PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Catch Me If You Can's Norbert Leo Butz

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Catch Me If You Can's Norbert Leo Butz Two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz talks candidly about the bruises, bumps and blessings of being a musical comedy star.

Norbert Leo Butz
Norbert Leo Butz Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Not only is Catch Me If You Can full of sights for the sore eyes of the tired businessman — one long-stemmed, curvy chorus girl after another — it also has the tired businessman. His name is Carl Hanratty, and, as played to a Tony-winning turn by 44-year-old Norbert Leo Butz, he is a pot-bellied, middle-aged FBI agent in dogged pursuit of a swinging young swindler of the '60s. Amid all that youth on parade, he's something of an anomaly — arguably, the most improbable presence on the Broadway-musical stage right now — and that no-small-fact helps him to "sell" the hell out of his foot-stomping first-act showstopper, "Don't Break the Rules."

Breaking rules got him his first Tony, playing one of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels who fleeced the wealthy-widow set along the Riviera five or six seasons back, so it's safe to say the cop he is playing these days at the Neil Simon knows the con he is coming from. The common link of both performances is his award category: Best Actor in a Musical. The operative word there is Actor.

You've always struck me as an actor first — somebody who stumbled through the door of musical comedy and assumed singing and dancing were part of acting.
Norbert Leo Butz: That's really the truth of who I am. I have always felt in this business a bit like a fraud. I always felt like I had a great secret, which is: I don't really know what I'm doing — because I never intended to do it as a living.

And once you stumbled through that door, you just kept going, right?
NLB: I came on as a musical force. Rent was the first musical thing I ever did — ever — and I got that as soon as I got to New York. Then, Rob Marshall hired me to do the national tour of Sam Mendes' Cabaret. Then, I went from that into the Harry Connick Jr. thing — and got a Tony nomination for singing and dancing in Thou Shall Not. And then I did The Last Five Years. People just sorta seemed to want me to do just that one thing. The musical offers were always coming in, but I had to work very, very hard to get seen for plays.  

Butz in Catch Me If You Can.
photo by Joan Marcus

Did you, in time, get comfortable and confident doing "the wrong thing."
NLB: No, I get terrified. I still really, really do. I have great anxiety about performing in musicals. I have to really work toward it. With Broadway musicals, you get those longer runs with the bigger houses and the better contracts.

And you have to go where the money is…
NLB: The fact of the matter is that I have a family. I have children — three daughters: 13, 11 and six months.

Wow, that's quite a coffee break.
NLB: Second marriage.

Comedy is pretty much a constant in your performances, but you've really done only one official comedy on Broadway — and I'd like to think Is He Dead? was as much fun backstage as it was on stage. It had the greatest concentration of my favorite actors on one stage.
NLB: I can honestly say — and I know everyone says this about a show — that was the most fun I ever, ever had, doing a play — bar none, bar none. I absolutely worship Michael Blakemore as a director. That guy set a tone. I feel so grateful I had a chance to work with him. It had the most glorious cast. We laughed our butts off every single day — everybody: Byron Jennings, sweet John McMartin, Marylouise Burke, the adorable Jenn Gambatese, David Pittu, Michael McGrath, Patricia Conolly, on and on and on. It was just so much fun. The show closed early because of a strike that year — and also we had the curse of the Lyceum — but man! what a great experience!

What happened to that TV pilot you did in which you played a legendary, self-destructive Broadway composer-lyricist? It looked great in the gossip columns.
NLB: "Miraculous Year" had an amazing script [by Red Tony winner John Logan] and an incredible director [Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of "The Hurt Locker"] and a terrific cast [Hope Davis, Frank Langella, Patti LuPone, Eddie Redmayne, Susan Sarandon, Stark Sands, Lee Pace, Andre Ward, Brooks Ashmanskas, Karin Plandtadit, Giancarlo Esposito]. They all did a beautiful pilot . . . and HBO just passed on it.

I haven't seen the pilot yet, but there is one out there, and I will see it eventually. I think the show was very, very dark. It was kind of a no-holds-barred look at a creative genius/addict really hitting a spiritual and physical bottom. It wasn't feel-good material at all, and maybe they just thought "Not this year."

Butz and Jenn Gambatese in Is He Dead?
photo by Joan Marcus

My favorite of your performances is the one you weren't reviewed for — and should have been: that month you spent in Speed-the-Plow , between Jeremy Piven and Bill Macy. That was three times longer than what you had in your other Broadway drama, Enron. It must have been like being shot out of a cannon, and I'm sure you used that feeling, too..
NLB: I loved that experience — much more in hindsight than at the time. At the time, I had to learn that role in a week. I think I did three or four performances with the script in my first week, and then I did basically three weeks without it. That was a really interesting experience for me. I learned something very valuable. People said to me, "Awww, how could you do that with one week's rehearsal?" Well, when you're up against a wall and everything in the world is against you and time is that valuable, you'd be amazed at the kind of work you can do if you are really, really hyper-focused. You take away everything extraneous. I didn't see my family for a week. I didn't do anything for that week — except learn that play. Usually, when we're in rehearsal for a play, the union says we can have a seven- or eight-hour call, with ten-minute breaks. I just ignored all those union rules and worked around the clock, and I found that a week was almost enough time to learn the role.

We spend so much time in the rehearsal room bullshitting ourselves. Part of it is things we have to do for the union. Part of it is just about gabbing about what the play is about — or, because you have so much time, trying all these different ways of doing a scene. Usually, none of them ends up being as good as the very first one. I learned that the initial impulse with the role — because you don't have any other choice except to do the one and commit to it 100 percent — is enough and, often, the best.

I understand you got Speed-the-Plow because of your work Off-Broadway in that Michael Weller play, Fifty Words. You were a dynamo in that, you and Elizabeth Marvel — two fearless actors coming right up to the wire with each other. Such a physical show! Were you black and blue?
NLB: I dislocated a thumb, and Elizabeth suffered as well. That was a play about a couple so repressed emotionally that one night this violent eruption happens in their marriage. We didn't have a fight choreographer, which we should have. It was a wonderful, intimate rehearsal process — just the two of us and Austin Pendleton [the director]. We just really enjoyed kinda getting in the mud and doing it all organically, but we found — on repeated performances — we needed to choreograph it. That's why the opening was delayed. We had to put on the brakes and get somebody in there to choreograph it a little better so we could actually survive the run.

Will you do Do Not Disturb, the conclusion of Weller's trilogy, which follows MCC's recent Side Effects?
NLB: I would love to. It depends, of course, on when it happens. I'm in this show right now, and I'm signed for a year. I have a couple of things down the road that I'm looking at, but there's nothing I can really talk about. Yeah, I always try to stay busy.

 

Butz in Fifty Words.
photo by Joan Marcus

It's in the musicals, isn't it, where you really get banged up?
NLB: I've injured myself in almost every musical I've done. I've torn cartilages in both knees. I had a neck surgery in Wicked, a knee surgery in Rent, another knee surgery after Cabaret. During Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I almost had to have surgery on my vocal cords.

Jerry Mitchell is a great one for character choreography so I'm not surprised you seem to be very simpatico with him. Twice you've worked with him, and both times you've won the Astaire Award.
NLB: The first time, I was pretty coy about that award because I was not doing very difficult dancing in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It was doing more…just kinda freestyle movement. I recall it as gestural movement in rhythm that I made up so I thought that award was a little gratuitous.

But I was really honored to get it this year because I worked very, very hard on that dance I do for "Don't Break the Rules." It does feel like legit dancing in terms of me trying to do specific things with my feet on specific counts. This was real Jerry Mitchell choreography that I had to absorb. Basically, what Jerry does is make everything around me look amazing. Truly. I get all the credit for that number, but it's so beautiful what all those dancers are doing around me. Jerry makes everything so specific. He gives it such a world — a specific look and feel — and he also gives me tremendous room to do my own thing.

Butz at the 2011 Tony Awards
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


The perception is that the Marc Shaiman-Scott Wittman score was snubbed because it didn't get a Tony nomination, but it was up for awards from the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. I think it's a better score than people realize.
NLB: I haven't heard the other shows that were up for Best Musical this year, but, if they were better than this score, it must have been a banner year for Broadway. Those arrangements, those orchestrations — they are the most beautiful things.

I don't know why that Marc and Scott really did not get their due with this one. The show is very bold with its concept. If you don't like the concept — which is laid out there in the first 60 seconds of the play — it's going to be a long night, and it's going to distance you from how great the music actually is. If you go with it, you're just going to have a ball. It's a very polarizing show, I think, in that way.

You really work the fat suit in this show. Is it heavy? You seem to be so out of breath when you finish dancing.
NLB: No, it's very light padding, but I am truly winded when I get through. The girth of that character I got from my dad — and the way I walk is definitely his.

It's not the walk you expect in musical comedies. That's you acting again. I suspect you don't have the capacity just to walk through a show.
NLB: I don't want to walk through anything. These people are paying a lot of money out here. That's what the theatre is to me. In the two hours that are allotted to us, I think that the performer should be living that fully the entire time in a way that we don't always in life. It should be better than life on stage — fuller.

I didn't see it, but people have told me you had a very moving speech when you accepted your Drama Desk Award this year. Do you recall what you said?
NLB: I 'd like to tell you, but those awards ceremonies send me into such high states of panic and fear. Public speaking is not my forte. I can hardly remember what I said. The only thing I remember is that I didn't thank my manager, and I felt terrible for the next week. And then, with the Tony speech, I didn't thank my cast, and I felt terrible for the next week. I have rarely been given one of those lovely awards and not felt terrible afterward. I guess that's the ex-Catholic in me. It was something about how you were considering giving up acting after the Seattle tragedy. [The night before previews were to begin, Butz's sister was the victim of a random murder in Seattle. After five days off for mourning, he returned to open the show.] You said the play and the company brought you back.
 

Butz in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
photo by Craig Schwartz

NLB: That's definitely true. Without going into a lot of detail, my family suffered a great loss. I lost a sister in the process of this show — and there were some health things with my other family members. It's been a hard couple of years, and I felt so grateful for this company — particularly the principals because it's the six of us who have been through it, all through Seattle and now here. They really, really had my back and really just held me up in a most beautiful way.

And I'm just grateful for the work. Sometimes when life gives you those really hard things, things you can't do anything to control — I'm a little controlling by nature—and you begin to tailspin out, just doing the basics of your day is what really gets you through. The theatre is something I can never remember not doing. My life wouldn't really make any sense without it. If I were not acting, I'd probably be teaching theatre. I'm not built for anything else. Even when I was young, I didn't have a whole lot of other interests except acting.

So, of course, I see myself as the luckiest man in the world. There are very, very few people in our profession who have been blessed to work most of their careers in the theatre — especially in the Broadway theatre. It's really, really rare. I've been afforded really great parts and the best directors in the country. When you're asked, "What's your favorite job?" — it's true: it's always the one you're either doing or the next one that's coming up. I don't think in terms of dream roles or "Ooooh, I like to go back and do that again." I always just want that next job.

Harry Haun is a longtime staff writer for Playbill magazine, and pens features and the Playbill On Opening Night column for Playbill.com.

 

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