the first show and prepared to begin work on the second.
Playbill On-Line: Your characters in The Last Five Years and Thou Shalt Not have marital problems. Are your wife and kids worried?
Norbert Leo Butz: [Laughs] Wow, you know what? I hadn't thought of it that way. No, I think maybe it's because I feel like I have a very stable marriage, that I'm able to explore the darker side of marital bliss.
PBOL: What was the experience of originating the role in The Last Five Years like?
NLB: It was so great. You know, I did that right before I did [Thou Shalt Not] and the two experiences could not have been more different. Jason's piece was so tiny and intimate: two people, very delicate subject matter, minimal sets, a little chamber musical, really. We did it in this little theatre way out in suburban Chicago—no one really came to see it. We rehearsed it very quietly here in New York. It was just so low-key. It was just [director] Daisy [Prince], Jason, [female lead] Lauren Kennedy and I in this little rehearsal room. And then I go straight into Thou Shalt Not, this sort of very large profile thing where there's what seems like 80 people in the rehearsal hall at any given time. Large cast, big musical team, famous director, famous composer. So it was fun, I enjoyed both experiences, but they were really really different. And now I'm really excited to go back to it, to do something small again.
PBOL: So, what was it like being Broadway's most beloved crooning corpse in Thou Shalt Not?
NLB: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think I'm probably the only Broadway crooning corpse, nevermind beloved. I can't think of another show where there's any ghosts in it right now. But, it was a lot of fun, a blast. PBOL: There's been some rumblings about you perhaps being up for a Tony Award. Have you thought about it?
NLB: I don't know, it sounds so cliche to say "But, whatever happens happens." When you're in a performance, you're trying not to think of that. It's a challenge not to think about that because it's a very attractive prospect, but at the same time it doesn't really get you anywhere. [Laughs.] It's all way beyond you're control. So, I really try not to think about it. I had a good time and was thrilled to be working. After the 11th, it was so important that I have a place to come to work everyday and do what I do. And so, that alone, just the employment right now, is worth it. It's better than anything. Friends of mine that are actors that are not working right now are really having a hard time. There's not something else to put your mind into.
PBOL: Your singing, in Thou Shalt Not, was compared to that of Frank Sinatra or Harry Connick. Is that your natural vocal style or a stylistic choice?
NLB: I'm not like a Sinatra-head. To be totally honest, I'm not that well schooled in jazz at all. I didn't know Harry's music before I did this. It has been interesting, I've learned a new way of singing and Harry really worked with me on that. He wrote these songs as a singer and, I think, he also wrote them with a secret desire to actually — somewhere in his mind, he totally did it — to play Camille. That was the character that he really identified with. And so, I think melodically the Camille tunes really sound evocative of Harry's stuff. Having said that, he worked with me. There's a style to this singing whereby you limit the vibrato on some of the tones, you hold back a lot, you allow for there to be spaces in the music. Jazz is a syncopated rhythm, so I had to learn to sing with a little more restraint. Which is really what Sinatra did, it's what Harry does, what all the great jazz singers do. Their voices take on the qualities of instruments and they understand less is more sometimes. Harry is obviously influenced by Sinatra, so Camille is— [Laughs]— kinda influenced by Sinatra. And I have been listening to a lot of jazz singing. I love rock n' roll, you know, "put another dime in the jukebox, baby," but it's been so interesting because Harry's introduced me to all these other singers and instrumentalists. I haven't played a pop or a rock record since I've started working on this. And when I try to play one, it just sounds... I don't know, the sound of an electric guitar is just not doing it for me right now. I'm getting much more into instrumental jazz, which is a great thing about what we do; you learn all these new ways of enjoying music.
PBOL: You have done musicals, plays, Shakespeare, tours, film, television; you sing, you play guitar. What do you consider yourself?
NLB: An actor. That's what I am. It's the only thing I really call myself. Even when I sing, I really don't consider myself a singer. I'm not a person who could go into a cabaret or a club and stand at a microphone and sing; it scares the hell out of me. But, to sing in the context of a narrative, I find really fun. I approach songs and lyrics as storytelling as part of a story. So, I consider myself an actor, a theatre actor.
PBOL: Who are your influences?
NLB: The first time that I saw acting that I thought "Wow, this is something kinda transcendent" or it's more than just showing off, is when I saw the films of Robert Duvall when I was a kid. And Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, it was those actors that were constantly creating new people, constantly transforming themselves that I found really fascinating. And actually, they're still my favorite actors. Much moreso I guess the great film dramatic actors; I don't have much of a musical theatre vocabulary, really. I wasn't trained to do it—I did just acting degrees. Singing was always something that I enjoyed doing. I sang in bands and bars and church and you know. So it's really been in the past five years that musical theatre in New York has always been very kind to me. But, it's really just acting in a different context.
PBOL: Do you have a dream role or collaboration?
NLB: Yesss! I am trying to get, I'm just going to say this: There was supposed to be this production of Long Day's Journey Into Night coming to NY from London that didn't happen. I have a brother who is 23, I'm 33, we're exactly 10 years apart and we're dying to do Long Day's Journey together as the two brothers. So, we're trying to talk to directors, find a space and some regional theaters that might be interested in doing it. But, that's really a dream play of mine; to co produce and act in. I'm really, really hungry to do some more Shakespeare. It's what I trained in, I did a lot of it at graduate school. I did it for three years professionally after graduate school. I want go to the Public [Theater], do some of those. I miss those language plays.
PBOL: Everyone who knows you has probably heard the story about your first audition: You and your seven brothers all tried out for a production of The King and I and all but you were cast. Do you feel a sense of retribution?
NLB: [Laughs] I wouldn't say it was retribution. Yeah, I suppose. I feel stupidly blessed to be able to do something that I enjoy so much. I feel so lucky. It's been a good year.