THE LEADING MEN: World Wide Wicked

The Leading Men   THE LEADING MEN: World Wide Wicked Howdy, Pilgrims! November brings Thanksgiving, but you won't find any turkeys among this month's "Leading Men": Norbert Leo Butz (Wicked), Michael Hunsaker (Listen to My Heart) and Tom Andersen ("Who Knows?").
Norbert Leo Butz
Norbert Leo Butz Photo by Ben Strothmann

ANOTHER BOY FROM OZ
In Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman's Wicked at the Gershwin, Norbert Leo Butz plays Fiyero, a fun-loving fella who falls Oz-struck for two spellbinding witches: Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth) and Elphaba (Idina Menzel). But in this topsy-turvy prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," Fiyero learns to look at love "in another way." It's all a matter of perspective, right? One TV listing for that MGM classic once described its plot like this: "Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again."

But no matter how you look at it, the Tony-nominated Butz, 35, has wowed critics and audiences on Broadway and Off-Broadway, especially in Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. Brown raves, "Norbert was spectacular as Jamie [in my show], and I'm always honored and overjoyed whenever he interprets my material." Schwartz, the Wicked-ly wonderful composer, adds, "I've wanted to work with Norbert since I saw him in Thou Shalt Not and particularly in The Last Five Years. He's a lyricist's dream. In Wicked, I wrote ‘Dancing Through Life' especially for him to take advantage of both his voice and charisma."

Born in St. Louis to a working-class Catholic family of 11 kids, Butz grew up a "theatre dork" obsessed with Rodgers & Hart ("I'd love to do Pal Joey!"). And now this 5-foot-7 actor has two adorable daughters of his own: Clara, 6, and Maggie, 3.

Question: Congrats on Wicked! How would you describe Fiyero?
Norbert Leo Butz: He's sort of a party boy. He's attracted to Glinda, who's beautiful and fashionable. But then he falls madly in love with Elphaba, this mysterious and passionate girl with green skin. And that experience transforms him.

Q: Had you read Gregory Maguire's original book of "Wicked"?
Butz: Yes, years ago when I was doing Roger in Rent. Marcy Harriell, who was Mimi, recommended it to me. At first, I couldn't get into it, but then I fell in love with it. It was this tough, political and social satire about repression and fascism. But it was also this entertaining fantasy that uses language so creatively. Q: In the book, Fiyero is a prince who's married with three kids and has an affair with Elphaba, but in the musical, he's a good-time single guy.
Butz: Fiyero is quite different in the book, and that was a challenge. He's also got these blue-diamond tattoos down his face, and we actually worked with that in San Francisco (during our tryouts). They looked great for the first ten rows of the audience, but once you got further back, it just looked like I had bruises.

Q: Now in Wicked, you have not one leading lady but two.
Butz: Yes. Poor me. Kristin and Idina. A couple of dogs, aren't they? (Laughs.)

Q: So what's it like working with Kristin?
Butz: She's such a bitch. What a cow! (Laughs.) Kristin's a gem. A friend of mine called her "heaven in a ponytail." My daughters are huge "Annie" fans, and Kristin played Lily St. Regis [in the TV movie], so she's like Madonna in our house. We've watched "Annie" 70,000 times. She's a comic genius, and she just makes me laugh.

Q: Any funny incidents or accidents with Kristin?
Butz: I have this Errol Flynn moment where I swing in on this rope. One night in San Francisco, I let go of the rope and the rest of the actors started cracking up. I turned around and the rope had literally tied around Kristin's head and got caught on her crown and was pulling her off stage. It was like watching Barbie get hung.

Q: As for Idina, didn't you do Rent with her?
Butz: Yeah. And Idina is hands-down my favorite singer in New York. People are going to be blown away by her singing and her acting in Wicked. She's a complete artist. She writes and arranges. She has so many gifts.

Q: You've said you got into theatre to meet girls. Is that a good strategy?
Butz: The theatre part has been a good strategy. The girls' part is still really confusing. (Laughs.) I haven't figured them out, but I'm figuring out theatre.

Q: Every actor has a real pet peeve. What's yours?
Butz: Cell phones. A couple of months ago, I went to see Vanessa Redgrave, one of the greatest living actors, in Long Day's Journey Into Night, and a f---ing cell phone goes off. It's so depressing. Anyway, at our first New York preview, a cell phone went off just as Idina said, "Can you believe there's a world where animals are kept in cages?" And I said, "I think people with cell phones should be kept in cages." It got a great reaction, but the producers told me never to extemporize again.

Q: In December, you're doing a reading of a new musical of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Do you recall who directed the movie? Frank Oz!
Butz: That's funny. Yes, it's very exciting. It's got a fantastic script by Jeffrey Lane. Brian Stokes Mitchell is playing the Michael Caine part, and I'm doing the Steve Martin role. We play these con men, and from the demo tape I've heard, David Yazbek's songs sound like pop-rock meets Sondheim. It's a great part and a great cast.

Q: You usually don't get cast to do comedy, do you?
Butz: NO! And I'm funny, damn it. I'm hilarious!

Q: Speaking of hilarious, we asked Jason Robert Brown for a funny story about you, and he remembers the time you were stuck in traffic.
Butz: (Laughs.) I was coming [from New Jersey] to do the matinee of The Last Five Years. But I was caught in terrible traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel. I had to relieve myself, so I pulled into an abandoned parking lot. Just at the moment of release, a policeman showed up and slapped me with a $75 summons for indecent exposure. So I missed my show because I was caught with my pants down, literally.

Ain't that a pisser? For more info about Butz, visit www.wickedthemusical.com.

LISTEN TO THIS HUNK
It's no accident that you can find the word "hunk" in Michael Hunsaker's last name. With his wonderfully fit physique and powerful pipes, this 6 foot-2 actor was born to play the leading man in musicals. Hunsaker is now starring in Listen to My Heart, the new Off-Broadway revue of David Friedman's songs, which includes the astonishing Alix Korey and the show's incredible composer. There, this gifted tenor has a rollicking frolic with Anne Runolfsson on top of a piano during "Two Different Worlds." And the audience embraces him when he belts the stirring ballad "I Can Hold You."

Friedman's life-affirming anthems, which include "We Live on Borrowed Time" and the show's title tune, strike an emotional chord for Hunsaker: "They're beautiful and every single song is melodic. They all come from David's soul, and they're so inspirational." Friedman says, "He performs with such feeling." And he adds with a wink, "Michael looks and sings the way I think I look if I don't look in the mirror."

Hunsaker's credits include Younger Brother in the national tour of Ragtime and Tony, opposite Marla Schaffel's Maria, in West Side Story at Theater by the Sea in Matunuck, R.I., just before she starred on Broadway in Jane Eyre ("She's amazing and she was robbed of the Tony"). He also did a workshop of Ed Dixon's Fanny Hill with Kristin Chenoweth at Paper Mill in Millburn, N.J. ("I played this strapping stable boy and I got to make out with her. She's hilarious!").

At 28, Hunsaker knows the score, and as a composer, has written a few himself. He has collaborated with book writer-lyricist Leslie Becker on Fetching Water, a new musical about what happens when Jack & Jill meet Dick and Jane. It just played at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, with Max Von Essen, and it'll get a reading at the York Theatre this season. The Transport Group will produce it in March.

Since he's an actor and composer, it's no surprise that Hunsaker's favorite role so far has been Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, which he did at Florida State: "I like his journey, and he's a songwriter, which so paralleled my life. I'm dying to do tick, tick … BOOM! That's the kind of music I'd like to write!"

For more info about Hunsaker, visit www.listentomyheartsite.com. A TENOR WHO RATES A '10'
Tom Andersen has a sweet, soaring voice that's as golden as Fort Knox, but you don't have to take my word as his biggest booster and buddy. Time Out New York calls this good-looking tenor "simply the finest male vocalist in town," and he has won five MAC Awards for his singing, songwriting and recording. He has played Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and after Stephen Sondheim heard him sing "Anyone Can Whistle" at Weill Recital Hall, the composer told him: "You were terrific and you made me cry!"

Betty Buckley also has raved that Andersen is "a great singer who can sing everything," and if you need any proof, it's on "Who Knows?," his exciting new CD that combines pop, country and swing. It features "Ghost in This House," a hauntingly beautiful song by Hugh Prestwood, who's written hits for Trisha Yearwood and Randy Travis; a toe-tapping swing treatment of "A Lovely Night" from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, and a shattering rendition of the Patsy Cline classic "I Fall to Pieces." Plus, "Who Knows?" includes four of Andersen's finest originals (co-written with Tim DiPasqua and Ian Herman), such as "Another Tuesday" and "Then Again." The 5-foot-11 singer from Arlington Heights, Ill., says, "I've always loved all kinds of music: country, showtunes, pop, rock. A good song is a good song no matter where it comes from."

Andersen, 43, grew up a nice Catholic boy who met a future Broadway star while doing community theatre: "Karen Mason and I were in the WASP-iest production ever of Fiddler on the Roof. She was phenomenal even at 18. She played Golde, and I was second villager to the left." They also did Oliver! together, and Mason jokes, "It was ground-breaking. Tom was Oliver, and I was Nancy. You do the math!" At 17, he sang at the local Great America theme park, where he befriended yet another "fantastic" future Broadway star: Liz Callaway. Then, he went to San Francisco to headline in Beach Blanket Babylon and became "a minor disco star" in 1984 with a tune called "Rock Dancing": "My producer didn't think Tom Andersen sounded sexy enough, so he changed my name to Tom Granite! Doesn't that sound Flintstonian? Like Stony Curtis or Ann Marg-rock."

"San Francisco was a blast," he said, but a disease took its toll on the city in the 1980s. Andersen captured that indelible time in his award-winning song, "Yard Sale," in which he meets a young man with AIDS who's selling his possessions. Ever so subtle, the song never even mentions the word "AIDS." It earned him a rave review in Billboard, and "Yard Sale" has been recorded and sung around the world. He says, "I had no idea how universal this song was, and I'm touched that it's reached so many people."

Between his music and his homespun humor, Andersen has really found his voice as an all-around entertainer: "Songwriting is introspective and quiet, and singing is public, but a song doesn't really exist until it's sung, so I'm lucky I can do both!"

For more information, visit www.tomandersen.com.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There's so much to see in New York: Holy cow! Chad Kimball was an udder delight as Milky White in Into the Woods, and now he's bringing back his Bistro Award-winning cabaret act on Nov. 2 at 7 PM at Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (212-539-8778). Wait'll you hear his hilarious lounge version of Stephen Sondheim's "Giants in the Sky." It's genius! … Steven Ray Watkins, who also has made a dazzling solo debut, performs Nov. 3 at 7 PM at Mama Rose's, 219 Second Ave. (212-533-0558). This sunny singer-songwriter can light up any room with his smile and his style. … Newcomer Tom Grounds will bring his critically acclaimed show and CD, "Something That I Wanted You to Know," Nov. 18 and 25 at 7 PM to The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. (212 255-5438), and Nov. 22 and 23 at 4 PM to Mama Rose's. … Shaun Rennie, the latest boy from "Oz," hopes to shine brightly as the "Second Star to the Right" Nov. 2 at 2 PM, Nov. 19 at 9:15 PM and Nov. 30 at 8:45 PM at Danny's, 346 W. 46th St. (212-265-8133). … And another Aussie, the charismatic Kane Alexander, will return to N.Y. cabaret like a boomerang, Nov. 2 and 3 at 9 PM at the Algonquin, 59 W. 44th St. (212-840-6800).

Topnotch tenor Bill Daugherty celebrates his CD, "Look to the Rainbow," at Barbara and Scott Siegel's "Picks of the Month" series on Nov. 2 at 7 PM at Dillon's, 254 W. 54th St. (212-307 9797). He'll share the bill with Karen Oberlin ("Secret Love" CD) there and Fridays at 6:30 PM through November, he'll share the stage with Connie Pachl at Don't Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St. (212-757 0788). Speaking of "Rainbows," Jonathan Frank adds "Mama, a Rainbow" to his act Nov. 5, 12 and 19 at 9 PM at The Duplex. Called "Some Kind of Music," it's some kind of show. This lovely, light baritone does an especially stellar job with Janis Ian's "Stars." … Also returning to The Duplex is the marvelous Marcus Simeone, whose angelic tenor is heavenly to behold. This 2003 Bistro winner opens his show, "Cat on a Leash," Nov. 6, 7, 13 and 14 at 7 PM

Congrats to Jason Robert Brown, who married his "personal Aphrodite," Georgia Stitt, on Oct. 19. Also wedded to his work, he'll star in a concert version of The Last Five Years, with Lauren Kennedy, on Nov. 8 at 7:30 PM at Cooper Union, 7th St. at Third Ave. (212-279-4200). … Finally, for a good time and a good cause, catch "Making Miracles!," a benefit for Miracle House, Nov. 17 at 7:30 PM at Branch, 226 E. 54th St. It'll star Tom Andersen, Terry Burrell, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, George Dvorsky, Eddie Korbich, Alix Korey, Karen Mason and Phillip Officer. Miracle House provides housing to caregivers of people with AIDS and cancer. (212) 989-7790 or www.miraclehouse.org.

Got comments or questions? E-mail me at waymanwong@hotmail.com.

Until next month, let's hear it for the "boys"!

Wayman Wong edits entertainment for the New York Daily News. He has been a movie and theater critic for the San Francisco Examiner, a writer for The Sondheim Review and a Drama-Logue Award-winning playwright.

(L.-R.) Tom Andersen, Chad Kimball, Michael Hunsaker
(L.-R.) Tom Andersen, Chad Kimball, Michael Hunsaker Photo by David Morgan and Wayman Wong