He began his career on the local high school stage and is now an award-winning Broadway star. Since his early days growing up in South St. Louis, Norbert Leo Butz has found great success on Broadway, as well as in film and television. Even with a busy schedule that includes the lead role in next month’s world premiere of Big Fish in Chicago, Butz remains close to his roots. In May, he will return to St. Louis to headline a benefit concert for The Angel Band Project, a nonprofit that uses music to encourage healing and empathy for survivors of sexual violence. The Angel Band Project was created following the murder of Butz’s sister, Teresa Butz, in 2009. With the first show on May 8 at The Sheldon sold out, a second show has been added for May 9 at the 560 Music Center. Recently, Butz took a few minutes to speak with Ladue News about his career and the concert.
When did you discover you wanted to be in the entertainment world?
I grew up in a big musical family of singers—the seventh of 11 children—so music was always in my house. While at DuBourg, I got active in the plays—Jim Leibrecht has done such a great job with the theater program there. Then my older brothers got me wise to the fact that if you could sing, you could get a role in a play at Cor Jesu. There were 75 girls and about two guys in those productions, so there were tons of opportunities to meet girls—basically my only priority in those years.
When it came time for college, Tommy Nolan at Cor Jesu encouraged me to audition for the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University. It was my time at Webster when I made that transition from hobby to thinking of entertainment as a potential career. While there, Steven Woolf gave me a couple opportunities to appear in productions at The Rep. That was a huge confidence-booster for me—he really gave me a shot. In terms of building the foundation, my career was made in St. Louis.
Can you pinpoint a big break in your career?
No, I don’t think there really was, which I’m happy about. I seem to be able to scrounge up work and people seem to hire me enough to where I can build some kind of life for myself and my family. After Webster, I went to graduate school at The University of Alabama and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival before moving to New York City. I decided a long time ago that the goal was to remain employed and not worry about things like celebrity or wealth because that’s very fleeting.
You’ve won two Tonys for your work in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can. What did the recognition mean for you?
I remain hugely proud of those awards—they were for shows I dearly love—but I think that people have a misconception of the award culture. People think that you get some hardware under your belt and the rest of your career is laid out before you. That’s just not the truth. You still have to work hard to find that next job.
You’ve had more roles in TV and films recently. Do you enjoy those roles or Broadway more?
I am raising three girls in New Jersey right now, and I am smart enough to know not to turn up my nose at any quality work that comes my way. New York theater has been really great because it allows me to be home and raise a family. Having said that, I love doing films, particularly independent films because their short shooting schedules don’t take me away from home for long.
Next, you will take on the starring role in Big Fish.
I’m just giddy about this one. It’s a great show with an amazing story based on the Tim Burton film, a beautiful score and fantastic director. In the movie, my character was played by two actors—Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor—and in the musical, I play both roles. It’s a huge challenge and I’m thrilled with it.
What has your family’s reaction been to your career and success?
I think they’re really proud. I’m from a big, Catholic, South St. Louis German-Irish family and we’re really close, so there’s a lot of pride and also a lot of humility. My brothers don’t let me get away with much in terms of thinking I’m a big deal or anything.
What do you miss about St. Louis?
My life is very busy with my family and work, but we come back here every summer for an extended visit. I love coming home. Sometimes I get a craving for Ted Drewes so strong, I think I need to go into a 12-step program. And when the Cardinals were in the World Series, I would have given anything to feel that spirit you feel in St. Louis when the whole city comes together. I miss that.
How important is The Angel Band Project?
The organization was created by my sister’s two best friends, Rachel Ebeling and Jean Fox. They grew up together and remained best friends until the day she died. While we were trying to process the shock of her loss, we came together to do a lot of singing at her funeral mass. Rachel and Jean got the idea that they wanted to share this kind of therapy that the music seemed to offer, and made a CD to capture that moment. Since then, they have grown the nonprofit, became active on the national level and educated themselves about sexual violence against women and how music may be able to help. The money that the concert will raise will help create a music therapy program for survivors of sexual assault.
What is your hope for these concerts?
I’m putting together a great band of local and New York musicians, and we’ll do some songs from the original record—songs that my sister loved and songs that I think she’d love. But it’s not going to be a depressing show—we’re bringing a couple nights of really inspirational, soulful, celebratory music. We’ll try to do things that spread hope because for survivors, that’s what they’re trying to hold onto. For survivors of sexual violence and their families, it’s such a seismic shift in your view of the world and it can be incredibly isolating, so a night of music about unity and hope is a gift we can give them.