For theater lovers, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott are as iconic a duo as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, PB&J, or Ethel Merman and things coming up roses.
The award-winning performers are perhaps best known to audiences as the original Jamie and Cathy in the Off Broadway production (and corresponding cast recording) of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. The cross-cut tale of a relationship coming together and falling apart will have been in heavy rotation on any musical theater lover’s playlist over the last two decades.
While that show brought Scott and Butz to a new level in their friendship, they actually met a few years prior, when they both were replacements in the Broadway cast of Rent. There, they launched a working relationship and planted the seeds of a friendship that would carry them across 23 years and all life’s ups and downs, including marriage, divorce, loss and more. That unique bond has now become fodder for their original musical collaboration Twohander, which will play Feinstein’s/54 Below July 9-28, having already completing a sold-out run there earlier this spring.
Butz originally floated the idea as a more traditional cabaret evening of classic duets from Broadway, rock, country, and more, but Scott wanted to do something more unconventional. “She emailed me back and said, ‘I’d love to do something, but I don’t want to do something boring like that. I’d want to do something far more interesting,’” Butz tells EW. “And so we started to talk about this long relationship we’ve had.”
The result is something Scott calls “a play with music” that dramatizes and explores the vagaries of their long friendship and professional working relationship, which has spanned from Rent to The Last Five Years to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. “This was really, a really deep investigation into a workplace relationship that I think anybody can relate to, whether they’ve seen theater or know us or don’t know us,” Scott says. “The goal was that anybody could come to this show and understand the difficult conversations we’re all having in this world right now about the dynamics between men and women in the workplace environment. Our show is surprising in that way, in that we really investigate that. And the music was chosen based on how it would serve and further the story.”
In advance of their return to the stage as a duo, EW called up Butz and Scott to talk about what initially drew them to each other, why their friendship has survived so long, and how vulnerable and terrifying it is to mine the most personal parts of their lives for storytelling.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: From the beginning, what was it that clicked with you two or made your working relationship stand out compared to others you’ve had?
SHERIE RENE SCOTT: When we first met, it was in a filthy alley at a Broadway theater, and Norbert was dressed in his squeegee man costume, so I just thought he was a gay street urchin.
NORBERT LEO BUTZ: She thought she was safe because she thought I was gay.
SCOTT: Then it turned out definitely not.
BUTZ: All right, all right.
SCOTT: He was a really good actor, and I loved going on with him. We were both outcasts because we were new to the show. We liked the same kind of music, and we just bonded over humor.
BUTZ: She knows a lot of dirty jokes, and they made me laugh.
SCOTT: I just really respected him, and I felt that he respected me. We liked the way each other worked. That was the most important thing, so when we met up later and had the chance to work together [again], that’s when we really became closer friends.
What made you two want to delve into your 23-year working relationship and friendship on stage?
BUTZ: She promised she would clean my house for the next year.
SCOTT: Clean your clock.
BUTZ: Ba-doom. There’s no one in New York City that I like to sing with more than Sherie. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with her again. We hadn’t worked together in a long time. It was a bucket list thing for me. The last few summers I’d gone to Feinstein’s/54 Below and done my own show there. Sherie’s written a couple of shows that she’s performed there. I just had this dream of doing something together… There’s not another performer like Sherie for me. We’ve done three major productions together, but a lot of concerts and benefits and recordings and readings. We know each other’s tricks better than anybody. We can’t really get away with a lot of B.S. with each other.
SCOTT: Which is so aggravating because you want to get away with it.
BUTZ: [It’s been] 23 years since we’ve met. We’ve become parents; now we have teenage children. We’ve been through all the ups and downs that life takes you through in adulthood, and so singing these songs again with that lens and through that experience has just been really, really fulfilling. Profound even, for me. It’s just been a really cool project.
How did you go about selecting the songs for this? We can assume we’re going to get numbers from some of your best-known shows, but what else can we expect?
SCOTT: Well, we knew we had to hit certain points. We had to hit some songs from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Last Five Years, and we wanted to surprise people with some other shows they might not know we’ve done. But most importantly, we wanted to tell a story that people could relate to. We actually chose the songs based on the trajectory of the story that Norbert so graciously allowed me to write about both of our lives together. It was a lot more time than just getting together and working what songs we like; this was really, a really deep investigation into a workplace relationship. Before I knew it, Norbert and Todd, our musical director, told me, “Oh, you’re writing a play with music.” And I kept saying, “No I’m not. It’s going to be really easy, guys.” And of course —
BUTZ: It wasn’t.
SCOTT: They had to come in many more hours and read through things. It’s not like anything anybody’s ever seen. I have experience with wanting to tell a story and sing songs, but now we’re doing it together. People watch us going through our relationship actively, not just talking about it. Theatricalizing it can help the audience.
When picking music and crafting the story you wanted to tell, did you have a guiding principle in mind?
BUTZ: This is the first time someone has ever written something so close to my life, and I have to admit that I kept chickening out. We would rehearse, and it would start to get really exciting the way we were putting together these memories. Sherie was crafting them into scenes, and then we were finding this music, and I’d go home thinking, “There’s no way I can do this.” She very gently kept promising me that parts of ourselves would be protected. But this really interesting thing started to happen where we found out we could dramatize things that didn’t actually happen but were more true than what really happened. There’s this interesting thing when you’re doing theater: If you were to put what really happened in life up there, it’s strangely boring. But when you take the truth of what’s going on and you find a way to shape and craft it into a story, we could get some distance from it and that allowed me to keep on staying brave… She can make extremely painful, difficult conversations very, very funny. The audience gets a little medicine, but they get it with a lot of sugar.
SCOTT: Even though the character’s names are Norbert and Sherie —
BUTZ: That’s just a coincidence.
SCOTT: We wanted to make the audience realize very soon in, it really wasn’t about us. I can’t stress that enough. It becomes a universal story very fast. That was important to me to create, so that Norbert and I would feel like we were completely true and honest, but we were also playing characters or versions of ourselves.
Do you have a favorite song to sing together?
BUTZ: We don’t want to give away any of the set list, but I will say that singing this stuff again with her from Last Five Years has been extra-special. I’m trying to convince Sherie at some point to do Sweeney Todd with me. She’s not quite on board yet. She actually has an idea of doing A Streetcar Named Desire, only she would play Stanley.
SCOTT: I do have to say this is how special The Last Five Years and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and all of our work together has been. We haven’t sang anything from Last Five Years together in public for 15 years. Those shows were so special, and now we’ve created something special enough to have them in again.
A big part of being an artist is being vulnerable and sharing parts of yourself with audiences, but does it feel like this show is the most vulnerable or personal you’ve ever been?
BUTZ: Yeah, it does. I would be lying if I said it didn’t. I wrestled with that. It didn’t feel great to perform for awhile. Right now I feel really good about it, but it’s definitely been a process.
SCOTT: [A process] of how to make the audience feel safe right away that we’re not doing therapy in front of you. It’s very funny and entertaining, but both of us know our feelings toward each other and what we’ve been through.
BUTZ: We’ve been friends for 23 years. Marriages and deaths and kids and divorces, it’s all a part of the whole thing.
SCOTT: I’m the opposite. I felt much more vulnerable on stage in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I felt much more exposed and insecure onstage in that. But I think vulnerability is strength nowadays. We have to deal with this intimacy issue: What is intimacy? How do we get it in our lives? We crave it. And when it’s not an appropriate time for it, how do we deal with that too?
BUTZ: [We’re in] a business where there’s so much forced intimacy. You could be on a movie set and within two days be lying naked with this total stranger. Or acting a scene that is emotionally violent or having to do physical comedy that is extremely intimate. As actors, we tend to bypass really important conversations. Acting in general, is unique in that, but I’m maybe finding out it’s not as unique as I thought.
SCOTT: When you’re in an insurance office for the same people six to eight hours a day and you see them more hours than you do your family, [there’s an intimacy there]. I’ve met everybody that I’ve ever loved or been in a relationship with in my workplace, so I don’t want to be there a world where that doesn’t happen. So, how do we do it well? How do we do it with respect? One of the journeys of this play with music is that these characters are learning how to do that with love and respect. I’m hoping that’s a prescient issue, but also it’s funny. It is kind of ripe for comedy. All of these kind of absurd, embarrassing, humiliating situations I can put us in are funny. That’s the goal.
Your most famous show together is The Last Five Years, and Jason Robert Brown has been very open about the fact that his first marriage and divorce inspired the show. Were you surprised he was willing to open himself up that much to this level of scrutiny in a sense? Is that something you’ve carried with you, and why you chose to do a show this vulnerable now?
SCOTT: Honestly, Norbert was tricked into doing it because I said we would write something that was honest and true, but I know that if he, or even I as the writer, had any idea that it was going to be as on-the-edge [we wouldn’t have done it]. Nobody wants to go recount their lives in front of people. don’t want to do a monologue about what happened, so there’s a lot of craft that goes into reshaping something. People want to hear a Last Five Years song. We want to surprise them in how it’s recontextualized and where it’s placed. On the other hand, if I didn’t know [Norbert] was capable of so much, I wouldn’t have been able to write this. I wouldn’t even have thought of writing it, honestly. Norbert can do anything. It opened me up as a writer and definitely opened our hearts up. But I do feel that the vulnerability that we show is well-crafted enough that there’s enough space between us and the people that we’re playing on stage that makes us feel comfortable and the audience feel very comfortable.
BUTZ: I would just say that any work that’s worth your time has to come at a little bit of a cost to the artist, to the actor, to the writer. The only work I really like to see is when the writer is revealing something. I actually think that that’s what makes something valuable, is it has to come at a little bit of a cost.
SCOTT: There’s got to be some tears and some sweat.
This interview has been edited and condensed.