Spotlight On

by Nancy Rosati     

(part two)

NR:  How long did it take you to come to New York?

NLB:  I didnít come to New York until I was 28. Iíve only been here 5 years. I did a BFA and then I did regional theater for five years or so. I worked at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Then I received an MFA at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. They have a two year MFA program. I completed that in Ď93 and then the artistic director asked me to stay on in the Equity Company, which I did. Theyíre a very rare company in the country. There are only two or three others that are doing a year round full season of classical plays in rep. They have great weather and wonderful patrons down there. I was just going to be a regional theater actor. I got married and was going to settle down but I decided that before I turned 30 I would get to New York.

NR:  And you went from there to Rent.

Norbert and Marcy Harriell in Rent
Norbert and Marcy Harriell in Rent

NLB:  (laughs) Yes. I went from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to Rent.

NR:  Did you have that job already when you came to New York?

NLB:  No. I got it about one month after I moved here. When I moved up here it was my wife and me in our old beat up Saab with a 5 by 8 U-Haul, dragging our asses through the mountains of North Carolina with a ďNew York or BustĒ sign in the back window. We laugh about it now. We scraped the bottom of the car in the Blue Ridge Mountains and were stranded.

We sublet in Queens. My wife had a job so we did have some income. I was familiar with Rent and I have to say it was a real confidence booster for me. I came up to New York right after the show had opened and saw it during opening week. I looked at that show and said, ďI can do this.Ē I just knew I could. Even though Iíd been on stage in plays a lot, Iíd been singing in bar bands and rock bands with my guitar. Thatís how I supported myself through graduate school. When I came up and I saw that show, I thought, ďThatís it!Ē Before that, I didnít think Broadway and me were a logical combination at all. It was my first professional musical role. When we moved up I was lucky. I wanted to get an audition but I didnít know how. I was singing in a benefit Off Broadway for a friendís theater company and one of the publicists for Rent was there, out of something like 80 people who were watching that night. He got me in. They were in need of an understudy at the time.

NR:  I believe you started as a swing?

NLB:  Yeah. That was my favorite time in that show, being a swing.

NR:  How many roles did you cover?

NLB:  I covered six parts including the two leads and a lot of times I would do both leads on the same day. I did that almost every weekend.

NR:  How did you do that? That must be so hard.

NLB:  You know what? It was the most natural thing in the world to me. I had come from six years of repertory theater where we were sometimes running four plays at one time. I have a really short attention span. I think I have undiagnosed ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun for me. I wasnít sitting in the green room all the time. I was constantly on and constantly having to create characters in the moment. You donít have a lot of rehearsal time. They slap a costume on you, you learn the blocking and you go out there. I found that a great challenge.

NR:  Then you got the part of Roger.

NLB:  I was a swing for ten months and then I played Roger for a year.

NR:  How was that?

NLB:  It was great but I missed the other parts. I missed playing Mark. I did Mark 50 or 60 times. I missed ďthe Squeegee Man.Ē I missed playing Gordon. I found that singing that loud rock belt became a real drain on me emotionally and physically after awhile. It was my first experience of a long run in a part. I had to have surgery on my knee. I turned 30 that year so I started to think, ďIím getting too old for this.Ē

NR:  Did you take time off for the surgery before you went into Cabaret?

Norbert Leo Butz in Cabaret NLB:  Not much. I took six weeks off from Rent and when I finished my contract in that I took a week off and then started rehearsal for the Cabaret tour. I was cast in Cabaret when I was still at Rent.

NR:  Did your wife go with you when you toured with Cabaret?

NLB:  She did, most of the time. We brought our two year old daughter. It was a wonderful experience for her I think. They say that in those first few years the more experiences you can give your kids, the more they have to draw on. She did beautifully. It wasnít like we had one week stops. We had six and eight weeks in any given city. My sister helped to nanny her. It was a really fun year.

NR:  Tell me about The Last Five Years. Youíve been with this project awhile now.

NLB:  Yeah, I love this part. I absolutely love this part. It really haunts me. I canít think of another part in a contemporary musical that is as complex, which is amazing because itís only 83 minutes long, itís a set of songs, and thereís hardly any speaking. I met Jason (Robert Brown) when I was auditioning for Parade. We became socially acquainted after that. He came to me when he was writing this and said, ďIím working on this show. Itís going to be done in Chicago. Weíre not going to make any money but I would love for you to come and do this.Ē I went to his apartment. He played me two of the songs and I had an immediate visceral response to the music in a way that I have never had with any show Iíve ever done, except for maybe Rent. Lyrically he writes very close to the bone. Itís very lean writing and I just responded to it immediately and I said, ďIíll go wherever this is going.Ē We did it in Chicago. We didnít expect it to be here in New York. It was going to be a summer gig and I made $1.50 doing it. I took my kids with me to Chicago for the summer. It was just incredible that it got the response it did. It was extended and we got some great press.

Norbert in The Last Five Years NR:  In Chicago you worked with Lauren Kennedy. Was it difficult to switch and work with Sherie (Rene Scott)?

NLB:  It was hard for about two minutes when she wasnít there the first day of rehearsal. Sherie is so incredible. I am very lucky. They are both wonderfully gifted and they bring very different things to the part.

NR:  Did that make a difference in the way youíre playing it?

NLB:  Not really because the two characters are never really on stage together. Thereís very little interaction with the other person. Because the show is so minimal and because the themes are so universal, the characters are quite universal. There are certain specifications that an actor has to bring to it in terms of ethnicity or age but theyíre really wide open roles.

NR:  Is it difficult because youíre not interacting on stage?

NLB:  Yes. Sherie and I talked about it, and Lauren and I talked about it too. It takes a lot of faith and courage to go out on stage by yourself - just you and an audience and a really strong lyric to tell a really clear story. I do miss having somebody else on stage but thatís the beauty of the piece. It shows two sides of the relationship and by not seeing them together except in one moment, which is a wedding, youíre seeing the love story at a different angle at all times.

Sherie Renee Scott and Norbert in The Last Five Years
With Sherie Renee Scott
NR:  Plus they have a unique way of telling the story.

NLB:  Yes. Thereís a great structural device we use.

NR:  Itís a big responsibility. Half the show is you. Usually you have a whole company up there to back you up.

NLB:  Yeah. Iím terrified. Iíve lost a little bit of sleep. The truth is that I donít feel myself a performer per se. Iím not somebody who just loves to stand in front of a microphone and sell a song. Iím an actor, so I like things like props and other actors. Thereís nowhere to hide here.

NR:  Whatís it like working with Daisy Prince?

NLB:  Sheís a smart, funny chick who comes from a great pedigree, obviously, but thereís no pretense with Daisy. I so respect her for carving her own niche as a director. Sheís her own gal. Her dad (Hal Prince) has come in a couple of times and Iím sure she takes advice from him. She had a very strong visual idea for the show which sheís really followed through on.

NR:  Stepping back since we have a few more minutes, I wanted to touch on Thou Shalt Not. You were really the only cast member who received strongly positive reviews. Was that a little tough for you?

NLB:  I started this policy a couple of years ago where Iím trying not to read reviews. I donít feel like they help an actor in any way, but these really got to me. Someone told me about them and it was a little uncomfortable. I didnít understand how people could be saying I was giving this great performance if the show was such garbage. I donít think itís possible to do really good work in something thatís without value. I didnít just invent it out of air. I had great music, a great director and a really strong character written into that book for me. I didnít just wave a magic wand. I wish the show had been validated more by critics, or at least respected for its originality and its daring.

NR:  Did the backlash surprise you?

NLB:  Yeah. It really did. Thereís nothing else on Broadway this year that comes close to looking like that show. I thought it should have at least gotten credit for originality.

NR:  I simply have to ask you this - What is it with you and rowboats?

NLB:  (big laugh) Iím so nervous about that! Opening night Iím afraid everybody is just going to start cracking up and itís a totally serious moment in this show. To answer your question, I donít know, but I did another play last year Off Broadway called Saved in which I played a boatswain. I wasnít in the boat but I had to drag the boat. Itís a metaphor running through my work.

NR:  (laughing) You havenít done Titanic yet, have you?

NLB:  No, I wasnít in Titanic. I hope I will float and not sink on the boat this time.

NR:  Whatís ahead for you in the future?

NLB:  Just keep on keepiní on. Somebody was asking me last week, ďWhat do you want to do now that people are starting to come to you?Ē I said, ďI just want to do exactly what Iím doing.Ē There have been good parts, important stories and good directors.

NR:  And you have those kids to keep you grounded.

NLB:  Always.

NR:  Thanks Norbert. I hope the show does well.

NLB:  Youíre welcome.

Once again, Norbert has received wonderful reviews and heís obviously a star on the rise. One thingís for sure - people will remember his name.