InDepth InterView: Bebe Neuwirth Talks New STORIES IN NYC: LIVE AT 54 BELOW Album, Broadway/Hollywood Memories & More
Today we are talking to an instantly recognizable stage and screen performer known for a variety of powerful and memorable roles, including those which have earned her two Tony Awards as well as two Emmys over the course of her career - the elegant and cool Bebe Neuwirth. Talking all about the songs and stories that play a part in her fantastic new live solo album STORIES... IN NYC: LIVE AT 54 BELOW, the versatile triple-threat opens up about many of her masterful collaborations over the years - including working with Michael Bennett on A CHORUS LINE and Bob Fosse on SWEET CHARITY, not to mention her iconic portrayal of Velma Kelly in the original cast of the still-running revival of Kander & Ebb's CHICAGO. Plus, Neuwirth shines a light on some of her most celebrated screen roles, as well, including offering candid behind the scenes stories from her unforgettable scenes in Woody Allen's CELEBRITY and more. Plus, Neuwirth comments on some of her current and upcoming projects, including her recurring role on CBS hit BLUE BLOODS and her recent appearances on THE GOOD WIFE as well as much, much more in this career-spanning conversation with one of Broadway's all-time absolute best.
More information on Bebe Neuwirth's STORIES... IN NYC: LIVE AT 54 BELOW is available here.
All Her Jazz
PC: STORIES... IN NYC gives such a vivid portrait of your personality and also your performative prowess.
BN: Thank you for saying that.
PC: I'd love to know about your first Broadway part - in A CHORUS LINE. Did you get to work directly with Michael Bennett?
BN: Oh, yes - I got to work with Michael quite a bit. And, I liked Michael a lot. You know, Michael really had a different lexicon than Bob [Fosse] did. I am more of a Fosse dancer than a Bennett dancer. My own personal way of dancing lends itself towards Bob's choreography and I am just a Fosse dancer at heart. It was actually when I saw a show that Bob had choreographed - that was the moment when I decided to go into musical theatre. But, you know, I don't want to give Michael short shrift! [Laughs.]
PC: He had a hand in it, too!
BN: He was very influential to me in his own way.
PC: When did you first meet Michael?
BN: I guess it was when I was on the road with the show [A CHORUS LINE] - he certainly wasn't at my audition. But, I remember I was out on the road and it was my first job, in A CHORUS LINE - I was still an understudy, so I probably met him that way first, watching him work with the company.
PC: As an observer.
BN: Right. Then, eventually, I was directed by him, though - when I played Sheila, I had more to do with him; and, then, when I played Cassie I had much more to do with him. Actually, I was just talking about him the other day...
PC: Was it nerve-wracking when he would come in to check on the show?
BN: Yes, it was very nerve-wracking when he came in - but, honestly, I just looked forward to it so much! Obviously, it was exciting and he was thrilling - I was so excited to be playing this character; and, I was 19! [Laughs.]
PC: Rubbing elbows with icons already! Was it a particular thrill to play Cassie and step into Donna McKechnie's shoes, as it were?
BN: Oh, yes, of course. There are a couple of stories I could tell you, actually.
PC: Please do.
BN: OK. One thing that he would always stress when was doing a show - and this was sort of a constant; a great lesson that I learned from him - was to make sure you are not feeling sorry for yourself. He would say, "There's nothing worse than anyone in A CHORUS LINE or in any show looking sorry for themselves." You know, these are people who are stepping on the line and they're auditioning and it's a trap in that show to exhibit self-pity - and he would really crack the whip on that. "There's no self-pity in this - you're just telling your story."
PC: What a great memory.
BN: Another one is I remember once we were in Milwaukee and he was trying to tighten up the show because it was starting to lag and it was just taking too long to do, so he re-directed the show and we did it again and after the show he came on the intercom as we were leaving the theater and said, "That was great - you took about seven minutes off of the show, which might have been a little bit too much!" [Laughs.]
PC: He was too good for his own good!
BN: I remember my friend who was playing Bobby said to me... I was playing Sheila and he was playing Bobby and we were at the stage door sort of listening in and Bobby said, "You know, he didn't even need the intercom to make that announcement." [Big Laugh.]
PC: How fantastic! But, he made his point, right?
BN: Right. [Sighs.] I was so young - so young - when I was playing Sheila. I was 20 years old and I still had baby fat. I mean, I don't have much of a waist - I have sort of a boyish frame; I just don't go in at the waist much. So, with that in addition to having a little baby fat still, he wanted to put a belt on me as Sheila - and I remember when I put it on it sort of made him scratch his head and laugh. And, he couldn't quite... I think he got a kick out of it, though. I mean, I knew absolutely nothing - nothing! I was 20 years old and he loved my Sheila and I still had baby fat, so he said, "Just put a belt on her!" [Laughs.]
PC: Did he make you change your hair? He usually did.
BN: Yes. I had to cut my hair when I played Sheila and Cassie.
PC: Of course. Hair always made the role for him.
BN: He wanted to see my neck - that's what he said. There are some beautiful neck-rolls in the Cassie dance, of course. I used to wear my hair up and he wanted me to cut it.
PC: What was the best direction you remember him giving you?
BN: I think this is the best direction he ever gave me: when we were about to open in Chicago at the theater there, we got there a couple of days early and we had rehearsal with him at the Arie Crown, which is an enormous convention center - I mean, the stage is the size of a football field or something! Enormous. And, so, we each had our individual rehearsals with him throughout the day - I guess that they felt that Chicago was going to be a big opening so they wanted us to each have our time with Michael.
PC: One on one.
BN: One on one. So, different people were called in all day and I was the last person of the day to come in and work with him, as Cassie. I remember he was standing in the middle of the stage when I came in and I started to walk onstage for my rehearsal and as soon as I got onstage he said, "Stop right there," and he was standing quite far away from me at the time. He said, "Stop right there and get down on your knees." And, so, I got down on my knees and then he said, "OK. Now, do the scene."
BN: So, after that, I did the whole Cassie scene with him - the Zack/Cassie scene of "Oh, this audition really is interesting, isn't it? What are you doing here? I need a job," and all of that. But, having me do it on my knees was a very eloquent description of what that is - in the scene, she is on her knees begging for a job. And, so, to understand that, it is very helpful for an actress to actually get on her knees and do the scene to feel it - that was brilliant.
PC: Giving you a spatial relationship to the character, as well.
BN: Yeah! And, he was on that enormous stage, as well, so far away from me. And, you know, I had just taken over the role in the previous city and I really didn't know what I doing yet, and, so, there I am, and Michael Bennett is saying to me, "Get on your knees." I didn't know where I was. So, yeah - that is the best memory I have of him from rehearsal, although I'm sure there are many more brilliant things he said to me that I no longer recall.
PC: What did it feel like dancing Donna's tailor-made choreography?
BN: Donna's choreography... you see, the whole point of that is that Donna doesn't dance like anybody else! Donna McKechnie is an exquisite dancer and she doesn't dance like anybody else - she is a magician. She is just exquisite. And, this choreography expresses her own personal magic. Now, I've seen some of the best dancers on Broadway do that dance beautifully but never come close to being able to touch what Donna does with it. So, I think that it's very important that the person who is playing Cassie gets coached in that dance. What Michael focused on with me in directing that dance was the musicality.
PC: How so?
BN: Well, you know, she's talking about, "All I need is the music and the mirror," because that's life to her. So, one of the great gifts that Donna possesses is her musicality and Michael wanted me to be able to understand dancing to the music versus dancing in the music - and, the way that he did that was to do the first part of the dance together with me.
PC: No way!
BN: Yes - we danced it together; he stood right next to me so that I could feel what that was like. So, the two of us were doing the first part of the dance together - and, remember, we are on the huge stage of the Arie Crown - and there's Michael in his crummy little t-shirt and his ripped-up jeans and his Jack Purcells and his little gut hanging over his jeans and he danced like another magician. I mean, he was extraordinary.
PC: I can't even imagine! Was it exhilarating?
BN: To do that dance with him and to try to feel what he was feeling - that was how he expressed to me what he wanted. Now, did I get it? Did I understand it? Was I even able to incorporate it? I kind of doubt it, but it was a fantastic lesson on what to strive for - and, I think that in the years since then that that has been something that I have been able to incorporate, becoming a musical dancer.
PC: Did you ever see Ann Reinking play Cassie?
BN: Yes. I did. That's why I said - I've seen the best Broadway dancers do the role. She is extraordinary, too - she is my favorite dancer in the world. It was Annie's dance and it was extraordinary because it was Annie's dance when she did it, but it was Donna's choreography - you know, as I said, nobody dances like Donna. There was a woman who played Cassie who became my very, very close friend - a woman named Deborah - and she got very close to it, although she was a very different dancer than Donna. Deborah had the ability to get down into the floor the way that Donna does and Michael did - and still remain very elegant on top while she did it.
PC: Perilously difficult to do, no doubt.
BN: It's one of the extraordinary things that Donna can do. Deborah was one of the strongest dancers I'd ever seen and when she would do the dance it was like there was somehow a half an inch of space between her feet and the floor!
PC: What a description!
BN: Do you know what I mean?! Somehow she was like those animals in photographs that you see who are running so fast that you don't even see their hooves or their paws hitting the ground - that was Deborah. She was amazing. Amazing. So, I think that's the thing for Cassie - and why Deborah's Cassie was so successful and why Annie's Cassie was so successful - because they found a way to make that choreography their own. Nobody dances like Donna, but they danced in it, like Michael would say.
PC: Did you ever discuss Michael with Bob Fosse or vice versa?
BN: [Laughs.] I never asked Bob about Michael!
PC: I'd imagine not!
BN: I mean, I was just a kid! I didn't know what any of it was even about - I was just a kid trying to soak up as much as I could from the side-lines. I never considered myself part of the in crowd - and, I mean, my exposure to Michael was only basically from the ages of 19 to 21. With Bob, I was much closer to him and spent much more time with him, but I was never someone who called him Bobby or anything. I would never claim any kind of close friendship like that - I have too much respect for him and too much respect for people who did have close friendships with him. For me, it was just this: whether he knew it or not, he was my mentor; and, I loved and still do love him deeply for being that person and being that artist.
PC: You worked on his final SWEET CHARITY revival, of course.
BN: Yes. I understudied Charity and I went on for Charity.
PC: So, you worked with him and Gwen to learn the role?
BN: Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah. I learned it all from them. But, as for Bob and Michael - they had totally, totally different energies.
PC: Have you read the new book on Fosse?
BN: No. I haven't. I sort of feel like I can't participate in that - it still breaks my heart so much. I mean, I think it would just make me miss him - it still makes me so sad. [Sighs.] I kind of feel like it would upset me to read it - it's too sad; it's too upsetting.
PC: Would you be open to participating in a film on him someday?
BN: Depending on who did it and how it was all handled - absolutely. Of course, I have certainly spoken to people about him. You just never know what people's motives are, though, and you never really know what part of that person people want to sensationalize. For a while, I wanted to make a book about him myself and what I wanted to do was interview people who worked with him and ask them the question, "What did he say about dancing?" I didn't want to do anything about the women or his personal life or anything like that - just the genius artist who he was. What did he say? What exactly did he do when you were in the room with him?
PC: How provocative.
BN: You know, one of my close friends is the actor Roger Rees...
PC: Who you famously co-starred in THE ADDAMS FAMILY on Broadway with not too long ago, of course.
BN: Yes. One of the way that we bonded when we first met was looking in each other's eyes and saying how much we both loved Bob Fosse - and that just gave us such a connection.
PC: A friendship was built on that.
BN: It really was. So, Roger would tell me stuff that Bob had said to him when he was directing him in STAR 80, and I would tell him what Bob would say in the room when we were dancing - and that's how our friendship began. I find that so fascinating - what did he say to Roger when he was directing him? I'm very interested in that - I feel like people's personal lives are just that; they're personal. And, it's just too easy to make assumptions about people and it's too easy to exploit certain aspects of people's lives. What Bob Fosse contributed as an artist is so magnificent that that is what I would like to know more about.
PC: We need a revival of DANCIN', stat!
BN: Yeah, yeah - you're right. We do.
PC: On that note, is "Mr. Bojangles" the moment in your STORIES... IN NYC show that you align with him most?
BN: Oh, Bob is running throughout the whole show, really. There are a couple of places where he is very, very present in my mind and in my heart, though - especially when I do a few of those songs; like that and a few others - and they are certainly very personal moments to me when I do them.
PC: "And The World Goes Round" is a true showstopper from the album. Have you ever sung that song prior to this?
BN: Yes, I have sung that song before as part of my live shows - I used to do symphony shows where I would limit the composers to Kurt Weill and Kander & Ebb and I used to sing that in that show, with symphonies.
PC: I assume you are a fan of Liza Minnelli's original, yes?
BN: I am a huge Liza Minnelli fan and I think she's a brilliant, transcendent artist. I am not that familiar with her version of the song, actually, though - I saw it in the movie [NEW YORK, NEW YORK], but that's the only time I specifically remember her singing it. Of course, the song was written for her. But, you know, I'd never even step on a stage if I thought of that before I did it! [Laughs.] She's just got genius in her and that voice is unbelievable - and, I don't even really consider myself a singer!
PC: You're too humble.
BN: What that song expresses, though, is so magnificent that I just want to express those feelings that John and Fred were able to express in music and lyrics like they did - I think the song is so sublime. It's about that duality of life, so brilliantly expressed, that I want to partake in if I can and share it with other people when I perform that song - that's really all I want to do when I sing that song. For me, when I do any of the songs it's never, you know, "How can I do this in a pretty way?" I've always felt that I am not a singer and I am just acting through song - that's where my focus is; how can I take what this song is about and best express it? It's not, "Hey, listen to the sound of my voice," it's, "Hey, listen to what the song is about."
PC: An illuminating distinction to make. There are so many superb songs on the album, but I am curious if there is anything that didn't make the cut?
BN: That's the whole show - it's all there. But, yeah, there are many songs that I have sung in other versions of the show that aren't on the album. This is STORIES #4, but STORIES #1 and STORIES #3 had other songs that I took out and decided not to do in this show.
PC: There is no STORIES #2 anyway, of course, correct?
BN: [Laughs.] No, there is not! There is no STORIES #2. That's just a little in-joke we have. I just thought, "Why do I have to go in order like that?!"
PC: Have you considered any idea for a follow-up show yet - perhaps even one at 54 Below?
BN: I hope to come back. I am just now starting to think, "If I did another show, what kind of songs would I look at?" So, I am just starting to do that now - it will be a while before I do it. But, they have invited me back and I am very grateful for the invitation. I love to play there and I look forward to being back there.
PC: By the way, where was the cover shot filmed? It's so eye-grabbing and fabulous.
BN: Oh, thank you! My husband took all those photographs, actually - we took that at 6th Avenue and 11th Street.
PC: Stage to screen, your banana fellatio scene in Woody Allen's CELEBRITY is a classic!
BN: Why, thank you! [Big Laugh.]
PC: Could you do that before you auditioned?
BN: Well! A lady does not reveal... [Big Laugh.]
PC: What are your memories of receiving the script for that scene?
BN: Well, one thing about Woody movies is that you don't ever see the whole script, you only see your sides. So, you could get hired to do a Woody movie and you could get a page that is only half a page long if that is your scene - the rest of the page is blank. You don't see anything but what you need to do in the movie. So, I met this other actress who was in the movie somewhere and the movie hadn't come out yet and she said to me, "Oh, so who do you play? Do you do stuff with Judy?" And, I said, "Yeah, I am in some scenes with Judy," And she said, "Oh, so you play her best friend or something?" which is sort of a crummy thing to say, and I said, "No. I play a hooker." And, she said, "Oh?!" and she was really surprised.
PC: How hilarious.
BN: Then, I said, "Yeah, I teach her how to give a blow-job," and her face just fell apart. [Laughs.]
PC: What a comeback.
BN: I have to say, though, in all seriousness, I have been a fan of Woody Allen since I was a kid - I remember going to his movies as a child. I mean, my family never really went to movies much except for Woody Allen movies and MARY POPPINS. Those are really the only movies I remember seeing as a child. So, when I was actually on the set and everything... [Pause. Sighs.] I remember that day I woke up and I was just pinching myself, saying, "Oh, my God. I can't believe it! I am actually on a Woody Allen set with Woody Allen standing here directing me."
PC: Totally surreal.
BN: Totally. And, then, there was, "Oh, my God. Here I am on a Woody Allen set and he is directing me in how to give fellatio to a plastic banana."
BN: My head was exploding! Exploding. It was insane. And, you know, there were several other scenes that we had which were cut from the film.
PC: It's the standout scene of the entire film, in any event. Have you two kept in touch?
BN: We have, actually - we've done a couple of things together since then. We did a play that he wrote and directed at the Atlantic Theatre Company, Off-Broadway, and I also got to do his film for September 11.
PC: What are your memories of filming that?
BN: Well, there were three New York directors who were a part of that - each one of them did a short. So, I just did a line in that with him in that, but I was very happy to be a part of it.
PC: How do you view how New York has changed since 9/11? It seems Broadway has more theme park type attractions and most musicals are based on movies; THE ADDAMS FAMILY included.
BN: Well, I guess they go through phases - you know, for a while, revivals were hot; for a while, there were giant pieces of scenery falling through the sky; for a while, things where it was about the material, like CHICAGO, were hot. It's all about movies to musicals now - that's what's hot. So, the pendulum swings and it doesn't always go back and forth, sometimes it goes side to side and up and down - there are all different trends. I think that it is always a delicate balance between commerce and art - sometimes art wins and sometimes commerce wins and the fact is that Broadway is expensive and it is expensive to produce and it is a huge risk to take, so producers want to mitigate their risks as much as possible, and, sometimes doing a revival is a way to ensure that there is something there built-it; sometimes having a giant piece of scenery and some kind of spectacle is a way to ensure that people will be interested; now, it's, "Oh, that movie was successful, so let's see if it can work onstage." So, I think that that is part of what drives these trends - the idea of, "Oh, audiences are buying this so let's stay on that trend," and so it takes someone brave enough to say, "This is not on trend, but it is really good and interesting and we believe in it and it has its own integrity and we are just going to put it up and hope that people like it," and, frequently, people do. And, then, that starts another trend. But, who knows - I may be way off-base with this.
PC: Are you looking to dance again on Broadway sometime soon?
BN: I would love to dance again on Broadway - but, keep in mind, I am 54 years old and I have two steel hips! [Laughs.] [NOTE: Since this interview, it was announced Bebe will return to CHICAGO as Mama Morton.]
PC: What was your actual return to the stage after those major surgeries?
BN: Actually, it was when I came back to CHICAGO and played Roxie - that was after my first hip replacement. My second hip replacement, THE ADDAMS FAMILY came after that. So, you know, I'm still dancing and I am still in ballet class, but, as I say, I have had two hip replacements and simply I cannot kick my face anymore. So, if people are going to see me dance again, they are going to have to know that it is not going to be what it was - I mean, I can't go back and play Velma right now; it's too athletic. I probably couldn't even go back and play Roxie right now - even that is too athletic. But, there is a whole lot of other stuff that I can do and hope to do.
PC: You have a recurring role on BLUE BLOODS - will you be coming back soon?
BN: Yes, I am. I am on a couple more episodes of BLUE BLOODS. I am actually shooting an episode for that this month. It's a really nice set and a great atmosphere there - really nice people. I really like it a lot. I have two more episodes this season, I think.
PC: You appear from time to time on THE GOOD WIFE, as well.
BN: Yes. THE GOOD WIFE is a really nice vibe on set, too - I really like the people on that. I am very happy to say that there is something else I have brewing for TV, so stay tuned and we may be chatting about that again some day soon.
PC: One last question: is the TV pilot BROWSERS ever coming to fruition as a series?
BN: Aww, no - unfortunately, BROWSERS did not get picked up. It's pretty good, too - it was a musical comedy half-hour show.
PC: Fosse, Bennett, Woody Allen and beyond - we can't wait to see what genius you work with next!
BN: Me, too! [Laughs.]
PC: Such great stories and such a great album - thank you so much for this today, Bebe.
BN: I really appreciate this - I really do. It's been a real pleasure to talk to you, Pat. Bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, etc.