After two years of on-the-job training in Broadway Smash 101, Butz was ready to move on. He was cast as the Emcee in the national tour of Cabaret. "That's when I first heard of him," says Muny executive producer Mike Isaacson, who in 1999 was booking shows for the Fox. "People were talking about this guy in the Cabaret tour who was just rocking it. You'd ask, 'How's the tour?' And everybody was saying, 'The Emcee's brilliant.' Then when I saw the production, Norbert's performance exceeded what I had heard. He was galvanizing."


He took work where he could find it. In 2001 Butz appeared at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois, in the debut of a little-heralded two-character musical by Jason Robert Brown. The Last Five Years chronicles the collapse of a marriage. Only once during the evening do Jamie and Cathy sing together; everything else is solo. "Opening night was transcendent," Northlight artistic director BJ Jones recalls. "The audience loved Norbert, which was really stunning, because Jamie is not a pleasant character. He essentially abandons his wife. But the way Norbert played him, you saw how Cathy was becoming a drag on Jamie's artistic nova. Norbert's genius was that he was able to persuade viewers to understand Jamie's dilemma and even forgive him. It was a joy to watch Norbert and Lauren Kennedy. They were so at ease with the material."

At ease? Butz doesn't recall it that way: "I was so scared. I had spent all of my twenties doing straight plays, then I came to New York City and spent two years singing pop-rock. So for me the score in The Last Five Years was very difficult. There's nowhere to hide in that show. It's a scary thing to stand alone onstage with a great song and no props and just tell a story. So I had many crises of confidence in Skokie."

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

Location Info

Map

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

Details

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 www.angelbandproject.org.

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Butz returned to New York not knowing if The Last Five Years would continue. So he was thrilled to be cast in the new Broadway musical, Thou Shalt Not, an adaption of Émile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin that had the earmarks of a surefire hit: score by Harry Connick Jr., direction and choreography by the red-hot Susan Stroman, fresh from The Producers. Butz portrayed Camille, an unpleasant cuckold who becomes charming only after he has been murdered. But Thou Shalt Not was not to be. Like Camille, the show did not enjoy a long life.

In an otherwise blistering review, New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley welcomed Butz to Broadway with open arms and adjectives. "It takes a singing dead man to bring a spark of life to Thou Shalt Not," Brantley's review begins. "In the show's second act, a young actor named Norbert Leo Butz provides this fascinatingly ill-assembled production with something it has been aching for since its first scene: a shot of showbiz adrenaline.... I could feel numbed audience members around me suddenly sitting up in their seats again."

And that was only the lead.

"It was a career-making review," Isaacson says. "Norbert instantly moved from everyone in the business knowing this guy's got the goods to his being number one on every producer's list."

Had Thou Shalt Not not closed prematurely in January 2002, Butz wouldn't have been free to return to Jamie when The Last Five Years opened off-Broadway that March.

"That's true," Butz confirms. "Thou Shalt Not was a big bomb, and it closed quickly, which then freed me up to do The Last Five Years — which was also a big bomb. You can trace my career by going from bomb to bomb to bomb. I am the most successful unsuccessful actor in the history of theater."

Although it is a fact that The Last Five Years closed after only two months in 2002, it is also true that over the ensuing years it has assumed an almost mythic status. The high-selling CD (more than 85,000 copies thus far) has preserved Butz's indelible portrayal.

A year later he was back on Broadway as the rambunctious Fiyero in the mega-hit Wicked.

"The last song I wrote for Wicked was 'Dancing Through Life,'" reveals composer Stephen Schwartz. "During our pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco, Fiyero sang a song called 'Which Way is the Party?' But that was before we had cast Norbert, who is so amazingly talented that I felt compelled to write a new song more suited to his enormous gifts."

The next year Butz moved on to a role even more in sync with his gifts. As Freddy, con man extraordinaire in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Butz played opposite fellow Scoundrel John Lithgow. "Talk about an embarrassment of riches," Butz recounts. "I am not alone in saying that John is among my most favorite co-stars I've ever had. To know him is to love him. He has this deep, infectious joy of life. We shared a love of our children, we had both been through divorces, we both love baseball. There was a lot of common ground there. I can't say enough about John."

"Clearly, John Lithgow adored Norbert and took delight in being his straight man," Isaacson recalls, "because Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was the performance that unleashed the brilliance of Norbert as a vaudevillian. He had entered Bert Lahr territory. It was intoxicating to see his comedic command — not only of the show but also of the audience. Knowing when to push them, when to pull back. Just when you thought Norbert had reached the heights of absurdity, he'd go to the next plateau. As a casual observer, you just marvel at the guy. You also understand — and this is confirmed by his work in Big Fish — that his talent is so commanding that other artists want to write for him. Assuming he keeps one foot in musical theater, in the years to come Norbert will inspire some really great shows."

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1 comments
egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

Were these in Kiel Opera House 3100 could enjoy him and a great deal more money would be raised, and the Sheldon could receive a fee for handing this off to the bigger place.

 
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