Norbert Leo Butz on the economic and social relevance of ‘My Fair Lady’

Actor Norbert Leo Butz has done well playing fraudsters, losers and loafers, having won two Tony Awards for his performances in the musicals “Catch Me If You Can” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” This month, he was nominated for a Best Featured Actor in a Musical Tony for his latest, lively performance as Alfred P. Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish revival of “My Fair Lady.”

The production, which opened at New York’s Vivian Beaumont Theater last month, is the latest version of Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion.” The cast includes Lauren Ambrose, Harry Hadden-Paton and Dame Diana Rigg, and the show has attracted much talk for director Bartlett Sher’s emphasis on making Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, the equal of her elocution teacher Professor Henry Higgins. In doing so, the show chimes with the current #MeToo movement.

Away from the stage, Butz, 51 years old, played “black sheep” Kevin Rayburn in Netflix’s acclaimed family drama series “Bloodline.” He has also shown a tendency to star in finance-themed dramas such as playing disgraced Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling in the ill-fated Broadway production of “Enron,” and playing Gordon Getty, son of oil-tycoon billionaire J. Paul Getty, in Danny Boyle’s drama series “Trust” on FX Networks

MarketWatch asked Butz about “Bloodline” and “My Fair Lady” in a recent interview.

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MarketWatch: You’re no stranger to doing musicals. What attracted you to doing “My Fair Lady”?

I‘ve done musicals before but this is my first musical revival. I wanted to try that and I wanted to work with Bartlett Sher. The role was so good, it was a no-brainer.

Do you think “My Fair Lady” contains economic lessons for audiences?

The piece is all about class and gender. It’s through the lens of an Edwardian writer obviously, George Bernard Shaw, but there are lessons we can glean about political systems that dictate who people are before they’ve had a chance to self-identify. That’s a universal thing.

You seem attracted to acting in stage and on TV in finance-centric dramas. Do you enjoy that theme?

Very much so. The business world is performative as well. It’s very theatrical. There’s ritual, there are power struggles, backroom plots. The subject is rife with theater. The two worlds complement each other.

How did you find out you were nominated for a Tony?

I was dead asleep. I got woken up by the phone. I actually told myself this year I was going to try to watch…but my 7-year-old woke up in the middle of the night with a fever and a sore throat and was up all night, really sick [with] Strep throat. So I was just exhausted and totally forgot about the nominations. I was just totally out of my mind, which is the benefit of having kids.

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The show has generated a lot of talk for its relevance to the current conversation over gender politics and inequality.

I think a lot of our societal ills are race-based as opposed to class-based [in England]. But I do think race and class and the disparity and the prejudice and the bigotry, those issues are first cousins, if you will. We talked a lot about that. It’s really the genius of Shaw, who understands the delicacy of these issues of class. The second someone opens their mouth, we can place you. In our country it’s when somebody comes in and their skin is of a brown hue, we place them, right?

I’m a white, middle-aged man who grew up in the Midwest and I can never know what it’s like to have racial prejudice or profiling against me. But I have talked with friends of mine, people of color, and their journeys are very similar to what this guy’s journey is in [“My Fair Lady”] — to try to get a handle on what that feels like inside of you, to be told no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, we’re going to keep you in this class, we’re going to keep you in this because you staying in the suppressed class actually helps the whole system work. That’s what Shaw is all about.

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That’s what my character is saying. ‘I’m a drunk, I’m penniless. I don’t work.” But the genius of this character is saying, “Yes, I’m all of those things but you created the system and you actually need me to be a worthless piece of s—t in order to make this whole capitalist thing work. I know that and you know that.” It’s that kind of self-knowledge that the character has that the audience really taps into and goes, “Wow, this guy has really, really got it going on.”

What keeps acting fun and fresh for you?

I love what I do. It’s really all I’m built to do. I feel I’m so lucky to be out there every night. Why waste a moment of it?

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