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John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz on their juicy roles in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. logo
Norbert Leo Butz and John Lithgow at Sardi's
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Is there room on Broadway for two musical comedies about deliciously devious con men? Apparently, the answer is a resounding "yes!" Following a triumphant out-of-town tryout run at the Old Globe in San Diego, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -- the new tuner based on the 1988 Steve Martin-Michael Caine film of the same title, which was in turn based on the 1964 Marlon Brando-David Niven flick Bedtime Story -- now has audiences rolling in the aisles of the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street, just a block up from The Producers.

How big was the audience response to DRS in San Diego? "Huge," says John Lithgow, who plays the suave swindler Lawrence Jameson opposite Norbert Leo Butz in the role of small-time crook Freddy Benson. "I have to moderate my description because it sounds almost boastful, but I've never heard a reaction like that. People were sore from laughing." According to all reports, a similar response has greeted the show during the preview period leading up to its Broadway opening on March 3.

The way Lithgow sees it, audiences are more malleable when they're laughing helplessly: "You get them into a good place where you can do more with them," he explains. "There's quite a startling moment in the show when Lawrence suddenly chastises Freddy, really bawls him out. He says, 'You listen to me, this is an arm's-length business. As the man said, we're the stuff that dreams are made of -- but it's their dreams, not ours.' We ask the audience to contemplate the whole notion of the con; then, bang, we move right on to comedy again. By the same token, my character -- who's used to manipulating and bilking people, who's so skillful and effortless and urbane about it -- suddenly finds himself falling in love. He breaks the rules that he himself has declared, and that's what makes him vulnerable to being conned."

Lithgow is very high on Sherie René Scott, who plays heiress Christina Colgate -- a target for both Lawrence and Freddy, and the woman with whom Lawrence eventually is smitten. "She's just heaven," he enthuses. "She's got a big, gorgeous voice and she really knows how to play this part. Sherie has a way of doing comic innocence that's right up there with Judy Holliday."

"We're having a blast; it's like a big playground out there," says Norbert Leo Butz, who is full of praise for book writer Jeffrey Lane, composer-lyricist David Yazbek, and director Jack O'Brien. "I respect Jack so much that it almost borders on idolatry," Butz proclaims. "With him, it's all about integrity; he sees the show as a very real story about people longing to connect but being afraid to let their guard down. Also, the guy has worked with every great actor in America today, so it's like, 'Holy shit!' The bar is set very high. Jeffrey Lane is so good that, whenever he writes a new joke, it's better than the last one, so it gets a longer laugh and we add another 20 seconds to the running time. As for Yazbek, there are so many twists in his lyrics that the audience will start laughing midway through a song and miss the next verse. These are funny, funny men."

Men behaving badly: Butz and Lithgow
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
"Jack O'Brien and David Yazbek were made for each other," says Lithgow of the men whose last collaboration was The Full Monty. "And into the mix comes this remarkable writer, Jeffrey Lane. His background is in television: Jeffrey co-created Mad About You and wrote for several other sitcoms, as well as some dramatic material. I have such a high regard for excellent comedy writers, having done six years on Third Rock From the Sun. I think they're the best playwrights we have. The tragedy is that they most of them only write for television! Jeffrey is one of those people who just got sick and tired of the whole process in Hollywood, and now he's having the time of his life doing theater."

Though Lithgow and Butz respectively emerged from Sweet Smell of Success and Thou Shalt Not smelling like roses, neither of those musicals made it on Broadway. Lithgow feels that the dark, cynical Sweet Smell probably failed to find an audience because "it barely had a comic moment in it," yet he's very happy that he did the show. (He won his second Tony Award for his performance, having previously won in the Featured Actor category in 1973 for his role in The Changing Room.) And Butz wants to make one thing perfectly clear: "I loved Thou Shalt Not. I loved the character I was playing and I had great jazz songs to sing by Harry Connick, Jr. I was happy as a pig in shit in that show, so the fact that the audience and the critics didn't dig it was totally cool by me. That's the honest truth. If a role excites me, if I feel that it's a challenge, then I don't care if the show is a bomb or not. I had a great time in Thou Shalt Not and I'm having a great time in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."

At TheaterMania's photo shoot at Sardi's for this article, Butz proved to be a hilarious cut-up, and Lithgow followed his lead. Has their chemistry evolved over the past several months? "I liked him enormously from the beginning," says Butz. "He's a very genuine person, and wickedly funny. John says that your best friends always bring out your naughtiest side. If that's true -- and I think it is -- then he's definitely becoming one of my best friends, because he just makes me crazy."

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