Bebe Neuwirth is best known for the memorable characters she has embodied: Sheila in the long-running, original Broadway production of A Chorus Line; Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane on TV’s Cheers and Frasier; Nina the hooker in Woody Allen’s 1998 film Celebrity; and musical murderess Velma Kelly in the hit Broadway revival of Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. She’ll soon be adding Morticia in a stage musical adaptation of The Addams Family to her repertoire.
For her artistic efforts, Neuwirth has been awarded to date two Tony Awards, two Emmys and numerous other citations. This consummate professional recently took the time to speak with Movie Dearest from her home in Greenwich Village. While we primarily discussed her role as dance instructor Lynn Kraft in the new remake of the 1980 movie musical Fame (in theaters this Friday), the 50-year old Neuwirth shared many insights gained from her work on screen and stage.
“(Fame) is about hard work and friendship and pursuing what you are driven to do,” Neuwirth said. “I think artists know what we want to do from an early age, but the struggle comes in pursuing it and perfecting our technique.”
Neuwirth recalled a conversation she had with a classmate shortly before her graduation from a New Jersey high school. “She told me she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, and that was so strange to me. I always knew what I wanted to do.”
Discussing her role in Fame, Neuwirth described the character at length: “(Lynn) runs the school’s dance department and is an ex-ballet dancer. She is versatile in all forms of dance. She is very much in favor of a strong technical base for whatever form of dance the student chooses.”
As one among a number of artistically demanding teachers, “Lynn is very compassionate but has what some people call ‘tough love’ for her students,” according to Neuwirth.
Neuwirth admitted to not having seen the original Fame movie, although she was featured in a 1986 episode of its spin-off TV series while she was on hiatus from her Tony-winning role in the Broadway revival of Sweet Charity.
“I can tell you that the new film is the same, only different” from the original, Neuwirth said. “I think fans of the original movie and series will be satisfied.”
She continued, “I think it’s interesting that (the remake) is being made right now in this time of instant celebrity.” Alluding to people who become momentarily popular via today’s reality TV shows and Internet exposure, Neuwirth stated, “It’s good to remind people that a lot of hard work goes into making an artist.”
While she had a good time filming the remake, Neuwirth — who is first and foremost a Julliard-trained dancer — was disappointed that she didn’t get to dance in it. She was also saddened to have never crossed paths with her former Frasier co-star, Kelsey Grammer, on the set. “We had no scenes together, but I was told ‘Kelsey sends his love’ by a crew member.”
Despite the fact that Fame was director Kevin Tancharoen’s first feature film, Neuwirth was very impressed by the 25-year old filmmaker. “He’s wonderful; he’s very smart and has a great vibe,” she raved. “He was a great diplomat and he’s worked as a dancer, which was very helpful because we (dancers) are a different animal” from actors.
I couldn’t help but ask Neuwirth about how she has seen the Broadway musical change or develop during her 25+ years in the business. After prefacing her response with “That’s a longer conversation than your column can hold” and “I don’t really get out much,” she replied, “Everything got out of hand when Cats came in and things became about the technical aspects and moving scenery; it became all about the spectacle and not the material.”
Neuwirth stated bluntly that she thinks of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline fantasia as “Patient Zero” in the decline of the Broadway musical that has taken place since the early 1980’s. “Spectacle pushes the audience away,” she believes.
However, Neuwirth has cause for hope. “I really feel that (director) Walter Bobbie and (choreographer-star) Ann Reinking did a lot with the Chicago revival in 1996 in putting the focus back on the material,” she said. Neuwirth co-starred in the production and won a second Tony Award for her performance.
In addition to Fame, Neuwirth has another film in the can, Adopt a Sailor, which is currently making the festival rounds. “It’s a really beautiful piece inspired by the September 11th event,” according to the actress. “It’s about a couple in a really terrible marriage who take part in the ‘Adopt a Sailor’ program during Fleet Week in New York City.” Peter Coyote (E.T.) co-stars with Neuwirth in this acclaimed, independent feature.
Next up for Neuwirth is the highly anticipated The Addams Family. She spoke excitedly about the production, which will have a tryout in Chicago this fall and, if all goes well, move to Broadway next spring. “My co-stars are Nathan Lane as Gomez, Jackie Hoffman (Hairspray, Xanadu) as Grandmama and Kevin Chamberlin (Seussical: The Musical and the gay-fave film, Trick) as Uncle Fester.”
Fascinating to both watch and speak with, Neuwirth will no doubt serve as an inspiration not only to the young dancing students under her wing in Fame but to real-life, future performers everywhere.
UPDATE: Fame is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.