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Catch Him While You Can: Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz returns to St. Louis next week for a good cause



For Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can sounded like the ideal gig. This musical adaptation of Steven Spielberg's popular movie had been tailor-written to accentuate Butz's stage strengths: his deft comedic timing and prodigious energy. The Broadway-bound show reunited him with director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who had shepherded Butz to his first Tony Award four years earlier in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Best of all, Catch Me If You Can was going to open in Seattle, where his older brother Tony and younger sister Teresa lived.

"Teresa was a big reason why I agreed to go out of town," Butz says by phone from Chicago, where he is starring in another pre-Broadway tryout, a musical version of the Tim Burton movie Big Fish, which is set to open in New York in October. "The Seattle engagement was over the summer. I could bring my children, and I got to spend time with my sister. She would hang around after rehearsals, and a lot of the cast became friends with her."

Catch Me If You Can was set to open on Thursday, July 23, 2009. Four days prior, Norbert and his family had plans to meet Teresa for breakfast. "We were waiting for her," he says, then struggles to continue. "She was supposed to my apartment...and when...she didn't come...Tony called me...and came over...and told me."

At about three o'clock that Sunday morning, an intruder had broken into the home Teresa shared with her fiancée. For 90 minutes he raped the two women repeatedly, then stabbed them. Teresa managed to fight back and frighten him off. Her partner survived; Teresa died a few minutes later in the street outside their home.

Did it ever occur to you to not continue with the show?

"No. I knew that I would. I didn't know how much time I needed to take off. But I knew I was going to need to do something that felt familiar, and being onstage has always been a comforting thing. I don't know how to explain it, but I feel most myself when I'm onstage playing someone else. I knew I was going to need the show to keep me from evaporating."

The producers canceled two performances, then three more, to allow Butz to return home to St. Louis for his sister's funeral.

"There were some police and legal things that we had to do in those first couple of days, and then we had to figure out how to get her to St. Louis." Silence. "This is kind of hard to talk about. But I was told to take as much time as I needed, so I was the one who designated when I came back to the show."

What are your memories of that first performance?

"I have to be honest: I don't remember anything. I do remember that when I came back, I asked everybody to come onstage, and we all just sort of held hands, and I thanked everyone for their support. We made a commitment to do the show for Teresa. But really, I don't remember a lot."

Catch Me If You Can choreographer Jerry Mitchell picks up the story: "Our cast was a tight-knit group. When Norbert returned to Seattle, I remember him joining the cast onstage. Even the stagehands came out onto the stage. Basically, it was a chance for Norbert to say, 'Thank you, this is where I need to be.' My sense was that returning to this company of actors who truly loved him was the only way he could survive. The tragedy in Seattle has forever changed everything about the theater for me. But it strengthens the one thing I've always believed, which is that none of us in the theater are anywhere without a sense of community. This is what defines us and supports us through success, failure and even trauma."

How was his performance that night?

"Spot-on. It was perfect. No one in the audience could ever have imagined that this actor was carrying such a load in his personal life."

Between the time Catch Me If You Can closed in Seattle in 2009 and reopened in 2011 on Broadway, where it earned Butz his second Tony Award, the St. Louis-based Angel Band Project came into existence. "The founders of the organization, Rachel Ebeling and Jean Fox, were two of Teresa's best friends in St. Louis," Butz says. "They contacted me a couple months after the funeral and asked if I would participate in recording some of the songs that we sang that day. These were the songs Teresa loved, and they wanted this recording as a memento. But as Rachel and Jean started sharing her story while they were looking for funds, Angel Band turned into the organization that it is now."

Next week Butz returns to St. Louis to headline two benefit concerts on behalf of the nonprofit, which uses music to promote healing and cultivate empathy for survivors of sexual violence. (The second performance was added after the first sold out.)

"Don't worry, it's not going to be a downer," he assures. "It's going to be a night of celebration and song." Though the show is titled An Evening with Norbert Leo Butz, surely the Broadway star's first hometown appearance since he graduated from Webster University 23 years ago will be much more charged than that; the concerts will provide a long overdue catharsis. As has been true for so much of his life, yet another stage will be the place where he needs to be. An Evening with Norbert Leo Butz might better be named Norbert Leo Butz: A Life in Review.

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 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.

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."

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."

For now, and until those new musicals are written, Butz has become Broadway's most versatile go-to guy. Do you need a farceur to carry Is He Dead? (a newly discovered comedy by novice playwright Mark Twain)? Get Norbert. One of the stars suddenly drops out of a revival of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow? Get Norbert. Who can reveal the mesmerizing charm of the destructive pedophile in How I Learned to Drive? Who can add gravitas to Dead Accounts, a Broadway entry featuring paparazzi-beset Katie Holmes?

"You have to be grateful for the work when it comes in," Butz says, "because it's all temporary. I have never been a ticket seller. I'm not a movie or a TV personality. My career is in the theater. But I also have a family, and I have to provide for them." In 2007 Butz married Michelle Federer, Wicked's original Nessarose. In addition to Clara and Maggie, two daughters from his first marriage, Butz and Federer are the parents of three-year-old Georgia Teresa.

Big Fish closes this weekend in Chicago, where Butz's leading lady, Muny favorite Kate Baldwin, has been observing her costar at close range. "When Norbert goes onstage," Baldwin says, "it's almost as though he flips on a switch and this light shines out of him and he's pure combustible energy. People have long appreciated Norbert's unique ability as a dazzling showman. But when I look into his eyes, what I get to see — and what I hope people will come to know through Big Fish — is his capacity for depth and truth. In terms of being honest on the stage, he is fearless."

Which prompts one final question.

You have said that the experience in Seattle has profoundly changed you as an actor. Could you elaborate on that?

The phone goes silent again. Then:

"I don't know if I can, but I do know it's true. How do I say it? It's a very ephemeral thing that we try to do in theater. We're literally trying to capture moments in time and space, and then re-enact those moments with a kind of distilled clarity and truth. And you're trying to do that over and over in the course of a play. So when you lose somebody and you're reminded of the brevity of life, that kind of tragedy helps you to find clarity in real life as well. You try to cut the fat off your life. And that disciplined approach to your real life bleeds into your work. I don't know. That's the best way I can describe it."

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