Now that Norbert Leo Butz is finishing his acclaimed run in My Fair Lady I can let you in on a little secret: he likes to dance backstage. He hasn’t been doing it much lately, but early in the run he would turn up the music in his dressing room, emerge into the backstage hallway, and boogie. Other actors would sometimes join in. Manu Narayan, the production’s original Karpathy, once played along on his saxophone, and Harry Hadden-Paton joined in on more than one occasion. The time I caught this impromptu session I thought: If Henry Higgins could see this he would be absolutely appalled. (And perhaps secretly delighted.)
I had almost forgotten about these pre-show hoedowns until I reached out to My Fair Lady cast members asking them for anecdotes about Butz. Ensemble member SuEllen Estey reminded me that the dancing took place mainly on the weekends, specifically to celebrate what theater folk, bemusedly, call “Saturday Night on Broadway.” Butz has spent hundreds of Saturday nights along the avenue, having appeared in Rent, Wicked, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Tony award), Catch Me If You Can (Tony award), and Big Fish.
On the streets where he has lived in My Fair Lady Butz has been dancing at a clip much more extended than what has occurred backstage. In “With a Little Bit of Luck,” the first of his two numbers, he introduces himself with a brush step, a less-is-more activity whose sweep matches Doolittle’s approach to income-earning work: minimal. The movement has never failed to delight me with its Chaplin-esque splay of feet and precarious sense of balance.
There is nothing minimal about Butz’s second number, the unfailingly show-stopping “Get Me To the Church on Time.” Each time I have watched it I have been, like Doolittle is eventually by the ensemble, carried away. If Butz brings to “Luck” a dustman’s gentle brush, to “Church” he brings a full, wide sweep: the dustman’s broom. Butz is not the cast’s tallest man but by dint of his talent he becomes the biggest force on that stage. As he stands on the number’s small table he imparts a sense of abandon, even danger. The number has the most thrilling build at the Beaumont since Christopher Gattelli, the My Fair Lady choreographer, staged “Nothing Like a Dame” here ten years ago for South Pacific.
Butz’s success comes not only from talent but also from hard work. Ensemble member Kate Marilley gave an example from the production’s rehearsal period last February. She and Butz were working with Gattelli and associate choreographer Mark Myars on “Church.” Marilley remembered: “Norbert and I basically had to learn how to do this tricky hat toss in mirror image of each other, since I was the female groom matching his ‘groom tux.’ Our awesome hat trick was cut in the middle of previews but in rehearsals we would just stare at each other and do the hat trick every day until we felt we had it. It definitely was a bonding experience and he taught me a lot about perseverance and focus.” Marilley added that it was “such a blast working with him for the first eight months of My Fair Lady!”
Other cast members expressed similar sentiments, which is why Butz, to put it mildly, will be missed.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com