Norbert Leo Butz has looked at life from both sides now, like Joni Mitchell — and has Tonys to prove it. "Both sides of the law?" he grins that impish grin of his, seeing a question starting to crest. No, he has no preference: Con or cop, they're just prizes to him — not just Tonys, but Drama Desk Awards and, bizarrely, Astaire Awards.
His first award harvest came for 2005's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, in which he and John Lithgow lightfooted along the Riviera relieving rich widows and divorcees of their loose change. His second came a few months back for Catch Me If You Can, in which he's the rumpled-suited Javert pursuing a younger version of his former award-winning self (Aaron Tveit, a slippery trickster barely out of his teens). The musical ends its run at the Neil Simon Theatre on Sept. 4.
Both roles have cinematic antecedents, but Butz's distinctive performances don't suggest Steve Martin working the Riviera before him (as did Marlon Brando, before him, in Bedtime Story) or Tom Hanks collaring a young crook.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Butz caught a little Catch Me on the tube recently while cable-cruising. "I hadn't seen it since it first came out, so I watched it and was shocked how different I am," he had to admit. "In the film, my character is in his late thirties, a divorced man with a little daughter. It was definitely my idea to age him. I wanted to tell the story of a guy who missed his chance to be a father — someone more in the autumn of his life. I thought it'd be more resonant if this is a guy who should have kids and never did." Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs and Terrence McNally's book underscored the father–son connection between cop and crook more than the movie. "That makes sense if you're doing a musical. Sentimentality is not necessarily a bad thing in a musical, so that theme of the surrogate father is definitely more pronounced here."
To create that character, Butz looked no further than his own father. "The part certainly reminded me of my dad. In the script, what I read on the page was a man who doesn't exist in my generation anymore — a guy with that kind of work ethic — a guy impervious to psychotherapy. He's of my dad's generation. I don't think Dad has the ability to see himself in my performance, but my siblings saw it and really laughed."
As Butz sees it, acting is his primary mover — singing and dancing is something he fell into. "The secret about me is I've always felt more comfortable in a play. My first professional musical was a Broadway musical: Rent. I spent all of my 20s doing regional, plus college. I did nothing but plays in rotating repertory theatre. When I got to New York, people started hiring me for musicals. I felt like a fraud."
His self-image sounds a little like musicalized Molière — The Hoofer in Spite of Himself, maybe. "This singing-and-dancing part? I never trained for it, and I just won a second Astaire Award — but, to this day, I've never had a dance class."
No buts, Butz. Just keep tapping as fast as you can, and we'll never catch you....