Bebe Neuwirth’s busy November - new show, new CD
Bebe Neuwirth, born and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, is the winner of two Emmys (both for "Cheers") and two Tonys (featured actress for "Sweet Charity" and best actress for "Chicago.") After originating the role of the homicidal Velma Kelly in the still-running revival of that Kander and Ebb musical, Neuwirth later went on to play Roxie Hart.
That wasn't her only association with Kander and Ebb - in London she played the title role in the West End production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Her other stage roles include both Sheila and Cassie in "A Chorus Line," Lola in the successful revival of "Damn Yankees," Morticia Addams in the recent musical version of "The Addams Family," and the lead in a revue called "Here Lies Jenny," that featured the music of Kurt Weill.
She has just released her first solo recording, "Porcelain," and embarks on a two-week engagement at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency with her show Stories with Piano #3 that runs from November 15 - 26, 2011.
Recently, the triple-threat talent spoke with EDGE about her multi-faceted career and her new projects.
More fun - Tony or Emmy?
EDGE: So, is it more fun to win a Tony or an Emmy?
Bebe Neuwirth: I wouldn’t want to say. It’s all good. It’s such an out-of-body experience. [Laughs] The first time I won an Emmy, I was up there looking out at the crowd and I imagined they had no idea who I was. And then the first time I got a Tony, I got stage fright for the first time in my life. I was fine walking up there, but then I was terrified to talk! I’d never had that before!
EDGE: You started dancing at a very young age. Do you think your ease with dance had anything to do with your father being a mathematician?
Bebe Neuwirth: Because of the counting? No. I think math and composing are strongly linked, but I’d say my love of dance is simply because I’m my father’s daughter. He loves to dance and is very physical. He is the opposite of the stereotypical math nerd. Also, my mother is a painter and was in ballet class all her life. So I really get my love of dance from both of them.
Dancer to actress
EDGE: You also studied dance at Juilliard and wanted to be a ballet dancer. And yet, most of the world knew you as an actress first because of "Cheers." How did that transition come about?
Bebe Neuwirth: It’s all acting. When I was thirteen, I was dancing the role of the Cat in "Peter and the Wolf." That was an acting role, a character. I think the transition is getting used to just talking and listening on stage, without singing and dancing. You need to give yourself permission to speak, then sing. It’s the sensation of hearing your own voice on the stage.
EDGE: You were very young when you got Lilith, but because that character was uptight, she read older. Although I had seen you after that in "Chicago" and "Damn Yankees," I didn’t really have a wake-up moment until I saw you up-close in the film "Summer of Sam." Suddenly I realized, "Oh my God, she’s so young and hot!"
Bebe Neuwirth: [Laughs] I was thirty-nine! People have always thought I was older than I really am, probably because of my voice. I thought you were going to say I was young when I got my first show. I got "A Chorus Line," first the tour, and then on Broadway when I was twenty-one or twenty-two. I played Sheila, then Cassie. Nobody in the company could believe I was that young and playing Cassie! I’m a Capricorn, and they say we look old when we’re young and look young when we’re old. That’s what I’m shooting for!
About ’The Addams Family’
EDGE: "Cheers" had one of the greatest ensemble casts in the history of television. Does that kind of spoil you? Can you imagine doing regular episodic television again?
Bebe Neuwirth: Not only the cast, but the greatest group of writers and producers. Those actors could have made anything good, but to have that group of writers and producers really elevated the whole thing. It was incredible. Has it spoiled me? I hope not. I hope I can just treasure it for what it was and each new experience for what it is. I had the good fortune to be on a couple of the Dick Wolf (the "Law and Order" franchise) shows. It’s an entirely different animal, but it had the same elements: great cast, great writing, and great producers.
EDGE: "Chicago" is my favorite musical and "I Can’t Do it Alone" is one of my favorite showstopper moments. To perform such routines with such precision, I imagine you must love the rehearsal process.
Bebe Neuwirth: It cracked me up. It’s such a funny number and Velma is such a funny character. That number encapsulates the essence of who she is. If you are playing Velma, if you understand that number, I think you are set. It was thrilling to rehearse that. The show was just brilliantly conceived and written and it was incredible to be a part of that. It uses vaudeville as a metaphor for show business and the justice system out of control. The kind of funny I like goes very deep and for "Chicago," the more complicated the truth, the better it works for the audience. It’s something that stays with you.
EDGE: Were you disappointed not to get the film? I was surprised myself, because you were a household name yourself at that point.
Bebe Neuwirth: But I wasn’t a movie star. I understand that. [Laughs] I remember one night coming home and I’d gotten about five phone calls from Harvey Weinstein. He just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get upset because something was coming out in the papers the next day saying that Madonna was going to do it. [Pause] Listen, I get a seat at a very good table that includes Patti LuPone, Uta Hagen, Gwen Verdon, Julie Andrews. I don’t want to take anything away from the people who do the movie roles. Throughout movie history, film actors have done a great job in musicals.
EDGE: "The Addams Family "was a hit but not critically well received, and then there was all that behind-the-scenes gossip from Cindy Adams and Michael Reidel. How did it affect you to suddenly be in the middle of tabloid fodder?
Bebe Neuwirth: I didn’t read anything. How was that going to help anything? I did hear that there was bad stuff being written. Actually, I did read one thing and it hurt my feelings. Michael Reidel had written something about how I felt during the Chicago tryouts. I wanted to write to him and ask him how he could possibly know how I feel, but I thought better of it. But the gossip I heard about the gossip was unfounded. Listen, you’re in the public eye and people are going to talk. I’m private, I’m shy and I’m extremely sensitive. As you are trying to go to work and entertain these audiences, who are loving the show, it’s an unwelcome distraction. You have to remove yourself from it. I don’t want to know.
Strong and fragile
EDGE: Dancing takes a toll on the body after a while and you have had a hip replacement.
Bebe Neuwirth: Two! I have two titanium hips! I’m a human tuning fork!
EDGE: Wow, I wasn’t aware. Are these kinds of physical challenges starting to affect your consideration of roles?
Bebe Neuwirth: No. There are not that many big dance parts and certainly not for women my age. I’m fifty-two, but I’m still in ballet class and I can still dance. I’m not as athletic as I used to be but it’s not like I’m saying I can’t do that because of the physical limitations. Those parts just aren’t there.
EDGE: Tell me a little about your just-released first CD, "Porcelain." Where does the title come from, and what was the recording process like for you?
Bebe Neuwirth: Porcelain is clay that, depending on how it is worked, can be either very fragile or very strong. That duality speaks to a lot of the songs I like and that are on the CD.
EDGE: That also sounds like you.
Bebe Neuwirth: People think of me as a strong person. There are strong aspects to me, but I’m also very fragile. The recording project was fascinating. I’ve been singing some concerts over the last couple of years, with my pianist Scott Cady. It has been a process of finding songs that I relate to, and many of them are story songs. So a lot of those songs are on the CD, then we filled in with a few more. And then there’s the process of finding arrangements. For example, I wanted to do "Hymn to Love," a well-known Edith Piaf song, but I heard something different in it. We turned it into the most intimate moment you can have with the person you love. I wanted to give "Mr. Bojangles" a sense of reverence, to treat him with great honor. It was an interesting and creative process.
Stories in the songs
EDGE: This is your second time bringing "Stories with Piano" to Feinstein’s, right? The stories are in the songs, but do you also tell stories?
Bebe Neuwirth: It’s the second time I’m doing this show but I call it "Stories with Piano #3". It’s a Zen joke I have with myself! I feel uncomfortable talking about myself. The audience didn’t ask for that. I’ll tell maybe one story about myself. Now, that being said, if I go see Elaine Stritch, I want to hear everything! But that’s Elaine Stritch. I’ve chosen these songs for a reason. If you’re listening closely, you can make some assumptions about me based on the show.
EDGE: You’ve said in interviews that you are socially shy and awkward. Does the intimacy of the cabaret stage present special challenges for you because of that?
Bebe Neuwirth: I did have to get used to it. I did comedy revues when I was twenty-three, after "Dancin’" closed, so I’m comfortable with it in that form. I’ve become comfortable with it, but just don’t make me go to a cocktail party and talk!
EDGE: Final question: Do you think there will always be a need for a triple-threat talent, or do you think the industry is becoming too specialized?
Bebe Neuwirth: In some ways, you don’t even have to sing anymore. For dance, you can edit film, and you can auto-tune even in a live show. I guess it all depends on what gets written. For live theater, technical properties will always have some effect, but other than that, you are doing it. I don’t know how much people are called upon to do it. There are those parts where you have to do all three-like Cassie or Velma or Roxie-but many are pieces of this and that. There are plenty of people you’ve never heard of who can do it all. I think it has more to do with the celebrity culture we’re in. Will they ever get the chance? There are celebrities, who can do all three, but they can’t spend the time developing and keeping up with the training, so if they get a role, they’ll train for six months for it. [Doubtfully] Okay. . . It’s a tricky thing.
Bebe Neuwirth appears at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency from November 15-26. Go to www.feinsteinsattheregency.com for ticket and schedule information. "Porcelain" (The Leopard Works Records) is available digitally on www.itunes.com and the physical copy is available at www.theleopardworksrecords.com.