When Norbert Leo Butz brings his cabaret act to the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Oct. 13, he’ll be traveling light. No corsets or sausage-curl wigs from “Is He Dead?” No huckster tricks up his sleeves from “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” No tight vests and gold braid from “Wicked.”
Just a guitar, some sheet music, and sensible walking shoes. The Broadway star from St. Louis, who’s been a resident of Essex County for the past dozen years, can stroll the eight-tenths of a mile from his Maplewood home to the 415-seat space off South Orange Avenue. Besides the convenience, Butz says he likes to keep returning there because some of his friends and favorite artists frequent the place as well.
“An Evening with Norbert Leo Butz” is an offshoot of a solo show the two-time Tony winner staged recently at 54 Below, the new Manhattan club at the old Studio 54. Although he jokingly declared the theme of that engagement was “don’t suck,” the SOPAC program will include much of the same material: memory songs, elegantly written by the likes of Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Jason Robert Brown and Ray Charles.
“I’d never stepped into a cabaret,” Butz recalls of his 54 Below debut in August. “That’s always felt like a world that was way too classy, and $80 tickets and four-drink minimums. I thought that it was for rich people on the Upper East Side.”
Despite singing without the protection of a character, a costume and a score (or alongside a team of designers and technicians who have his back every moment in a musical), he loves it now. And it beats passing the plate, which he did at Webster University and then at the University of Alabama, where he earned his master’s degree in fine arts.
“I’m a guitarist and I’d have friends and we’d get together and do us some trios. And that’s how I got my spending money, passing jars in bars. Rowdy bars,” he adds with a snicker.
Born in 1967, Butz grew up in a large Catholic family and made his Broadway debut before he was 30, replacing Adam Pascal in “Rent.” After getting good notices (and a Tony nod) for a supporting part in the clunker “Thou Shalt Not,” he moved into high-profile roles in “Wicked” (Fiyero), “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (Freddy, opposite John Lithgow’s Lawrence) and “Catch Me If You Can” (Agent Carl Hanratty). The last two portrayals put best-actor Tonys on his shelf.
A father of three girls ranging in age from 15 to almost 2, Butz keeps busy with some interesting fill-in work when he’s not locked into the kids’ schedules. He’s done off-Broadway, notably “The Last Five Years,” and drama, such as “ENRON.” He even replaced Jeremy Piven in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” four years ago, when the ailing actor famously quit, blaming his sushi diet for toxins in his blood. Butz sometimes appears on TV (“The Deep End,” “SMASH”) and in a couple of big-budget films (“Dan in Real Life”), but he also looks for chances to stretch his skills in indie projects, like Vera Farmiga’s applauded “Higher Ground,” in which he played an unsympathetic pastor.
“It’s funny because in the last couple of years I’ve done a lot,” he says. “I think four movies last year are all coming out in the next few months, all independent films like that. You just take the opportunities as they come.”
Here come a couple of biggies. Last week, Butz started rehearsals for Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway comedy, “Dead Accounts,” co-starring Katie Holmes and undoubtedly featuring a pack of stagedoor paparazzi. When that run ends, it’s off to Chicago in March, where he’ll reunite with his “Thou Shalt Not” director, Susan Stroman, for the pre-Broadway tryout of “Big Fish,” a musical based on the 2003 fantasy film.
“I play the character going from his teenage years until old age,” says Butz of the part of Ed Bloom, portrayed on screen by Albert Finney. “I don’t know quite how we’re going to do that, but it will definitely be a challenge. A great, great acting challenge.”
The guy who often hikes in South Mountain Reservation when he’s not treading the boards also had this to say:
On being a troubadour:
“There’s nothing more terrifying than standing on a stage as yourself. … for different roles you have to sing in character, you have to add a quality to the voice or a dialect to the singing. The last musical I did, ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ I was playing a beleaguered, repressive, middle-aged man who would hate singing in a musical. And so the singing had to be very restrained. I couldn’t let go with big, beautiful high notes. … When it’s just you and the music, there’s really nothing to hide behind.”
On Andrew Lippa’s score to “Big Fish”:
“Andrew Lippa is my current hero. It’s a beautiful score. Without giving away too much … most of it takes place in Alabama and I spent so much time down there. Most of my 20s were in Alabama. … It’s Broadway music, but it has at least one toe in traditional Southern music.”
On teaching at Drew University:
“I’d love to do it again. … That was a tough semester because I was doing (the Mark Twain comedy) ‘Is He Dead?’ and so I would teach until 5 and then run to the train and barely make it to the theater by 6:45.”
On his work for the Voices and Faces Project, which benefits survivors of sexual violence. (In 2009, Butz’s sister, Teresa, was murdered in her Seattle-area home while he was in that city on an out-of-town tryout.)
“They do incredible work. My family has definitely become involved in helping them whenever we could. I’m doing a concert in St. Louis, which is my hometown and obviously my sister’s hometown, so right after I finish ‘Big Fish’ in Chicago I’m doing a benefit concert at a beautiful theater (Sheldon Concert Hall) to raise money for that organization. That’s going to be a great night.”
On living in New Jersey:
“I’m like a lot of Essex County people, a lot of us are from the city. There’s a huge population here that you have your first child in Brooklyn or Park Slope or someplace like that, then you have a second kid and it’s straight on to Jersey because you can’t afford that second bedroom. So I kind of came kicking and screaming. And I have become a true convert.
“This summer for the first time I went down to Long Beach Island and just loved it. By bypassing New York City you can get to all points so much easier from where we are. … Because we can be in the city in 40 minutes, but we can also be in the Poconos.”
“An Evening with Norbert Leo Butz” features the singer backed by a four-piece band and joined by vocalist Caroline McMahon. The 8 p.m. concert is presented as part of the 11th annual Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Tickets are $25-$50, (973) 313-ARTS (2787). SOPAC is at 1 SOPAC Way in South Orange.