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The Buzz on Butz

Catching up with Norbert Leo Butz as he prepares to open in The Last 5 Years. logo

Norbert Leo Butz in The Last 5 Years
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Saw The Last 5 Years and enjoyed it immensely. Jason Robert Brown has such wonderful ideas for songs and has realized them beautifully. But then again, I tend to be glad when any show I see has Norbert Leo Butz in it.

As I wrote in an earlier TheaterMania piece, I "discovered" Butz eight years ago when I saw him at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival playing the title role in Dennis Covington's Lizard, about a developmentally disabled boy whose classmates and relatives think he seems reptilian. I can still see Butz dragging his seemingly lame foot across the stage, doing it so consistently for two-plus hours that I assumed he really was a physically challenged actor.

Sure, Thou Shalt Not turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the season; but everyone I know was astonished by Butz's performance as Camille, the cuckolded husband who was in such denial that he couldn't even acknowledge that his wife didn't love him, let alone that she'd wind up helping to kill him. In what turned out to be an amazing coup de théatre, he returned in the second act in a completely new characterization as a smugger but wiser inhabitant of heaven, from which he often came down to play some mischief on the couple that had betrayed him.

My oldest and dearest friend in Boston, who's been going to the theater since 1965, saw Butz as the Emcee in the touring Cabaret and now has made his name an idiom for excellence. Whenever he sees a new play or movie and I ask him what he thinks of a certain performance, he often replies: "Well, he was no Norbert Leo Butz." Funny name, isn't it? When I first discovered him and his prodigious talent in Montgomery, Alabama, he was simply Norbert Butz. I asked him recently, "Umm, there wasn't another Norbert Butz in Equity who forced you to add that middle name, was there?"

"No," he said with a laugh. "My father has the same name, though I'm not a junior. But over the years, we've had credit reports screwed up and he got letters meant for me that I didn't necessarily want him to see. So I decided to add my middle name, which is my mother's father's name. He was a musician from a coalmining town in Missouri who played the fiddle and sang beautifully."

Actually, Norbert Leo tells me that he wasn't originally named Norbert Leo, but Timothy James. "I'm the sixth son in my family and, every time my mother got pregnant, my father would say: 'Can we name this one Norbert?' And my mother would say, 'Hell, no. I love you, honey, but no.' Of the 11 kids they had, I was the first child that my father actually helped deliver. So even though my mother named me Timothy James, he felt his participation gave him the right to change the name. A week out of the hospital, she was calling me Tim--but he told her that he changed the name on the birth certificate."

It didn't much matter. Three months later, Mrs. Butz was pregnant again and, nine months after that, the new Timothy James arrived. That son, by the way, is not to be confused with James Butz, yet another brother who is starting to pursue an acting career. Said Norbert Leo, "We're looking for something to do together." But that's something for the next five years. Right now, he says that he dreads opening night (March 3), and not for the reason that most performers do. In one scene, he's in a small boat. There have been endless jokes about the "Tugboat" song from Thou Shalt Not, which Butz sang just before he was thrown off and drowned. "At least this boat offers a more pleasant trip," he said with an eye-roll. "But when that boat comes out on opening night, the audience is going to die. I'm dreading it."

And, just as there was a brass bed in Thou Shalt Not, there's one of those in The Last Five Years, too. A brass bed was a symbol of success to the Unsinkable Molly Brown, though not to Butz. "But it's the boat that really gets to me," he says. "Boats have been the bane of my existence this year. This is the third play I've done this year with a boat. I also did Saved," he says, referring to the once-notorious Edward Bond play in which kids stone a baby in its carriage. "But in that one," he said, "I didn't have to get in the boat."

Butz and Debra Monk in Thou Shalt Not
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
The 33-year-old father of two almost missed the boat with Thou Shalt Not. "When I first got the script," he recalled, "they said to read Laurent. That was what they were going to have me come in for. I only read eight pages of it before I turned it down--not because I didn't like it but because I'm not the classic leading man type. Then they called me again and asked me to read Camille, and I thought that he was more interesting. I had no idea what the show was eventually going to be," he adds. "There was so much dance mentioned in the script. I'd be reading and, suddenly, there were two pages of italicized stage directions. Yet that sense of fear of what it would be sort of made me excited to do it."

Butz says that the production was discombobulating for another reason: "We were in our second day of tech rehearsals when September 11 happened, and my wife's father died on the opening night, so I was reminded of death every day. I was really grateful for the work because performing in front of a live audience, communicating with them, really helped to heal me."

When I asked if he preferred doing The Last 5 Years with Sherie René Scott or with Lauren Kennedy, who originated it with him in Chicago before she bolted to play Nellie Forbush in South Pacific in London, he answered my question with a question: "Which ice cream do you prefer, Rocky Road or Chocolate Chip Mint?" (In fact, the former.)

By the way, he's no relation to Earl Butz, who in the '70s was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture until he made a tasteless, racist joke that prompted President Ford to wisely demand his resignation. But Norbert Leo does come from an agricultural background--which, he explains, is why he has the loudest finger snap I've ever heard on a stage. "I've got strong hands," he says. "Comes from working a great deal on the farm my father owned at the foot of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. But I'll tell you one thing I have a problem doing: There's a scene [in the show] where I'm on a telephone and I'm supposed to be talking to someone and there's no one there, so I have to stagger the conversation and come up with responses to what's supposedly said. Now, that's tough!" You mean there's something that Norbert Leo Butz can't do?


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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