'When I Am Who I Am Most': Bebe Neuwirth
What's left for a Broadway diva after winning two Tony awards, achieving national recognition as a Hollywood celebrity (and winning two Emmy awards in the process), and becoming the symbol of a Broadway triple-threat star for her generation?
A Kurt Weill concert, of course.
On February 4th, Bebe Neuwirth, accompanied by Roger Rees and backed up by the Collegiate Chorale Singers, will present a concert of songs by the legendary German composer, playwright, and social critic. Weill's work is not new for Ms. Neuwirth, or for Mr. Rees. While working with Ms. Neuwirth and Ann Reinking on a new production that will use Weill music, Rees invited the Collegiate Chorale's Musical Director Robert Bass to see their work. He, in turn, invited Mr. Rees and Ms. Neuwirth to be in his Weill presentation at Alice Tully Hall. "It's very inspiring to me to do this other investigation of Kurt Weill material," Ms. Neuwirth says, and eagerly adds that she has learned four songs in French from Marie Galante, a 1934 Weill play, for the concert. "The four French songs are another fascinating chapter of this composer's life."
Indeed, the concert will mark Ms. Neuwirth's cabaret debut, and her first time performing in French. "I enjoy singing in other languages," she says. "I'm not a classically trained singer, so it's all about performing the songs, and expressing what I feel in the song.... There's also a physical aspect to it. Being a dancer, I'm engaged physically, and that extends to speech. It's a physical challenge. Expressing is expressing, as long as you know what you're saying."
Having earned many accolades, including her first Tony Award for the 1986 revival of Sweet Charity, before becoming a household name on Cheers, Bebe Neuwirth appreciates her impact on an audience both as a triple-threat performer and as a Hollywood star. "I think for some people it's jarring," she says, "since what I do on stage is so different from what I did with one character. It's strange to see someone from TV walking around on stage talking and singing and engaging the audience in a physical way." Her fame has helped lure newcomers to Broadway, fans who might not otherwise have attended the show but for the chance to see a star. "I think fame helps ensure a certain number of people in the audience. In other words, it's more likely that my name will get people in the seats. It's sad that it's like that, and I wish it wasn't, but that's why I took the job." After winning her first Tony, she says, she noticed a trend with Broadway casting. "Broadway was hiring people from TV, since they didn't want to take risks. They wanted people who might not sing or dance, but would get people in seats. I thought, 'I have my stage chops- I can act, sing, and dance- but if they need me on TV to keep hiring me on Broadway, that's what I'll do.'"
Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, Ms. Neuwirth began studying classical ballet at age five, and "grew up at McCarter," the Tony-winning regional theatre in Princeton. "I made the switch at 13 when I saw Pippin," she says. "All I knew was that what they were doing resonated with me, and I wanted to do [Fosse's] choreography. I said, 'I can do that!' It made sense to me, physically." Following her dreams of musical theatre and ballet, she attended the Juilliard School for a year. "After that, I toured in A Chorus Line. First I understudied Sheila and Cassie, then played Sheila, then Cassie, then came to Broadway and understudied Sheila. One of my last performances was when the hostages came back from Iran. That was a moving experience. I'm very proud to have been there for it."
Making her Broadway debut in a show choreographed by the legendary Michael Bennett, and achieving stardom in a musical choreographed by the equally legendary Bob Fosse, Ms. Neuwirth has a true insider's view into the styles of the two masters. "Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse were very different... I loved working with Michael. He was great, very nice to me and supportive, but in terms of choreography, I'm much more of a Fosse dancer than a Michael Bennett. Michael is low to the floor, heavy. Bob is much more pulled up and lyrical and athletic and elegantly sensual. I think those trained in ballet do better with Fosse. One is up, one is down." Indeed, she has nothing but praise for Mr. Fosse. "Every second I spent with him was diamonds," she says with gentle admiration and respect in her voice. "I loved him and I am blessed to have been able to work with him. He was a genius, and I don't throw that word around. And I worked with Gwen [Verdon], who was his equal. She was magnificent."
Fosse's work, she says, has thematic elements in common with Kurt Weill's. "One of the things that appeals to me and makes sense, and that I sensed at 13, is that there's a duality, an irony in the world that [Fosse] evokes," she says. "The movements have an irony and a darkness, and I feel in... Weill material that there is also an irony and a duality and a darkness that makes sense, and I am quite fulfilled expressing in that mode. That's the most satisfying thing, where there is great joy and great light, but great depth and darkness and mystery. The emotional life that Fosse investigates is a deep emotional life. It's not standard fare... I'm more satisfied where emotional life is deep and profound. There is a similar truth in Weill." She pauses, and chuckles. "It's also satisfying not to be funny. I'm a little tired of being funny! I'm a little bit saturated in comedy, and there's more to me than that. It's nice to be able to be tragic now and then. I happen to think that the best comedians are the best tragedians."
Having starred on Broadway before and after the days of the British "mega-musicals" invasion, Ms. Neuwirth is guardedly optimistic about the future of the true American Musical. "We're coming back to human theatre. Cats all but destroyed humanity of theatre- everything was special effects... I commend Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking for what they did with the material [in Chicago]. Audiences appreciate it. Theatre is a visceral experience for the audiences as well as performers. The more effects and machinery, the more you remove the audiences from their experience. I blame Cats for that. I commend Chicago on the healing." And, she points out with no small amount of American pride, "A Chorus Line really is the longest running Broadway show. Cats is from the West End, not Broadway."
"A dancer is a person who expresses physically," Ms. Neuwirth says thoughtfully, when asked what she loves most about dancing on stage. "It's the first thing that defines a dancer, so being on stage is natural. Theatre is physical medium. It's when I am who I am most. It's the most natural for me."