Hard-Working Muse: Kerry Butler '92

Kerry Butler ’92 puts quiet grit and humor into making her childhood dream come true.  by George Sapio

“This is by far the hardest job I’ve ever had,” said Kerry Butler with an “oh boy” sigh. It was an August Saturday in New York, between her matinee and evening performances. She was starring in the comic Broadway musical Xanadu opposite Tony Roberts and Whoopie Goldberg, with eight performances a week. The role required singing, dancing, and alternating among three different accents — Australian, Southern United States, and “heightened goddess” — while on roller skates for almost the whole show!

Butler originated the lead role of Kira, a magical Greek muse who is sent from Mount Olympus to Earth to be the inspiration for Sonny, a struggling artist in Venice, California, in the 1980s, whose dream is to open a roller disco. (Of course, Kira falls in love with Sonny.)

“It was tough learning how to roller skate, especially for a choreographed Broadway musical,” Butler says. “If I lose my concentration for one second, I’m gone.” She gives none of the worry away, however, gliding and zooming all over the stage. The New York Times wrote of her performance, “Kerry Butler, as the Greek demi-goddess, is simply heaven . . . the rare Broadway ingénue who is as funny as she is pretty, and she sings gloriously! She’s got a lovely line in arabesque on those skates, too!” Her performance earned her a 2008 Tony nomination for best performance by a leading actress in a musical.

Butler is no stranger to hard work. In 1993, fresh out of IC, she made her Broadway debut as Ms. Jones in Blood Brothers. She followed that by originating the role of Belle in the Toronto production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. She was nominated for the Dora Award for her performance in the role, which she then took to Broadway. After Beauty, she played Eponine in Les Misérables, and then went on to originate the role of Penny Pingleton in Hairspray, winning the 2003 Clarence Derwent Award for most promising female performance. Last May she produced a CD, called Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust, in which she gives her favorite Disney songs new acoustic arrangements.

“Being on Broadway is fantastic,” says Butler. “It’s been my dream since I was very young. Walking in that stage door every day knowing you’re a working actor is wonderful.” She’s had lifelong support from her parents, Jim and Maureen. “My mom got me started in commercials when I was three, then stopped when I started school because she wanted me to have a normal life,” Butler remembers. “We decided to continue when I saw Annie at age nine.” Her biggest supporters can also be her biggest critics. “Mom will look at what I do on stage and say, ‘You were really great in this, but you shouldn’t have done that,’ ” she laughs. “Dad will show me what they write about me on the chat boards.” 

Butler works hard offstage as well. Audiences consistently rave about the show, and Butler ends every performance by visiting with the waiting crowd outside the theater, signing autographs and chatting. Jennifer Rosenberg and Garret Matthews from New Jersey, who saw the show the day of our interview, were ecstatic. “This is our second time,” Rosenberg said. “We’re laughing all the way through the show. [Butler’s] energetic, hilarious, and absolutely amazing.”

Broadway is only one part of Butler’s life. She lives with her husband of 12 years, Joe, and daughter, Segi, in Brooklyn. The couple have known each other since childhood. “We’ve always been best friends,” Butler says, “always connected in a very special way.”

Butler has always dedicated part of her time to helping others. She has worked locally as a mentor with Children’s Services. “Many families in the program are about to lose their kids to foster care,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t know basic parenting skills or have no idea of the assistance services available to them.” Butler took a leave of absence from Children’s Services when Segi came into the family, but she still counsels one family on her own time.

Butler is enthusiastic about her acting training at Ithaca College. She credits many of her teachers with excellence, among them Susannah Berryman, with whom she stays in touch regularly. “Susannah was amazing,” she says. “She had faith in me and showed me that I could be funny onstage, casting me in comedic roles and helping me with things like timing and delivery.”

Berryman, who directed Butler in Anything Goes and Threepenny Opera at IC, says of Butler, “I love her; she’s a terrific person. Both roles had challenges, and she approached those challenges with quiet grit, excellent humor, and great success.”

Butler stays in touch with her alma mater, attending the Ithaca College New York Field Studies program every year to talk with soon-to-be graduates. She is frequently asked for advice about making it in theater. “It’s a tough business,” she responds. “Keep working, no matter what. Do your homework for every audition, and give it your all. I think those who stand a chance are those who learn to take rejection the best.”