I owe a lot to my friends. Not only are they smart, thoughtful, friendly, creative, and supportive, they also tell me when there are cool things going on that I should check out. Despite living on the opposite side of the country, one friend of mine manages to get the scoop on theater events here in NYC before I do sometimes.
Months ago she told me that Jason Robert Brown, who we both love for his show “The Last Five Years” (now a movie!), is doing a yearlong residency at SubCulture on Bleecker Street. When I found out that his January 26 show was going to feature Norbert Leo Butz, I knew I had to go. I’ve loved Norbert Leo Butz since high school, when I knew him only as “Fiyero sexy voice” on the “Wicked” soundtrack. I fell further in love when I listened to the original Off-Broadway cast recording of “The Last Five Years”, for which he originated Jamie. I saw him in “Big Fish” on Broadway (an interesting show, but not memorable, except for him), but was thrilled to get a chance to see him in a small setting.
My NYC theater-going buddy has similar strong feelings about Norbert (as we call him) so we knew we had to check out this show, even though it was on a Monday night.
New Yorkers might remember Monday January 26, 2015 as the snowstorm that wasn’t, or Winter Storm Juno, which hit our neighbors up in Boston but mostly missed us. Mid-afternoon on that Monday, the weather was looking like it could get nasty and we all went home. JRB’s show was canceled and the subway was shutdown overnight and into the next morning. We all got a not-very-snowy snow day out of it, but our date with JRB and Norbert was postponed.
Fast forward to Friday March 13. The show has been rescheduled, for a much more convenient night, and we get in line a little early to ensure better seats. While in line we run into someone my friend knows from grad school and someone I recognize as a friend of a friend from college. The world (of obsessive musical theater fans) is a small one!
SubCulture is an intimate venue, and a lot of the seats were reserved, so we grabbed two seats in the middle, right behind a nice break in the seats. We’re both pretty short so it made it easier for us to see, and we were probably about fifteen feet from the stage. JRB came out with his band and after making me SO happy by singing “Nothing in Common”, he sang an awesome new song that he had written that week, “Melinda”. It ROCKED. It started the night off with so much energy, we knew we were going to have an amazing time – especially since we could see Norbert dancing off to the side!
The two female vocalists, Caissie Levy and Rebecca Faulkenberry, were wonderful, and JRB had reached out to one (or maybe both) of them via Twitter to see if they wanted to sing in the show. I was of course a fan of songs I already knew, so Caissie singing “Letting You Go” was especially powerful for me. And when Rebecca sang “One Summer”, which JRB hinted (very broadly) is from a new show he’s working on that may or may not be based on “A League of Their Own”, I got excited! I only saw the movie in the last year, so the story was fresh for me and the song – and Rebecca’s performance — really captured the character.
I have, though, saved the best for last. Seeing Norbert Leo Butz was amazing. As JRB said that night, “I have spent too much of my life not listening to Norbert Leo Butz sing.” After having us in stitches over a hilarious take on Hamlet’s advice to the players (titled, “Advice to the Playaz”) he had us in tears as he sang “If I Didn’t Believe in You” from “The Last Five Years”.
Seeing Norbert sing this song brought new shades of meaning to it. Jamie is singing to Cathy a whole list of things that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t believed in her, the key one being “If I didn’t believe in you, I’d never have loved you at all.” Watching Jeremy Jordan sing it in the movie I came to the realization that it’s not Cathy Jamie’s trying to convince in this song – it’s himself. The negative is what gives it away: I must have believed in you, because I loved you. I must have believed in you, because I married you. That’s backwards rationalizing right there, that’s what you do when you’re trying to convince yourself you made the right decision. It’s not what you do when you try to convince your spouse you love and support them. When Jeremy sang it, I heard him trying to convince himself, and wanting Cathy to believe him. When Norbert sang it, we heard how badly Jamie wanted to believe it himself. A small difference, maybe, but it makes Jamie so much more human and vulnerable.
Everything we heard that night was gorgeous, but before closing the show with an encore of “Melinda”, JRB and Norbert brought the house down with another “The Last Five Years” favorite, “Moving Too Fast”. Norbert was in perpetual motion, and the two traded lines until the energy got so high JRB just had to play and Norbert just sang it straight through to the end and took us with him.
It was over a month ago now, and I can’t fully describe for you what it was like to be in that room with that music zinging through us. All I can say is that there was a level of energy, of talent, of enthusiasm, that was so high it lifted us all and left me smiling for a solid twenty-four hours afterward. For the curious, the complete set list is here.
We hung around to say thank you to JRB and the other performers, and to get that shot up at the top with Norbert. We are both grinning SO HARD.
Afterward we went out for mac ‘n cheese with my friend’s friend and her friend who’d attended and gushed about the performance and our love of theater. When I came home I did some poking around to see what other Norbert music I could find on Spotify and came to realize that I had done a regional theater production with one of Norbert’s brothers over a decade ago. Remember how I said the world was small? I meant it.
This week JRB did two shows with Tom Kitt and it sounds like they were amazing. I couldn’t go, but I hope to make another show soon – I’m keeping an eye out so I don’t miss any special guests I particularly love. The residency runs through November, I believe, so check and see if there’s a date that works for you! Tickets are $50 general admission – maybe a little pricey if you’re not already a fan, but totally worth it! – and guest artists are usually announced a few weeks before the show. The next show is May 15.
Have you been to see Jason Robert Brown at SubCulture, or seen another show there? What did you think?
ETA: Oh my gosh, how did I forget to say how AMAZING the band was? AMAZING. The fiddle on “Nothing in Common” was just stunning, and the reason the energy was so high at that show was because the musicians met the singers every step of the way.