Norbert Leo Butz gives a star turn in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” Newsweek has already proclaimed “A Star: No Ifs, Ands or Butz.” And Gotham’s three dailies weigh in as well with laudatory profiles before the March 3 preem. Butz definitely delivers.
But will Broadway?
The key question is whether Broadway itself can create bonafide stars or whether actors need the imprimatur from film and TV to turn them into real celebrities.
Legit critics often wonder where all the musical talent has gone.
“There’s plenty of talent around,” says John Kander. “Karen Ziemba, Marin Mazzie, Brent Barrett. Those performers would have been able to bankroll a Broadway show in the 1950s.”
Gone, says the “Chicago” and “Cabaret” composer, is the national media apparatus and the kind of personality-centric tuners that turned Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and Carol Channing into stars 50 or 60 years ago. In the more recent epoch of Kander and Fred Ebb, the legendary team wrote only two shows specifically for a star: “The Act” (1977) for Liza Minnelli and “Woman of the Year” (1981) for Lauren Bacall.
“The trend is toward ensemble musicals, not star-driven vehicles,” says Susan Stroman, who gave Butz his first major Broadway job in 2001’s “Thou Shalt Not.”
The director-choreographer points to two recent exceptions who prove the rule. “Nathan Lane as Max Bialystock drives ‘The Producers.’ Same thing with Hugh Jackman in ‘The Boy From Oz,’ ” Stroman says. “That kind of show is very rare today.”
Much more common is the tuner redux, which is how most performers nowadays cut their chops. Before “The Producers,” Lane’s previous musical work was mainly in revivals, and although he won a Tony for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 1996, there were the inevitable genuflections to the role’s originator, Zero Mostel.
Those comparisons dogged him right up to the Gotham premiere of “The Producers,” then disappeared overnight.
“I can’t think of a single star who made a major reputation by doing revivals,” says “Scoundrels” director Jack O’Brien. “There might be the odd one who scored well. But the first time you see Stanley Kowalski or Gypsy, that is the standard. That’s what makes a star.”
At least, it used to be.
Back in the 1950s, Time put 11 Broadway stars on its covers, all for originating bravura roles. Today’s media, obviously, look elsewhere for coverboys and -girls.
“There’s just so much more competition today from rock, cable and celebrities like Paris Hilton,” says Jess Cagle, a senior editor at People who also covered the entertainment scene for Time and Entertainment Weekly.
None of those mags will be putting Butz on its cover, even though “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is that rare vehicle, tailor-made to showcase an actor’s unique talents.
For Butz, his “Scoundrels” moment started rolling four years ago when Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek saw him in the Grand Guignol tuner “Thou Shalt Not.” The book writer and lyricist-composer were collaborating on their screwball con-artist caper and somehow found their muse in Butz, who played a very sexy ghost.
“In act two, Norbert had this big number, ‘Ain’t That Sweet,’ ” Jeffrey Lane recalls. “There was a life about him. Since Steve Martin played the Freddy role in the film version, we considered some standup comics from ‘Saturday Night Live.’ But we needed an actorand one who could sing.”
Most shows are lucky to deliver one showstopper. Lane and Yazbek may have written four for Butz. His first number, “Great Big Stuff,” is, in legit parlance, the hero’s “I want” song, which drives the engine of any successful musical.
There are also the comic duets “Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True” and “Love Is My Legs,” sung with leading lady Sherie Rene Scott, with whom Butz co-starred in Off Broadway’s underrated two-hander “The Last Five Years” in 2002.Much more audacious is the “Scoundrels” centerpiece “All About Ruprecht,” which pairs John Lithgow and Butz, who offers the kind of gross-out humor that has propelled Ben Stiller to film stardom.
Broadway is not the local cineplex, and it will be interesting to see if theater critics, with their refined sensibilities, get the joke or reach for the barf bag.
Fortunately, not only does Butz already have editors at Newsweek and the Gotham dailies in his corner, but “The Late Show With David Letterman” is weighing an offer for him to sing “Great Big Stuff.” He may get there in less time than it took Nathan Lane, who couldn’t get booked on Letterman until he co-hosted the Tonys telecast in 1995. Despite a 14-year career on Broadway, Lane wasn’t considered funny enough or famous enough — until he appeared on the Tonycast. The booker’s phone call came the next day, leading to a long run of guest appearances.
In the end, today’s Broadway producers may not really, really like stars. Economics dictate that they market a tuner’s story rather than its stars, who are here today but often gone before the show recoups a year or two later. As one lyricist points out, ” ‘The Boy From Oz’ closed when Hugh Jackman left. But the ‘Phantom’ mask lives on and on.”