Norbert Leo Butz never spent much time alone.
The seventh of 11 children, he went from a full-to-the-gills childhood home to the bustling backstages of Broadway, his career wrenching forward at a dizzying tilt from the moment he made his debut in RENT, replacing original star Adam Pascal.
In the 25 years since his debut, he's tacked on ten additional Broadway shows (including Wicked, Catch Me If You Can, Big Fish, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), originated the lead in one of the most impactful Off-Broadway musicals of the 2000s (The Last Five Years), and brought home 2 Tony awards, making him one of only nine performers to pull off a double Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical win.
Then, the wheels came off the bus.
"It was such an isolating time," Butz recalls, thinking back to the laborious months he spent trapped in a Canadian hotel room at the beginning of the pandemic. Out of the country on a filming shoot when lockdown descended, Butz spent seven months strictly locked away by Health Canada, unable to see his wife or three daughters back in the States. Quarantine was rigorously enforced, and for what felt like a lifetime, Butz was alone, with only a small piano tucked in the corner to keep him sane.
By the time he was released across the border and into the loving arms of his family, an idea had been born. "There's something particularly isolating about performing just by yourself. I'd started playing a lot more piano during my quarantine and in isolation, and I'd take a group of songs, and actually play them, just as myself. Just as a challenge for me artistically." With a little bit of refinement, the idea of isolated artistry turned into Butz's newest concert engagement, with a new record to boot. "I wanted to share a really good collection of songs, performing all my own arrangements. No barriers."
The song list varies widely, from classical Italian arias to Bruce Springsteen, tracking the musical evolution of Butz's life up to this point. "This idea of reconnecting with the piano...it was the instrument that I played when I was a kid, and that I was real serious about. I spent a lot of time thinking about my early teachers, and it led to this rediscovery of how I fell in love with music in the first place."
Butz originally trained as a classical pianist, studying under a strict teacher who had little patience for Butz's increasing interest in popular music. "I'd start playing some Chopin étude in the key of F, and that'd bleed right into my favorite Fleetwood Mac song. I'd get in trouble during my lessons for improvising." After a particularly dramatic butting of the heads over Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks" (which young Butz interpreted as a literal suicide song), he transitioned from piano to vocal lessons.
He never lost his taste for musical reinvention, however. While isolated in Canada, the lyrics to Dolly Parton's beloved theme song "9 to 5" hit his ear anew, inspiring him to reimagine the track in the vein of the great 1960's protest songs.
"When I heard the song, the kind of pop/happy version of it, I had just read an article about what raising the minimum wage would do for poverty in this country," Butz remembers, his voice softening. "It got me thinking about essential workers, and the 9 to 5 workers struggling to stay alive. With those heavier themes in my mind, I found a minor key version of the song that really reframed the lyric: I think Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton are every bit the lyricists that Stephen Sondheim was."
This reframing of Parton's classic is, in many ways, Butz's offering to the ongoing labor strikes happening across the country. "Coming out of the pandemic, with massive corporations making insane profits off the labors of union workers, I think people are finally standing up. Writers, actors, auto workers, teachers, we learned in the pandemic that the people who who benefited the most were major corporations. Everyone was streaming during the pandemic, so Netflix, Hulu, Apple, all saw massive, massive profits. I am a proud union member, and this song seemed to perfectly articulate what's at stake."
In his live shows, Butz begins at the piano, soloing his way through his classical lessons and the records he inherited from his older siblings before leaving the bench, switching to two guitars he has tuned in the back. This portion of the show changes regularly, with a variety of special guests joining Butz to symbolize his return to community after his isolation.
When Butz played his first live show at 54 Below on October 2, he was startled to find an absence of nerves. "It was to my shock that I was not nervous. I usually have tremendous stage fright. I think a lot of the jitters were alleviated because when I put together cabaret acts, I'm hiring a band, I'm hiring a piano player, I'm hiring a music director, I'm hiring the backup singers, and I don't really have any control over how well they're going to do. I've always worked with great people, but there's always a risk. With this, even if it went badly, I was at the steering wheel. I am the steering wheel in the show."
The lessons Butz has learned in both physical and artistic isolation were hard won. "There's a lot of room for error when performing my own instrumentation. You can sacrifice emotion by trying to be too technically perfect. You can sacrifice musicality by being too emotional. There's a sweet spot, and frankly, I'm still working on it every time I perform," Butz laughs lightly. "I've always liked a real holistic kind of performing, where my whole body, my whole mind, my whole heart, is being used. I'm not the greatest piano player, and I'm certainly not the greatest guitarist. I'm not even the greatest singer. I'm not the greatest of anything. But there is something, even with the imperfections and the mistakes that I may make, that's empowering about doing it alone."
Butz pauses for a moment before continuing on. "I'll be honest, I was talking to my shrink. And I was saying, after the show, 'Oh god, I played that all bunched; I bungled those lyrics. But there were like four moments that were really transcendent for me'. And I'll take those four moments, with all the mistakes and all the imperfections. They're the payoff, and I only find them when I really put myself on the line."
Butz's new album King of Hearts (which he co-wrote with his eldest daughter) is available now. His live show, Torch Songs for a Pandemic, continues at 54 Below through November 5. To learn more, visit 54Below.com.