By PATRICK LEE
One of Broadway's best-known leading ladies, Kerry Butler originated the roles of Penny in Hairspray, Audrey in the revival of Little Shop of Horrors, and Kira in Xanadu (for which she earned a Tony nomination). Now she’s sporting acid-washed jeans in Rock of Ages, the hit musical that uses hair-metal hits from the 1980s to tell a cheeky story about wannabes trying to make it in L.A.
Butler joins the cast as Sherrie, a small town girl whose big city dreams take her to the Sunset Strip. When she isn’t romancing good-guy Drew (Constantine Maroulis) and outrageous bad-boy rocker Stacy Jaxx (James Carpinello), she’s belting out classic hits by Journey and Pat Benatar.
TDF spoke with Butler about the highs, lows, and power ballads of her latest role.
TDF: Do the characters you’ve played have something in common?
KERRY BUTLER: It’s been a lot of forbidden love, but also most of my roles have been comic, but with a lot of heart. I knew that with Rock of Ages the director, Kristin Hanggi, wanted someone who could bring heart to the show. It’s a comedy, but you feel something too. I also think I have that innocent thing down—Sherrie is the innocent girl who's not so innocent by the end.
TDF: Is it more challenging to step into a role than to originate one?
KB: It's definitely harder to step into a role and go into blocking that’s already set. It can be a pain for the cast to come in to rehearsal. They don't necessarily want to change their show that much, and I wouldn't want to either. You have to find your own take much more quickly.
TDF: What are you finding that you would call your own?
KB: Well, I think the stuff that I've found has not been the comic bits, It's been more about emotional connection to the material. I love my scene with Constantine, right before [the song] "High Enough." It's just real and raw, and I feel like we're really listening to each other. He's very present, and his comedy is really subtle. And he's very giving. It's never about "I'm the star of the show, look at me.” It's really about our scene work and connecting with me.
TDF: Had you already seen Rock of Ages when they offered you the role?
KB: Yes, but I wasn't thinking about being in it at that point; I was there to be a supportive friend for James [Carpinello]. He was supposed to be in Hairspray, but he left to do a movie, and then we were in Xanadu together, but he left during previews because of his broken ankle. So finally we’re getting to really work together. It’s a great working relationship partly because we have this history: I'm friends with his wife; he's friends with my husband; and our kids are friends and have playdates in between shows. I won’t allow my daughter to see the show—she’s too young—but at bedtime she always wants me to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” now.
TDF: What are you doing to protect your voice?
KB: It’s a challenging role for sure, but knock on wood, my voice has been great. My voice teacher gave me exercises to do every day. I've worked long enough now that I really know my voice and when I'm getting myself in trouble, so I'm able to maneuver through all these belty songs. For me the role is more challenging physically.
TDF: What’s the biggest physical challenge?
KB: Dancing in those heels! When I'm bowing at the end, I'm almost falling over because my heels are so high and I'm so clumsy. The number I do with James was hard initially just because we’re friends, and to give him a lap dance in this crazy outfit…well, I was just red and laughing hysterically during our first few rehearsals. Now I'm much more empowered, and I just have fun beating him up.
TDF: Why do you think Rock of Ages is a hit?
KB: I think it has a lot to do with the times. People are maybe out of work and feeling down, and this is a real feel-good show; it brings people back to a maybe happier time. It's silly fun and the audience goes crazy. Some come with their friends, and they all know all the songs. We have a lot of people at our show who don't normally go to the theatre; this is one where husbands maybe don't want to see Broadway, but then they end up loving it.
TDF: Have you been in a show before that drew so many people to the stage door?
KB: Maybe Hairspray, but it’s been a while. At first I thought it was just Constantine and his American Idol fans, but then it was still crazy this one day when Constantine wasn't there. This audience doesn't know me—usually they are yelling "Sherrie! Sherrie!" Stars are still coming to see the show, so it's exciting to be a part of that, too. My first week, my all-time favorite actress, Laura Linney, came. Thank goodness I didn’t know during the show, because I would have freaked. I don't want to be thinking about showing off my voice for Billy Joel, who came the other night; I want to focus on what I’m doing for everybody in the audience.
Patrick Lee is a regular contributor to Theatermania and has written for various other theatre sites including BroadwaySpace. He serves on the jury for GLAAD Media Awards for New York theatre. He blogs at Show Showdown, which he co-founded, as well as at his own site, Just Shows To Go You.