Norbert Leo Butz: A Touch of Twain

By: Oct. 10, 2007
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Very rarely does an opportunity come along for an actor to delight in something old and something new at the same time.  New York stage mega-man, Norbert Leo Butz - already with a slew of original roles under his belt - gets that very honor in Is He Dead? a newly discovered and adapted Mark Twain play, heading to Broadway's Lyceum Theatre in November.

In it, Butz portrays real-life (yet fictionalized) French realist painter, Jean-Francois Millet, who - with his conning friends - finds himself in a plot to fake his own death in order to raise the prices of his art.'s own News Desk Editor, Eugene Lovendusky, chatted with Butz early Wednesday morning to learn more about this upcoming satire and the joy of originating another role - this time in his first Broadway play…

Eugene Lovendusky: Good morning and thanks for starting your day with and congratulations on this exciting new project you have in front of you.  How does it feel to be coming back to Broadway in this entirely new piece of work?

Norbert Leo Butz: It feels great.  I've been looking a play to do for a while, so it's real exciting for me to do my first play on Broadway.

Eugene: Yeah! Tell us a little bit about Is He Dead? and your character, Jean-Francois Millet, and how he fits into the equation.

Norbert: It's the story of an artist who is trying to sell his work in France in 1840.  Without giving too much away, he and three other starving-artist types concoct a plot to drive up the prices of his paintings.  They realize that paintings go up in value as artists die, so they actually fake his death - and hopefully hilarity ensues.

Eugene: I'm sure the play is very different - but it sounds like Jean-Francois' motives aren't a far-cry from your money-swindling Freddy…

Norbert: It's a little different in that Jean-Francois is a little more innocent. The plot is hatched by the character Michael McGrath is playing.  At first, I'm sort of an unwilling participant in this con.  He's not nearly as confident as Freddy was [laughs].

Eugene: Mark Twain isn't exactly known for creating one-dimensional characters.  I'm sure, even for a satirical comedy, Jean-Francois is wrapped in some pretty deep layers of literature.  What kind of homework did you have to do for this role?

Norbert: You know, Jean-Francois is a real figure.  He was a painter - he was a pretty famous French realist and the play takes great liberties with his life. He actually had great success toward the end of his career; as opposed to how Twain interprets him as being this sort of failed kind of artist. He was wildly popular in his lifetime and he never faked his own death to drive up the price of his paintings. They actually sold for tons of money at the time. He was also happily married, had a bunch of kids… none of which are in the play. So Twain takes great liberties with this guy's life.  It didn't really behoove me to sort of study this guy as "real-life" because we're doing a completely fictionalized version of his life.  I don't know if it's considered homework or not, but I've spent a better part of this summer reading as much Mark Twain as I can - which has been great fun.  Like most people, I kind of was limited in my knowledge of Mark Twain. Required reading for freshman year English.  He actually wrote prodigiously his whole life.  It's been fun.

Eugene: I'll bet.  To speak plainly, you've been one hell of a lucky guy when it comes to originating roles.  I mean as far back as Jamie in The Last Five Years, Fiyero in Wicked, Freddy in Dirty Rotten... and now you can add Mark Twain to your repertoire.  What's it like to create a character from scratch?

Norbert: Those were all written by really good writers - the script is your blue-print. If it's well-written, you can't really do anything that's not already there. The work that the actor does doesn't really start until it's on the page. And if it's not on the page then it can't go on the stage. You know, I never set out to only do original work… that's just sort of the way it happened! There are definitely classic roles that I'd love to take a stab at some day. But I do like this process. I like for there to be a writer in the room and collaborate on dialogue and to give an opinion on something as tiny as a word here, or the structure of a scene. That's a lot of fun - I very much enjoy that collaborative process.

Eugene: Along this process, you're sharing stage with some very impressive people. Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, David Pittu, just to name a few.  How are you all working together?

Norbert: Right now? So far so good [laughs] unless people are keeping their claws hidden. It's just the loveliest group of people. Everybody is just fantastic, I think it's really special actually.  There's just this ease. Everybody's really good, so nobody has to try to impress anyone! [laughs] Except for me.  Everyone sort of knows why they're there and it is a great, great group of really funny actors.

Eugene: This coming Broadway season is providing a lot of musical theatre actors, like yourself, a chance to stretch their legs on Broadway with a play.  Why is it important for you to be involved in a straight play?

Norbert: For me… I'm ready to give my voice a break for a while.  It's been pretty much eight or nine straight years of doing a lot of really aggressive singing.  That kind of singing has a statute of limitations on it… you're going to blow it out too soon too quickly.  I ready to not have to sing. I had done only plays in regional theatre for years before coming to New York.   For me, this feels actually more comfortable.  Rent was my first musical and it put me into this casting pool of Broadway pop singers.  I think you can go further in a play, sometimes, in terms of character-development.  It's rare to find a musical that has the same three-dimensional characters in it; there are very few roles that allow that.

Eugene: At this point in the rehearsal process, what are you proud of and what challenges lie ahead? What are you excited about?

Norbert: Hmm… I'll be honest.  At this point in the rehearsal process, I'm terrified! [laughs] There is so much work ahead of us.  And we're just starting to surface. But I'm very excited about the possibility that we could make a really funny, really artful comedy.  We've got the right director. We've got the right cast.

Eugene: It looks like you've got one interesting project ahead of you.  I, personally, look forward to it - and break a leg.  I'm sure a lot of fans of yours are going to look forward to this new show as well and I really appreciate you waking up to chat with BroadwayWorld. Have a great day!

Norbert: You too. Thanks a lot.

Is He Dead? by Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Michael Blakemore, will open on November 29, 2007 at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street). Previews begin November 8.

Tickets ($25-$97) are on-sale now at or visit

Norbert Leo Butz stars opposite Jeremy Bobb, Marylouise Burke, Patricia Conolly, Jenn Gambatese, Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, John McMartin, David Pittu, Bridget Regan and Tom Alan Robbins.