The early years of that life were conventional enough. Norbert was born in January 1967, the seventh of eleven children of Elaine and Norbert. "The story goes that my dad secretly changed the name on my birth certificate after my mother had named me Timothy James, but he swears that's not true," says Butz. "What is true is that I was the first of the children that he saw be born, and it's also true that my mom did have Tim picked out for me. But apparently she eventually agreed to give me my father's name. My dad refuses to accept responsibility for being the sole vote."

Young Norbert grew up in the Holly Hills area of south St. Louis, sharing a bedroom with four brothers, singing in the church choir at St. Stephen's and going to movies at the Granada. In his teen years the family moved to Affton. While on a class trip to New York during his senior year at Bishop DuBourg High School, Butz saw his first Broadway show: A Chorus Line. His recollection of that immortal musical? "I think I fell asleep."

Musicals were not for him, but acting was. So much so that after graduating DuBourg in 1985, he secretly auditioned for the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts. "My parents are people from very humble beginnings," Butz says now. "And the idea that I would go to an expensive school like Webster and study acting — I was afraid to even broach the subject with them. But I learned that Webster had a late-admission audition day, so I went to that and I was accepted.

A February Angel Band recording session in New York.
Heidi Peters
A February Angel Band recording session in New York.

Location Info


The Sheldon

3648 Washington Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63108

Category: Art Galleries

Region: St. Louis - Grand Center

The 560 Music Center

560 Trinity Ave.
University City, MO 63130

Category: Music Venues

Region: University City


The May 8 performance of An Evening with Norbert Leo Butz at the Sheldon Concert Hall is sold out. For the Thursday, May 9, show at 7:30 p.m. at 560 Music Center (560 Trinity Avenue, University City; 314-935-9231), tickets are $50 and $100. Both shows benefit Angel Band Project. For more information about the group and its work, call 314-223-1630 or visit

"A few days before school started, when Webster began to want actual money from me, I had to go to my father. I'll never forget it. I had to say, 'Dad, I've been accepted to this acting program, and I'm gonna go. I'm not gonna go to Mizzou.' We were in the back yard, and he screamed an obscenity and walked away. But within a couple hours he came around and said, 'Well, we better get up to that school and see what they can do for us for some financial aid.' And that's what he did. And he supported me throughout — as best he could financially, and always emotionally. I worship my dad. I don't know anyone who has been handed more adversity in life, more obstacles, more tragedy, and yet he continues to stand up and continue fighting. He has incredible tenacity, and he's the most loyal person I've ever known."

Butz's most vivid Webster memories surround the plays directed by Marita Woodruff, a seminal figure in St. Louis theater. "She was a really important director for me to work with," he says. "She did not treat us like students. She expected brave, bold choices, and she chose really brave material. When I was a sophomore, we did the first production of The Normal Heart [Larry Kramer's AIDS-themed play] west of the Mississippi River. We were met with protesters outside the theater. We were on the news. We had incredibly volatile, emotional talkbacks afterwards. This was a college production, and it felt like we were on a mission, doing some kind of service for the whole city."

Perhaps perversely, Butz had been accepted into the Conservatory's musical-theater department, but after only a few days he asked to be switched to the acting program. "I had taken on the idea that musicals were silly and superfluous," he says. "I was incredibly pretentious. I really owe a lot to [Repertory Theatre of St. Louis artistic director] Steve Woolf. While I was still a student, he gave me two jobs in Rep productions, in two classic farces, Noises Off and The Matchmaker. When I went onstage and got laughs, that was the first time I thought to myself: Maybe comedy is something I shouldn't look down on. And I never have again. I love it, because comedy is incredibly difficult and wildly challenging."

After graduating from Webster, Butz "took a year and worked non-Equity professional theaters." Then he embarked on a two-year MFA program at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival: "I don't mean to sound regretful, because incredible things happened to me down there. But I spent too many years in school. In graduate school I began to burn out on theater, so I started playing the guitar and singing in clubs. I imagined a career as a singer-songwriter, yet I had all this legit theater training."

Theater won out, and in the summer of 1996, with no prospects in hand, 29-year-old Norbert Leo Butz and his new wife moved to New York City, where he hoped to find success as a serious actor.

"I came to New York very hungry, literally and figuratively," Butz says. "I arrived just after Rent had opened and changed the landscape of musical theater forever. The Rent company needed performers with acting chops who also could sing that kind of aggressive pop-rock score and play guitar. For me Rent was the perfect storm of material and actor."

After only a month in the big city, Butz was hired to understudy the two male leads and perform the role of Roger at Sunday matinees.

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