Kerry Butler on Japanese Toilets and ‘Disaster!’



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What I Love | Kerry Butler

CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times


One morning more than 30 years ago, Sister Mary Arlene, the principal of St. Frances Cabrini, a now-defunct parochial grammar school in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, commandeered the public address system on behalf of a very special student: “Everyone, please pray for Kerry Butler,” she urged, “because today she has her final callback to play Annie on Broadway.”

Not everyone saw the event as sufficiently just cause to petition the Almighty. “I thought, ‘That’s stupid. I’m not praying for that,’ ” recalled Joey Mazzarino, who also attended Cabrini.

Alas, Ms. Butler didn’t get the part, undoubtedly because certain people didn’t pray. Nonetheless, she grew up to have principal roles in Broadway musicals like “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Xanadu,” “Hairspray” and “Catch Me if You Can.” In the musical spoof “Disaster!” that opened last month, she plays a tenacious reporter hot on a story, and she plays a therapist in the upcoming “Gilmore Girls” reunion series on Netflix.

Apparently a big-hearted sort, Ms. Butler forgave Mr. Mazzarino his youthful apostasy: The two have been married for two decades.

Perhaps playing Kim opposite his Hugo in a high school production of “Bye Bye Birdie” helped turn things around.

The couple now live in a playfully decorated penthouse duplex in a condominium on the Upper West Side with their two daughters, 10 and 4.

“We’re in a high-rise building, but there are no other high-rises around us, so we have this open view of the sky,” Ms. Butler said. “And we have a sliver of river.”

The apartment was a compromise of sorts. Ms. Butler, 44, who grew up in an attached rowhouse in Brooklyn, had always wanted to live in the suburbs, and for a brief while it looked as if she would get her wish. In 1997, she and her husband were partway through the process of buying a house in Watchung, N.J., when “I woke up in a cold sweat and said, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t leave the city,’ ” recalled Mr. Mazzarino, 47, the former head writer on “Sesame Street,” who is working on a musical. “So Kerry was like, ‘Then I’m picking the apartment.’ ” (And in a case of delayed, if only partial, gratification, the couple bought a weekend home on the Jersey Shore a few years ago.)

“I knew I didn’t want to live in the theater district. I’d never live there. It’s just not neighborhood-y,” Ms. Butler said. “I need parks. Joey didn’t want to go up farther than 86th Street, and our broker was like, ‘You really should see the West 90s.’ ”

They did and they’re glad. The duplex, a successor to the one Ms. Butler bought soon after landing her first Broadway show, “Blood Brothers,” in 1993, has the outdoor space that is a must. The terrace, which is large enough to hold a pair of chaise longues and a small table and chairs, is an acceptable stand-in for the yard she lost out on in Watchung.

With Ms. Butler’s blessing, Mr. Mazzarino took the lead in selecting the furniture. Typically, he would winnow the possibilities, generally contemporary and midcentury modern, and present his wife with two or three options. And so it was thumbs-up to the white Jensen-Lewis dining table, the Crayola-colored dining chairs and bar stools with cutout backs, the light fixture that resembles planets in orbit, the heather-gray sofa and chair, and the coffee table with a storage compartment.

And it was be-still-my-heart to the massage chair, a present from Mr. Mazzarino on the opening night of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Perhaps he figured that because he had bought Ms. Butler a useful and much-appreciated gift, surely she would not begrudge him a similarly useful if extravagant addition to the apartment — just a little something he fell hard for on a trip to Asia: a Japanese toilet.

“It’s the Porsche of toilets,” Ms. Butler said disgustedly, taking a visitor upstairs for a viewing of the Toto (and, as part of the same tour, to show off the Jonathan Adler shower curtain, which she loves). “I don’t know if you’ve tried them, but they have things that shoot things at you from different directions. They have dryers. They have warmers.”

She added: “Joey never told me how much the toilet cost. I didn’t find out how much it was until it got here. We have them in both bathrooms, which I was actually annoyed about. I was like, ‘Why do we need two expensive toilets?’ ”

The couple renovated the kitchen and added closets when they moved in 15 years ago. And although it wasn’t part of the game plan, a year ago they redid the floors and the bathrooms. “Joey came home one day to several inches of water on the top floor,” Ms. Butler said. “Our house on the Jersey Shore escaped Hurricane Sandy, and then we had a flood here.”

The walls are covered with their daughters’ artwork, as well as some drawings by Mr. Mazzarino’s father. There’s also a Hirschfeld of Ms. Butler as Penny Pingleton in “Hairspray.”

It may not be a house in the suburbs, but it’s homey. And that’s what matters most to Ms. Butler. A basket in the living room holds pillows for tossing on the floor when the family watches television together. A green-thumbed neighbor has befriended her daughters and is teaching them how to cultivate herbs and cook with them. And very soon it will be the season to do their own planting on their own balcony.

The family is hoping for a more impressive harvest this year. “Typically we get maybe one carrot and a few tomatoes,” Ms. Butler said. “So we’ll make salad and eat it outside.”

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