Monday, October 10, 2011

Reel Thoughts Interview: Bebe, It’s You!

Bebe Neuwirth won television audiences hearts as the stiff and repressed but always lovable Lilith Sternin on Cheers, but she had been dancing ballet and acting on Broadway for years before that. Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts has enlisted the versatile singer/actress/dancer to open their terrific 2011/2012 Season. I had the pleasure of speaking to Ms. Neuwirth the day after 9/11; we talked about her career, and where she wants to take it in the future.

Neuwirth was honored to be one of a huge group of Broadway stars who gathered on Times Square to sing “New York, New York” as part of “Broadway Remembers 9/11”, which was a recreation of a performance done right after the attacks to help Broadway and New Yorkers gain some comfort and be able to return to normalcy. At the time, Neuwirth remembered, “I had just started rehearsing a play for Lincoln Center and when it happened, I thought, “I can’t go back to the play, I mean, what’s the point? I should be down there on the piles helping the guys and feeding people. Then, I realized through the wisdom of the people at Lincoln Center who were saying, “No this is exactly what you should be doing.” It was really (a) pretty awful (time).”

Stories With Piano is the name of the show that Neuwirth is bringing to Scottsdale with pianist Scott Cady, which she hesitates to call a cabaret performance. “It’s sort of hard to describe, because some of the songs are from Broadway shows, but some of them are from Tom Waits and there’s a Beatles song in there and there’s an Edith Piaf song in there. It’s such a broad range that I don’t really know what category it falls into. They are a group of songs that either tell a story in a narrative way or they are a moment in a person’s life that is so compelling or so emotional or so deep that you know there’s a big story behind it,” she explained.

“It’s an interesting thing to stand on stage as yourself and not be a character like Jenny in Threepenny Opera or (Chicago’s) Velma or Morticia (from The Addams Family), I’m just me. I don’t want to stand onstage and tell you all about myself because I just think that’s far too narcissistic and boring an exercise for me. There are some people I want to go and hear exactly who they are. I want to hear Elaine Stritch’s show, I want to hear those stories, but it’s not for me to do. I do think that there’s a reason that I choose the songs that I choose. There’s something about them that I can relate to, so there is something that you might know about me (after the show)… maybe,” she said, laughing.

Born in the country outside Princeton, New Jersey, Neuwirth developed a love of ballet at an early age. “I’ve been in ballet classes since I was five and been on stage since I was seven (in ballet), so it’s really when I’m dancing that I feel most comfortable and most at home. I enjoy television and film a lot and I enjoy being in a play or singing in these concerts that I do immensely, but there’s something a little bit different when I am dancing onstage. It’s been the one constant in my life.  It’s the one thing that I’ve always done, and I mean always!”

Her first Broadway role was quite a coup, playing Sheila in A Chorus Line at age nineteen in 1978. The show was a phenomenon in the pre-Phantom of the Opera days. “The show was only three years old at the time.  Picture a Broadway without helicopters landing onstage or chandeliers rising up or people dressed up as cats so much that you don’t even see the person anymore. It was a different time, maybe a more human time on Broadway. It was just thrilling beyond words. I got to work with (creator) Michael Bennett a lot.” Neuwirth started in the tour, then graduated to the Broadway production, where she got to work with more experienced dancers who had done shows with legendary choreographers like Gower Champion and Bob Fosse. “They had amazing stories and if I paid attention to what they were doing and how they worked, I could learn a lot. It was a gift. It was a real blessing in my life.”

Neuwirth went on to work with Fosse, winning Tony Awards for revivals of Sweet Charity and Chicago. With two Emmys for Cheers and a new album called Porcelain coming out in October, can a Grammy be far behind?  The title refers not to Neuwirth’s ivory complexion, but rather to porcelain’s strength and fragility. “It has an interesting duality,” she concluded, referring to both the ceramic and her CD.

Her biggest Broadway triumph was the result of a concert version of Kander & Ebb’s 1975 Chicago at Encores! At City Center. No one thought it would go further, but the audience response “blew the roof off of the theater. It was like seeing an old friend that you just love so much when we gave the audiences Chicago again.” Ten years after blowing audiences away as merry murderess Velma Kelly in the sleek Chicago revival that followed and after hip replacement surgery in 2006, Neuwirth returned to Chicago playing the other killer, foxy Roxie Hart. It was a great experience, both because she got to see the show from a different angle, but also because it set aside any worries that she wouldn’t dance again.

“There were two things going on,” she explained. “One was the absolute exalting feeling of being able to dance again after excruciating pain and going through an operation and all the physical therapy and being able to dance on Broadway again. I can’t come up with words to tell you how happy that made me. And the other thing was being able to experience the show from a different perspective made me appreciate it all the more.”

“I’m so grateful and humbled by that,” Neuwirth responded when reminded of her iconic status in the GLBT community, from playing so many strong and empowering women. “That’s inspiring to me.” She is very happy about New York approving marriage equality. “Sometimes, when (same sex) couples come and tell me that they just got married and that they wanted to come see me in a show, I find that extremely moving, because marriage for anyone is a big deal. To be included in the celebration of that means a lot to me.”

One of Neuwirth’s favorite causes is animal rights. “I love animals and they can’t speak for themselves, they can’t do anything for themselves. It’s like children, you have to stand up for people and creatures who can’t speak for themselves. There are people who do so much more greater work than I do, but I help out when I can.” Before coming to Scottsdale, she will be doing a benefit for Equine Advocates and the Henry Street Settlement. “They have an equine sanctuary in upstate New York and they bring kids and women (who’ve been abused) up to the farm to visit with the horses. Horses are mystical creatures and if you’re in the presence of a horse, something happens to you. Some of these city folks are a little scared at first by this big animal and then something just opens up inside of them and there is this healing that takes place. They learn the stories of these horses that had suffered abuse in their past but were rescued and brought to this farm. It’s a really interesting link between the two groups and they’re helping each other right now.” She also praised Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore for a huge pet adoption event called Broadway Barks. “They’re a couple of heroes, and I help them out when I can.”

When asked what she’d tell aspiring GLBT youth who want to follow in her footsteps. “When kids want to be what they want to be, it might feel unattainable,” she responded. “I got bullied by a girl in school also, not to compare myself to anyone, and everyone has their own story to tell. Bullying is lousy no matter the degree, but there was a girl who made my life hell in the fifth grade, really horrible, and you know, I hate her to this day. I think to myself, if I ever saw her on the street at the age of fifty-two, what would I say to her? Here’s what I think, and I don’t know that I have any qualification to give out any advice on this because I understand that the bullying that you’re talking about is really profound and ultimately sometimes tragic. I would say, be yourself and believe in yourself. You are a gift to the world and acknowledge that because that is the truth. It used to be upsetting to me that I wasn’t like ‘that person’ or ‘that person’ and maybe I should change. It took me a while to realize, “No, exactly who I am is exactly who I should be. That’s the best I can do.”

Bebe Neuwirth: Stories With Piano will be performed at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts this Saturday, October 15. Click here for more information and tickets.

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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