Bebe Neuwirth and ‘all that jazz’

Bebe Neuwirth is one singular sensation. She sings and dances and is comfortable in both comedic and tragic roles. 

A versatile performer, Neuwirth made her Broadway debut in “A Chorus Line” in 1980 and went on to receive well-deserved acclaim for her work onstage, including Tony Awards for “Sweet Charity” and “Chicago.” But she is perhaps best-known for her deadpan Emmy Award-winning portrayal of the withering psychiatrist Lilith Sternin, ex-wife of the eternally exasperated, preternaturally pompous Dr. Frasier Crane, on “Cheers” and then occasionally on “Frasier.” More recently on the tube she’s been seen on “Madame Secretary” and “Blue Bloods.” Her film work includes “Green Card,” “Bugsy,” “The Faculty,” “Tadpole” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” WAG caught up with her before her concert, “Stories With Piano,” at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Nov. 10.

Bebe, as a singing actress on Broadway, you’ve had the distinction of singing songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban, and Andrew Lippa, to mention a few. Do you have a favorite among them?

“I’d say there’s a tie going on with Cy Coleman and Kander and Ebb. I love their music. And I can say this for John (Kander) and Fred (Ebb) and Cy Coleman:  I want to say it’s a holistic experience, but that sounds easily misinterpreted. Their music gets into every part of one’s being. Their music makes me dance and it makes me sing. There’s no way of saying this without it sounding incredibly clichéd and icky (laughs). All of their music is perfect. It’s completely satisfying.”

Additionally, as a dancer you have danced the choreography of Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse. Please say a few words about the discipline involved in that.

“It’s a life’s work to become a dancer and to hone that craft and then to understand what happens to technique when it goes onstage and becomes a form of expression. There’s nothing instant about becoming a dancer. That is years and years and years of very hard work. The only thing that’s instant is whether or not somebody has talent. You can see a little kid’s drawings or see a little kid in dance class or hear a little kid singing and go, ‘Wow. They’ve really got talent.’ That’s the only thing that’s instant — recognition of whether or not somebody has talent. After that, it takes many years to develop a reliable, dependable and most importantly strong technique. They can then use their talent to its greatest degree and not leave it to chance. If you have your strong technique, you’ve got a strong foundation and you can do anything when you get out onstage.”

And then there’s maintenance involved.

“Absolutely. You don’t just do it and then it’s done. Especially when you’re talking about something physical like singing or dancing. That requires maintenance, because those are actual physical muscles that need to be used.”

In 1996 you received a Tony for playing Velma Kelly in the Broadway revival of Fosse’s “Chicago.” Ten years later, you returned to “Chicago” on Broadway to play Roxie Hart and then in 2014 came back again to play Mama Morton, which makes you the first person to play three different characters in one Broadway musical. What was that like for you?

“It was really interesting. The first thing, of course, was after playing Velma to come back and play Roxie. I believe I was the first person on Broadway to do that. I have such an intimate relationship with the show as Velma and, living within that world from that perspective, it was interesting to stand on the other side of the stage, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically, and see the show from a completely other perspective. Velma starts the show on top of the world and then sinks down into the depths and spends the entire two and a half hours trying to climb back and reclaim her place at the top, which she only does in the finale. 

“Roxie starts the show in depths, rock bottom, and spends the whole show finding herself sitting on top of the world for the first time in her whole life and enjoying that perspective. She winds up losing everything and then getting it back in the finale. Then when I played Mama Morton, I was quite a bit older and it was yet another perspective from which to experience the show that I know so intimately. (It was) very gratifying. I also feel very protective of the show and the people in it. It was interesting to have that going on in me while I was playing Mama, who is protective of her girls because they are her source of income. She actually has some feelings in there, I think.”

“Cheers” will always have a special place in our heart because, as a student at Emerson College in the early 1980s, The Bull & Finch, on which the show was based, was our hangout. What did playing Lilith on “Cheers” mean to you?

“It was an incredible job and an amazing part that they wrote, and continued to write, and it was a great privilege to work with those writers and that ensemble of brilliant actors and James Burroughs. As incredible as it was to watch, it was like that to do. There are a lot of things that made it what it was, but at the core was the writing, as well as the decisions made by the producers. How to do what, what to develop, where to take these characters? The biggest props go to the writers. They always aimed up at the audience. They never aimed down. They always assumed that the audience was intelligent, was paying attention and had a really good sense of humor. There were no cheap jokes. There were just very satisfying jokes. They were satisfying, because they came from that bizarre ensemble of very truthful characters. That’s what made it funny.” 

On “Madame Secretary,” you co-starred with a number of performers with connections to Broadway. When you work with people such as Tony Award-winners Keith Carradine and Patina Miller, as well as Sebastian Arcelus, Erich Bergen and Tim Daly, do you ever find yourselves breaking into song?

“We used to all wiggle around, not singing too much. There was a lot of goofing around on the set. Just because you get a bunch of Broadway folks together, you don’t get that.”

As a movie actress, you have worked with some incredible directors, including James Ivory, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Robert Rodriguez, Barry Levinson, Peter Weir and Kathy Bates. Do you have an all-time favorite movie experience?

“No, I can’t choose a favorite. They were all amazing and fascinating. My favorite director is Bob Fosse, but I worked with him on the stage. I never did a film with him. That said, how can I say, ‘Oh, I like this person better than Barry Levinson?’ Barry is brilliant. He’s amazing and such a sweet, funny, lovely man to be around. In terms of movie experiences, they’re all very different. I had a great time doing ‘The Faculty’ with Robert Rodriguez. That was a fun time. I did two pictures with Barry Levinson (‘Bugsy’ and ‘Liberty Heights’). It was fun, I got to wear incredible costumes and dance and be incredibly glamorous and funny. Almost all of them have been wonderful experiences. 

“There’ve been a couple that were difficult experiences, but I would say I’ve been very fortunate. My first movie was Cameron Crowe’s ‘Say Anything’ and I’m doing a scene with John Cusack. Between that and then working with Peter Weir and Gerard Depardieu, I was just trying to figure out and understand what the hell was going on. It was very bizarre to me. I’d like to go back and do those again now that I know a little bit more about how it all works. They were patient with me, that’s for sure.”

With Emmy Awards and Tony Awards to your name, you are halfway to the coveted EGOT. What would it mean to you to complete that foursome?

“You can’t think in terms of awards. I don’t really spend time thinking about that. That’s not how I approach my life or my work or my calling.”

What can your fans expect from your upcoming concert at the Ridgefield Playhouse?

“My show is called ‘Stories With Piano.’ It’s just me and my music director, Scott Cady, who is a beautiful pianist and artist. The two of us perform story songs. I don’t talk too much about myself. The stories are really the songs. It’s all music that I love that happen to be story-songs in one way or another. They might be a linear narrative or a conversation or a moment in a person’s life, but they all seem to have an emotionally driven, character-driven narrative of some kind. They are not from shows that I’ve done. I’m not going to sing ‘All That Jazz.’ I’m not going to do that. I love those songs, but it’s not for this show. I do them in other concert versions. 

“This show is really very intimate. Some of the songs are funny, some heartbreaking, some nostalgic, some quite reverential. I think it’s a beautiful mix of songs. There’s Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Cy Coleman, Edith Piaf, Tom Waits and Kurt Weill and a couple of others. It’s an interesting cabaret of intimate material, a conversation with the audience. It’s a very communal thing. 

“I believe that theater is the modern-day tribal fire. It’s where we tell our stories. The tribal fire was the tribe getting together to listen to stories. At first, they were survival stories and then they became entertaining. I feel like the footlights are our modern-day tribal fire. That’s why you feel a different way when you come out of a live theater than you do leaving a movie theater. You may have had an incredibly deep experience, but there’s something in between you and the performance — the cameras and the editing and the soundtrack, all these mechanical things happen. You have the communal experience, but it’s not so much with the performance as it is with the other people in the audience. I feel like in live theater, we are all in it together. If the audience isn’t there, it’s a rehearsal. If the performers aren’t there, it’s a get-together. I feel like it taps into a primal need that humans have and that’s why the theater is so important in whatever way you experience it — going to your kid’s recitals or going to hear a symphony or going to a cabaret room or Broadway or the West End. It could be anything, but an audience gathering with performers and sometimes musicians and the stage crew — everyone in that building is making an event that is shared.”

You have a brother named Peter and I was wondering if you would please say a few words about the effect that he’s had on your life. 

“He’s my big brother. We have a complicated and close and loving relationship. I don’t know if all siblings would say that, but I think that’s pretty much the deal when you have a sibling. Hopefully it’s complicated and loving and nurturing in some way. We’re in vastly different fields, but we have some similarity in musical taste. There is some overlap. He’s a Deadhead. I do like the (Grateful) Dead. He’s a Leonard Cohen fanatic. I do like Leonard Cohen, but I’m not a fanatic. I appreciate him. We both have a shared love of The Beatles and probably Led Zeppelin, I imagine, and Jimi Hendrix. We’re very different animals, my brother and I, and yet we have a loving relationship.”

Bebe Neuwirth performs at The Ridgefield Playhouse Nov. 10. For more, visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org.

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