THE LEADING MEN: The Tony Rewards

Here are five "Leading" guys the Tonys prize for Best Actor in a Musical: Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Hank Azaria (Spamalot), Gary Beach (La Cage aux Folles), Tim Curry (Spamalot) and John Lithgow (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Plus, we’ve got an exclusive interview with Tony honoree David Miller (formerly of Baz Luhrmann’s La Boheme; now with Il Divo).

Norbert Leo Butz
Norbert Leo Butz (Photo by Ben Strothmann)

THE ‘LEADING’ CONTENDERS
Norbert Leo Butz: This Dirty Rotten Scoundrel is cleaning up in the awards derby, having won Best Actor in a Musical from the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, plus an Astaire Award for Best Male Dancer and the Distinguished Performance Award from the Drama League. As Freddy, who works the "con festival" on the French Rivera, he’ll probably steal away with the Tony, too.

So what’s the Tony nomination mean to Butz? "It’s great. I love this show so much. I love this cast. The Tonys are like a really great high school prom. My high school prom was a total washout. My girlfriend had broken up with me, and I had to ask this other girl that I didn’t really like. It was just a drag. So we’re gonna dress up [for the Tonys] and just enjoy it. I couldn’t imagine going through this without John [Lithgow]. I feel stupid lucky. He’s a great actor and a fantastic human being."

In accepting his award at the Drama League luncheon, Butz opened with a line befitting Freddy, "I have to pee so bad. How many of you [on this dais] as well? So that’s going to be the basis of my speech. I am not a funny person. I have a very funny name: Norbert Leo Butz. The Leo is there only to break up two embarrassing ends. But we have two very funny men who have written this show: David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane. To Jack O’Brien, a true prince of New York theatre. To Jerry Mitchell, who is a phenomenal storyteller when it comes to dance, but more than anyone, John Lithgow. If I ever grow up, I wanna be just like him."

Hank Azaria: In Spamalot, this Emmy-winning actor shows he’s got a lot of character in four riotous roles: Lancelot, The French Taunter, Knight of Ni and Tim the Enchanter. In picking up his 2005 Theatre World Award for his Broadway debut, he said, "Sorry about my [hoarse] voice. Eight shows a week. You people are insane. Now I understand why Harvey Fierstein sounds the way he does. I’m honored. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life, clothes on or off. I’ve worked for years in TV and Hollywood, and I had forgotten how much of a dream [reaching Broadway] was. The first time I saw Monty Python, I was 12. And they changed the whole way I looked at performing. To me, they were the Beatles of comedy. It amazes me that I get to perform [their material] nightly, especially for young people. To introduce them to Monty Python is one of 99 dreams that have come true out of all of this. I really am deeply grateful to be so embraced and proud to be part of this community."

Gary Beach: Last fall, we predicted: "Don’t be surprised if Beach is back in the Tony running when he kicks up his high heels as Zaza/Albin in La Cage aux Folles." And so he is. So why was he surprised that he was nominated? "Because we started performances last November. That’s a long time ago, and this season is so rich. But God love [the Tony nominators]. My partner [ Jeff Barnett] told me the news, and I started to weep." How did Beach react to the news that his original co-star, Daniel Davis, left the show? "I was shocked. I got a message on my machine from Danny after that matinee. He said he’d been fired. I called him back and we talked, so you see, we had a relationship. Danny and I were pretty good together onstage. Offstage, we were fine. Something else happened [backstage] that I chose not to look at." And how’s his new co-star, Robert Goulet? "I adore him. The first thing he said to me when we met is: ‘And this is the man I get to kiss.’ That’s pretty sweet. He’s kissed Richard Burton [as a joke during a rehearsal for Camelot] . . . and I’ve kissed Kate Burton [in Doonesbury]." . . . How's it feel to sing "I Am What I Am" every night? "Great. Being gay, I want it to mean a lot, and I’ve talked to Harvey [Fierstein] about this. Back in 1983, George Hearn had to take it to a place of 'I will survive.' Well, it’s 2005, and I have survived, and there are no boundaries, so it means even more now than it did then." Tim Curry: As King Arthur in Monty Python’s merry and madcap Spamalot, he rules. And though many remember him best as Dr. Frank N. Furter doing the Time Warp in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," he got his previous Tony nomination in another musical that was based on a big screen comedy: "My Favorite Year" (1993). "I loved that show. But I think the problem with it was the audience wasn’t clear who they were rooting for. It was so hard to cut because all of the characters were so interesting. Here, in Spamalot, we have a director [ Mike Nichols] who’s ruthless about the story and applied the principles he used to apply to Nichols and May: You keep cutting the least funny stuff until you end up with just the funniest stuff." His favorite moment in Spamalot? "I love doing ‘I’m All Alone’ because it’s funny, but also sweet and moving." What was it like having the original Monty Python members at the show’s opening? "It was wonderful because I know most of them. I made a film with Michael Palin [called 'Three Men in a Boat'] and I did ‘Will & Grace’ with John Cleese. And I sold my piano to Terry Gilliam, having bought it from Roger Waters of Pink Floyd."

John Lithgow: In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, this two-time Tony winner plays Lawrence, the King Con of sophisticated swindlers. Does he remember the first time he saw Norbert Leo Butz? "Amazingly, it was a workshop of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. [ Brian Stokes Mitchell was playing Lawrence then.] I came just because I was friends with a lot of people involved, not with any notion that I’d be in it. Well, Norbert is the real deal. He’s a ball of fire, and we’re an incredible combination. The great thing about Norbert and I is we will do absolutely anything. You so rarely find an actor that you can go all the way with. I was very lucky to work with a bunch of those people on ‘Third Rock From the Sun.’ And it’s very similar with this cast. It’s volatile. One night, I said to Andre [played by Gregory Jbara]: ‘Where’s Freddy?’ Somehow one of Freddy’s shoes from the previous scene was still onstage and hadn’t exited on the turntable. That got me laughing and I was out of control for the next five minutes. Fortunately, it was the audience’s favorite moment."

CHEYENNE: ALL BOOKED UP
Like the motorcycle he climbs aboard in All Shook Up, Cheyenne Jackson is enjoying the ride — and shifting his career into high gear. For his pelvic portrayal as Chad, he nabbed a Drama League nomination for Distinguished Performance and an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Best Actor in a Musical.

In picking up his Theatre World Award for his Broadway debut, Jackson said, "Wow, I didn’t know I had to say something, so I’ve been sitting [in the audience] fretting. But my better half, Monte, said, ‘Speak from your heart,’ so I’ll try to do that. I’m from a small town in Washington state, and when I was seven, my mom took me to a garage sale, and I found a cast album of Annie. And I proudly announced that I was going to be the first boy to ever play Annie. . . . I didn’t move to New York until 20 years later, and it’s been amazing. All Shook Up changed my life. I want to acknowledge one person who really helped me: the late, great Jerry Orbach. He and his wife, Elaine, wound up being my next-door neighbors, and he took me under his wing. And if I have one fraction of the career he had, I’ll be lucky."

Meantime, his June is busting out all over: "Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox" at Don’t Tell Mama (June 2); a Disney workshop of "The Little Mermaid" (June 6-10); "Broadway Under the Stars" (June 13); an All Shook Up CD signing (June 16) and "Broadway Bares" (June 19). Plus, he’s shooting his first film, "Curiosity," an indie thriller, at the end of the month. Visit www.cheyennejackson.com.

ARE THEY NOT MEN? THEY ARE DIVO
When this column kicked off in January 2003, the very first "Leading Man" we profiled was the dynamic David Miller from Baz Luhrmann’s La Boheme, and he set the tenor of our interviews ever since. Back then, the 6-foot-3 American was singing in Italian, surrounded by an international cast. Nowadays, he’s still singing in Italian (and Spanish and English, too), surrounded by an international cast — but he belongs to the virtuosic vocal quartet of Il Divo. Created by "American Idol"’s Simon Cowell, this phenomenal foursome has sold three million copies worldwide of their self-titled CD, which features rich, romantic renditions of "Unbreak My Heart" and "Unchained Melody." Il Divo also consists of Sebastien Izambard (France), Urs Buehler (Switzerland) and Carlos Marin (Spain).

Though opera might be their aria of expertise, these mostly classically trained singers don’t sing it here; they go for pop. Miller says, "We wanted to bring back classic lyric singing. We’ve been called ‘pop opera,’ but it’s more correct to call it ‘operatic pop.’ We’re like the Operatic Rat Pack. Giorgio Armani supplies our suits, and when we walk down the street, we feel like the pop Mafia. It’s very funny."

"Il Divo is a democracy," Miller adds, so there’s no lead singer and they work in amazing harmony. "We’re pretty stereotypically from our countries. If Carlos weren’t a singer, he’d be a bullfighter. Sebastien is sensitive and loves fine food and fine wine. Urs is like a Swiss watch; he always likes to be on time. And I’m American, so I talk a lot. But we’re all funny and we’re like frat boys. This is the first time I’ve ever had best friends who are guy friends. In high school, growing up in a conservative state like Colorado, singing was not cool. But it’s cool being in Il Divo."

Hundreds of singers in 17 countries auditioned for Il Divo, but Miller, 32, says he didn’t even know Cowell was involved until he got the job. "I was told: ‘Simon wants to meet you.’ ‘Simon who?’ ‘Simon Cowell.’ I said, ‘Oh, crap.’ This is gonna be a lot more higher-profile than I thought." And even since its London debut last fall, it’s been a whirlwind. "Initially, they thought our fan base would be just housewives, but it runs from 13 to 85 on our website, and we have a lot of male fans, too." Meantime, Il Divo will record a second album this summer and tour early next year.

So does Miller, who’s also a techno fan, miss singing opera? "Yes, definitely. It’s where my roots are. I still sing at home. I’ll crack open a score and sing through one of my shows." He hopes return to opera someday, and though La Boheme "seems like three lifetimes ago," he’d welcome Broadway again, too.

Currently, Miller is dating an opera singer who "understands the business and what it’s like to be on the road. Our phone bills are enormous. We got web cameras so we can talk to each other online. I’ve been so busy that I didn’t even get to see the new ‘Star Wars’ movie. Dang! I’m a big fan and my girlfriend calls it my religion." For more information, visit www.ildivo.com.

IT’S RAINING MEN, HALLELUJAH!
Thanks to everyone who came to The Leading Men concert on May 30 at Joe’s Pub. Directed by Alan Muraoka and choreographed by Jamie Harris, this Broadway Cares benefit was a soldout success. John Tartaglia was a hilarious host, joined by Mark Hartman and the Johnettes: Jennifer Barnhart, Kelley McKinnon, Telly Leung and Lucas Steele.

Bravo to "The Leading Men," and here’s what they performed:
John Tartaglia and the Johnettes: "YMCA"
Tom Andersen: "Downtown"
Tom D’Angora: "Somewhere That’s Pink"
Max von Essen: "Proud Lady"
Wayman Wong: "I Took My Heart and Gave It to My Love"
Brian & Ted Farley: "What Is This Feeling"
Scott Coulter: "It Goes Like It Goes"
Ben Strothmann: "It’s Oh So Quiet"
Barrett Foa: "Movin’ Too Fast"
Chad Kimball: "Giants in the Sky"
Tim Di Pasqua, Tom Andersen & Scott Coulter: "What Do I Know?"
Matthew Morrison: "One Day More"
Cheyenne Jackson: "Mr. Potato Head"
Seth Rudetsky: "Deconstructing ‘Annie’ and Bea Arthur"
Christopher Sieber: "Agony"
Christopher Sieber and John Tartaglia: "I Will Never Leave You"
Jai Rodriguez: "I’ll Be Here"
John Tartaglia and the Johnettes: "It’s Raining Men"

It was such a hit that Broadway Cares wants to talk about turning it into an annual event. Meantime, NY1 News will feature footage and interviews from "The Leading Men" concert on "On Stage," its weekly theatre program, June 4 at 9:30 AM and 7:30 PM; June 5 at 9:30 AM, and June 6 at 9:30 PM and 12:30 AM.

WHERE THE GUYS ARE
There’s so much to see in New York: Thos Shipley, a five-time MAC Award winner for outstanding jazz vocalist, sings some of "My Favorite Things" — and ours — on June 6 and 13 at 9:30 PM and June 12 at 7 PM at The Encore, 266 W. 47th St. (212-221-3960). . . . If you love the mellow song stylings of Johnny Mathis, chances are you’ll get all "Misty" over Marcus Simeone’s "Wonderful, Wonderful" salute to him on June 9, 16 and 23 at 7 PM at Helen’s, 169 Eighth Ave. (212-206-0609). . . . If you haven’t been at liberty to catch John Tartaglia’s brilliant Bistro-winning cabaret act, "AD-LIBerty," he’s playing again on June 13 and 20 and July 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. (212-239-6200). By the way, Lucas Steele, one of Tartaglia’s talented backup boys, makes his solo debut, singing his own pop-rock songs, on June 6 at 9 PM at Opia, 130 E. 57th St. (212-688-3939). . . .

With his Irish eyes a smiling, Jack Donahue (and the Andy Ezrin Trio) will be jazzing things up June 14-25 at the Algonquin, 59 W. 44th St. (212-419-9331). . . . Steven Ray Watkins is "Hopelessly Devoted" to Olivia Newton-John in his new show, "Guilty Pleasures," playing June 15, 22 and 29 at 7 PM and June 17 and 24 at 9:30 PM at The Encore. . . . "Star Search" winner Sam Harris will be out and about, celebrating Gay Pride, on June 27 at 7 and 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. . . . Finally, Tony Award winners Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the fine, fine minds behind Avenue Q, will host "Avenue Q Swings!" on June 27 at 7:30 PM at the Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher St. (212-239-6200). Proceeds will benefit the Greenwich House Music School’s Piano Fund.

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.

The CD cover of ''Il Divo,'' which features David Miller (right).
The CD cover of ''Il Divo,'' which features David Miller (right). (Photo by Ben Strothmann)