Interview: Broadway Bebe (Neuwirth) returns to “Chicago,” this time as Mama Morton

Bebe Neuwirth earlier this year at 54 Below in New York City with her cabaret show "Stories with Piano". Photo by Karsten Moran.

Bebe Neuwirth earlier this year at 54 Below in New York City with her cabaret show “Stories with Piano”. Photo by Karsten Moran.

Bebe Neuwirth Makes Broadway History with a Triple Play
by Larry Murray

Singer, actress and song and dance gal Bebe Neuwirth is set to return to the Broadway production of “Chicago” once again, producers announced this week, as she rejoins the cast as “the countess of the clink,” prison matron “Mama” Morton, for an eight-week Broadway run. Neuwirth is closely identified with the Kander and Ebb musical, having won a Tony award as Velma Kelly in the 1996 revival and returned to the cast in 2007 as the other “merry murderess,” Roxie Hart. She will take on her third role in that musical, that of matron “Mama” Morton who runs the prison where the two main characters are housed. Everyone loves her big number, “When You’re Good to Mama” which relays her unique philosophy for keeping the peace and I for one can hardly wait to see how she handles it. She was in her thirties when she played Roxie, and is at the half century mark today.

Not too long ago (2009, in fact) Neuwirth and I talked about Chicago, as well as her return to the Berkshires for a local appearance at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington where she delivered the first iteration of her high energy show “Stories With Piano” which she performed this year at 54 Below. As might be expected she included songs by Kander and Ebb from Chicago, making it a night to remember.

Talking with Neuwirth about her life (she had just hit 50), we were curious about her previous trips to the Berkshires during the period she was appearing with the Williamstown Theatre Festival. As it turns out she always loves to return to this area, since it holds both fond memories and so many wonderful antique stores to poke through. She has a secret passion for things with history.

For those who may be hazy about her own history, Bebe (short for Beatrice) Neuwirth is the gifted actress who was best known as Dr. Lilith Sternin , the emotionally repressed psychiatrist who married Dr.Frasier Crane on the hit television series Cheers. Of course there is also the “Broadway Bebe” Neuwirth, an accomplished dancer and vocalist who has won both critical and popular acclaim for her work on stage. Her Broadway credits include A Chorus Line, Sweet Charity, Damn Yankees and that 1996 revival of Chicago, for which she won both a Tony and Drama Desk Award as Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her role as showgirl and killer Velma Kelly.

Neuwirth wary of information about her on the Internet

FIrst order of business was to verify some of the stories dug up on the internet.

“Don’t believe everything you read,” she laughed. “I’ve found amazing discrepancies in what people say they’ve read on the internet, a lot of the gossip is very false.” Most of that revolves around her recent marriage (her second) to Chris Calkins which has been reported as a Buddhist-Christian ceremony but Neuwirth explained was if fact a simple Zen Buddhist ceremony in front of a Justice of the Peace.” The singer reminded me that she was raised Jewish. The Christian description was totally inaccurate.

Besides, her mind was on more important things. Like the thought of returning to the Berkshires. That brought on a flood of memories. “There’s so much in the arts going on up in your neck of the woods. The last time I was in Berkshires it was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2000 or so.”

Bebe played Katherina in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew not that long ago, from July 7-18 of 1999 in a production not only directed by Roger Reese, but in which he appeared as Petruchio as well.

It turns out that while she was there, Nicholas Martin was very busy at WTF as well, directing Camino Real which starred Lewis Black. That is how Neuwirth and Black ended up on the stage together at the WTF Cabaret that year. That particular cabaret has become the stuff of legends, with more people claiming to have been there than could have possibly fit in the intimate space. The cast for Shrew was stunning, as was that for the Camino Real: Blair Brown, Hope Davis and Ethan Hawke were also in the great cast of the Tennessee Williams play.

She also returned in 2001 for a workshop production of Diva on the The Nikos Stage, playing Deanna Denninger in a production that also showcased Eric Bogasian as Isaac Brooks and Kurtwood Smith as Kurt Fast.

Bebe Neuwirth, Roger Reese and Bob Fosse

Roger Reese and Neuwirth have been good friends for a long time. In fact, “from the moment we first met on the set of Cheers,” she said. They grew even closer through their connection with Bob Fosse, the famous choreographer. “Both of us not only worked with him, but we loved him. He had such a clear vision, and always knew exactly what he wanted. He knew that getting his vision exactly right would transform it, so that it become more than itself.” He could be quite a taskmaster too. “He was absolutely right to push for it.”

The results always showed on stage, especially in ensemble work. It’s a standard of perfection and precision timing that we don’t see very much anymore. “No, we really don’t. I also think that people who worked for him did their best work, and if they are like me they continue to strive for that. We truly become the sum of what we learned from working with him. In a way, I learned how to work from working with Bob, and from Gwen (Verdon, Bob’s wife) as well”

Bebe has spent much of her life as a song and dance person, so it was quite surprising that she had decided to tackle Shakespeare with Reese. “I loved it, loved it, loved it,” enthused the actress, and she admitted it was quite a change. “When I started on stage, it was as a dancer. So I’ve danced in ballets, in musical theatre, in comedy reviews, and I have performed in straight plays, I’ve done voice over work, and television, and films. everything. But when I did a Shakespeare play, it felt most akin to the experience of performing in a ballet.”

Shakespeare is like Ballet…why? “I am not sure what it is, it’s just a very subtle undercurrent of the experience of that particular performance. I don’t know if it has to do with the age of the piece, but there’s something about the elegance with which the whole piece is written. I don’t really know, and I am not sure that I want to know exactly what it is. There’s a very beautiful, mysterious thing, a sort of bridge between those two mediums. Coppelia, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella – my repertoire wasn’t particularly extensive, but just being in class, with my pointe shoes on, something was familiar and reminded me of that when I did Shakespeare. So obviously I am craving more Shakespeare since ballet is my first love. “

Iambic Pentameter helped her memorize Shakespeare

Shakespeare requires a lot of memorization, aren’t all those lines with their convoluted structure difficult to learn? “Not that difficult since there is music in them. As someone who has learned songs, performed songs, and is a big fan of poetry it was not a gargantuan task.

“I also think my experience performing in musical theatre was some of the best training you could get for performing Shakespeare. I would much rather see someone whose background is clowning, like Bill Irwin, perform in a Shakespeare play because his works are a very human, visceral experience and have nothing to do with schoolrooms and the academics who do such a paring down of the text, and worry about where the commas belong.

“Shakespeare was writing plays to be performed in a bear baiting ring, where they were selling oranges and maybe even throwing oranges at the actors. It’s about as human as theatre can get, because its genesis is gathering around the fire and telling stories. Shakespeare is how the 16th Century people shared stories. I don’t think it’s anything fancier than that. The intellectuals and the academics just grab hold of it and suck all the life out of it.”

Shakespeare was not afraid to rewrite, to condense his own plays and send them on the road. It was very simple. “He’d hand someone their part and just let them go. No stage directions, no fussiness. It was up to the performer to figure out what’s going on.”

Bebe  Neuwirth

Bebe Neuwirth

“I’m out of hips to replace….”

Another story repeated around the blogs is that Neuwirth has had a hip replacement. “Two. I am out of hips to replace, I’m done. But I can still dance and I can still go to ballet class. I’m in good shape.” I ventured that hip problems might have something to do with all the “turning out” that dancers do to achieve their techniques. “It had more to do with my “turning in” actually. I think I was born to have them in my lifetime. I had them done earlier, in my forties, probably because I dance so much. But when I was born, they put my legs in casts because they were all twisted, so I was set up for this.”

Neuwirth adores the Berkshires, and managed to hit every antique shop within a forty mile radius during her time here. But she admits she was quite distressed by Mass MoCA’s famous “upside down trees.” “I anthropomorphized them and felt just terrible for them. It’s like bonsai, no way to treat a tree. Nevertheless I did enjoy the museum. The second time I was up there, for Diva, we did all our rehearsing there.” Not only did I drive around, I got the wonderful pancakes up at the Blue Benn Diner in Bennington, Vermont.” Indeed, being a fan of the place myself, I have run into many escapees from the Williamstown Theatre Festival there. The thing actors love to do most, besides acting, is to eat. Cheaply. And well. The Blue Benn is legendary at WTF.

Beyond Kander and Ebb

Neuwirth has an affinity for the music of Kurt Weill. In part, it grew out of doing Threepenny Opera at A.C.T. in San Francisco in 1999. That then morphed into a show called Here Lies Jenny in 2004 which was created with Anne Reinking, Roger Reese (who staged a 2003 version in Williamstown with Peter Hunt directing and Betty Buckley as Jenny) and Leslie Stifelman. Jenny played at the Zipper Theatre in New York City.

According to Neuwirth, she and Music Director Scott Cady spent a great deal of time developing and refining the songs selected so as to shape it into an organic whole. One song has to flow into the next, to seem to evolve from the previous one, not an easy task. “It wasn’t just a matter of programming two uptempo songs and then a ballad, it has to have an emotional life of its own, one that makes some kind of sense.

“All songs tend to tell stories, or are about how someone feels. That’s what is important. Also, I didn’t want to talk much. Sure, I explain a little bit about the music, or the show it came from, and at one point, I do tell a story about myself, but really it is the music that relates the story.”

Given how interested people are in performers and their lives I was surprised she didn’t talk much about herself in her show. “But if you listen to the songs and you watch me sing them, you’ll know something about me. There is a reason I chose the songs, and I believe many people will relate to them. Like the stories of falling in love for the first time and getting your heart broken.”

Thoughts on The Addams Family, a new musical

When we talked, there were the early burblings of a new musical based on The Addams Family. Neuwirth had been rumored to be playing Morticia against Nathan Lane’s Gomez. At that point, before it became reality she said: “We’ve worked on the music and worked on the text and just finished a workshop/lab and I think it’s coming along beautifully, and I am really very, very excited. It was at a benefit for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago where Scottie and I first performed a great deal – but not all – of this show.”

The show did make it to Broadway via the Oriental Theatre in Chicago followed by a Broadway opening in the Spring of 2010. And, she predicted (with great accuracy) that the musical was likely to be a bit more subtle and sophisticated than the title might suggest. It is based on the Charles Addams cartoons that originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine, not the television series they inspired.

Chicago Forever?

We now come full circle, back to the musical Chicago, where Bebe played Velma in it for what seems like forever. I jokingly asked Neuwirth if she planned to make this her evergreen role, like Carol Channing in Hello Dolly. She laughed conspiratorially, but followed that up with an “Absolutely not!”

“I did Chicago for two years, and then I went back 3 or 4 times and did maybe another 8 weeks each time. All of this as Velma, and then, during the bad hip times, I did the Here Lies Jennie and after my ’06 replacement, I asked them if I could go back into Chicago as Roxie, and they said yes. The operation was in May and the tenth anniversary of Chicago was in November, so Annie (Reinking) and I performed in that one together, going in on a steel hip on my birthday which is New Years eve playing Roxie.”

And now she returns to the show, in the third starring role of Big Mama, and where there the focus is off the hips and on her singing and acting. Knock ’em dead, Bebe!

This is an update of an earlier interview first published in Berkshire Fine Arts.

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