Theater
3:45 am
Sat January 25, 2014

Neuwirth Returns To Broadway, With More 'Class' Than Ever

Originally published on Sat January 25, 2014 10:14 am

Bebe Neuwirth is probably best known for her role in the hit TV show Cheers and its spinoff, Frasier, in both of which which she played Lilith, Frasier Crane's ice-blooded, uptight sometime wife.

But she's also an accomplished dancer and Broadway star, having won two Tony Awards — one of them for her portrayal of the murderous nightclub singer Velma Kelly in the 1996 revival of Chicago, the Kander and Ebb musical that was the sizzling-hot hit of the season.

Neuwirth returned to the same production 10 years later to play Velma's conniving, sexy prison rival Roxie Hart. Now she's back — yes, in that same production, which is now the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history — for one more go.

This time, Neuwirth is playing Chicago's third major female role: prison matron Mama Morton. Modeled on big-bodied, big-voiced vaudevillians like Sophie Tucker, Mama is the one who explains, raucously, that prisoners have it better "When You're Good to Mama" — and later, in a hilariously dirty-minded duet with Velma, laments the lack of "Class" among the newer breed of murderess. (Queen Latifah played the role in the Oscar-winning 2002 film version.)

Neuwirth tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that she's not fretting about missing out on the fairly spectacular choreography that the actress playing Velma gets to execute every night. "I had my time doing it," she says, and "I'm fine."

Besides, there's plenty to dig into in the mercenary character of Mama Morton.

"Walter Bobbie, our director, said the one thing to remember about Mama is that there's a reason she's called 'Mama,'" Neuwirth says. "And what that translates to in terms of playing her is that, as much as she is out for a buck, and looking for the next dollar to be made, she is maternal. She really actually cares for these people.

"The fact is that she might charge one person $50 to make a phone call, but if she sees someone's down on their luck, she'll charge them $5 to make a phone call. So she gives the girls a sliding scale; she's got a heart."

Neuwirth joined Weekend Edition Saturday to talk about about discovering the choreography of the legendary Bob Fosse, about being recognized by fans, and about the ups and downs of musical theater.


Interview Highlights

On coming back as Mama Morton

Well, I was having a meeting with Barry Weisler, our producer, and we were just chatting about different projects and things. And he said, 'Have you ever thought about playing Mama?' And I burst into laughter. I said, 'Well, you know, that's the joke: This show's been running so long I'm old now. I'm in my 50s — I can play her.'

On the demands of Bob Fosse's choreography, and of the three roles

Having played both Velma and Roxie, I can say that Velma is the more demanding role physically — absolutely. The material is so fine; it's so well choreographed, it's so well written. And then the fact that I am the kind of dancer for whom the Fosse style and vernacular comes — it feels very natural. The first time I saw Fosse choreography I was 13 years old, and I went to see Pippin. I had no idea that Bob Fosse was God. But when I saw the choreography I felt like I recognized myself in some way. And I was just this kid, you know, taking ballet class in a nonprofessional, regional ballet company. And I just thought, 'That's me. I know I feel that.'

It was just Bob's world; it was his language, it was his sensibility. I could not have said this to you as a 13-year-old; all I could say was, 'That's me!' But thinking about it now, it's his world — of light and dark, of irony, of sensuality. It's sort of beyond words, actually. It's just a feeling that you feel as a dancer, and as a dancer watching it, I knew that it resonated that deeply for me.

On the waxing and waning of musical theater

I think that it's on a pendulum. It comes and it goes, and trends come and trends go. For a while you had to send chandeliers crashing, and helicopters [flying] in, and I don't know how the pendulum is swinging now. For a while it was all revivals, and then it was all thinky things. So I don't really know, and I don't know that anyone knows really specifically what's going on. Except that these waves come and then they go out, and then a new one comes in.

On being recognized on the street

I do get stopped, and it's really interesting. Some people are very quiet about it, and they say, 'I just want you to know I really loved you on Frasier,' and I'll say, 'Well thank you so much.' And then sometimes people just stare at me and talk about me. This just happened on the subway the other day. I was right in front of a couple, and they were looking at me, talking about me. I thought, 'I don't know how to be with that.' But I am very, very grateful for the recognition and the time spent playing that part.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN: Now, to Broadway to talk with Bebe Neuwirth. Everyone may know her name, but not for this role.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CHEERS" THEME MUSIC)

LYDEN: She played Lilith Sternin, Frasier Crane's tightly wound paramour.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEERS")

BEBE NEUWIRTH: (As Lilith) In certain company, when someone says thank you very much, I appreciate that, it means I don't thank you, I don't appreciate that, and I want you to shut your mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Woody) Oh, thank you very much, Dr. Sternin.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Bebe Neuwirth, who played Lilith, left the ice queen bit behind to return to Broadway, her first love. In 1996, she starred as the murderous Velma Kelly in the Broadway revival of "Chicago," for which she won a Tony Award.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THAT JAZZ")

NEUWIRTH: (Singing) (As Velma) Come on, babe, why don't we paint the town, and all that jazz. I want to bruise my knees and roll my stockings down, and all that jazz...

LYDEN: She went on to play another lead character: the conniving, sexy Roxie Hart. Bebe Neuwirth now returns to the stage to play her third role in "Chicago"; this time as Mama Morton, the very unsexy matron at the Cook County Jail. She's a diminutive mama, it must be said.

NEUWIRTH: Walter Bobbie, our director, said the one thing to remember about Mama is that there's a reason she's called Mama. And what that translates to, in terms of playing her, is that as much as she is out for a buck and looking for the next dollar to be made, she is maternal. She really, actually cares for these people. The fact is that she might charge one person $50 to make a phone call. But if she sees someone's down on their luck, she'll charge them $5 to make a phone call. So she gives the girls a sliding scale.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: Yeah, yeah.

NEUWIRTH: So she's got a heart.

LYDEN: Bebe Neuwirth, you won a Tony in 1997 playing Velma, playing one of the lead characters. Did you have any trepidations about coming back as Mama Morton?

NEUWIRTH: Well, I was having a meeting with Barry Weissler, our producer, and we were just chatting about different projects and things; and he said, have you ever thought about playing Mama? And I burst into laughter. I said, well, you know, that's the joke. Now - the show's been running so long, I'm old now. I'm in my 50s, I can...

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: You are strikingly beautiful.

NEUWIRTH: The role is really constructed for a Sophie Tucker.

LYDEN: Well, you took the words out of my mouth. I was thinking about that - the old vaudeville character. And she was a plump lady.

NEUWIRTH: Yes, she was - with a giant voice.

LYDEN: With a giant voice. And that was what I thought about when I heard it. I thought, Bebe Neuwirth is a dainty...

NEUWIRTH: She's a little thing.

LYDEN: ...beautiful - yeah.

NEUWIRTH: (Laughter) Yeah, well, I wondered about it myself. But then I thought it's - so many different women have played it; of all different shapes and sizes and ages. I thought, well, why not give it a shot? And really, most of all, I just thought it would be fun. So I thought, let me take a crack at it.

LYDEN: May I ask you, such a stunning dancer, something about the demands of this choreography. You really pioneered Velma in the revival. This Fosse choreography, it seems like it's so demanding. Did you miss not doing it? Did you feel like, oh my goodness, I have to get up there and be Velma or...

NEUWIRTH: No. I mean, you know, I had my time doing it. I'm fine not doing that. As far as the physical demands of the role of Velma, and having played both Velma and Roxie, I can say that Velma is the more demanding role physically, absolutely. The material is so fine. It's so well-choreographed. It's so well-written. And then the fact that I am the kind of dancer for whom the Fosse style and vernacular comes - it feels very natural.

The first time I saw Fosse choreography, I was 13 years old. And I went to see "Pippin." And I had no idea that Bob Fosse was God. All I thought was...

LYDEN: He did, I believe. I believe he did.

(LAUGHTER)

NEUWIRTH: No, no. But when I saw the choreography, I felt like I recognized myself in some way. And I was just this kid - you know, trying to - you know, taking ballet class in a non-professional, regional ballet company. And I just thought, that's me. I know; I feel that. It resonated.

LYDEN: Jazz dance. Jazz dance.

NEUWIRTH: Um - it's a different thing. It was just Bob's world. It was his language. It was his sensibility. I could not have said this to you as a 13-year-old. All I could say was. that's me.

(LAUGHTER)

NEUWIRTH: But thinking about it now, it's his world of light and dark, of irony, of sensuality, of - it's sort of beyond words, actually. It's just a feeling that you feel as a dancer. And as a dancer watching it, I knew that it resonated that deeply for me.

LYDEN: I was struck by a comment Stephen Sondheim said recently on an HBO special. He said: It was just my fate to be acclaimed as musical theater was waning. Do you think it has?

NEUWIRTH: I think that it's on a pendulum. It comes, and it goes. And trends come, and trends go. For a while, you had to send chandeliers crashing and helicopters in. And I don't know how the pendulum is swinging now. For a while, it was all revivals. Then it was all, you know, think-y things. And then, you know - so I don't really know. And I don't know that anyone knows really specifically what's going on, except that these waves come and then they go out; and then a new one comes in.

LYDEN: I have to ask this on behalf of my fellow Americans.

NEUWIRTH: I am really frightened now. (Laughter)

LYDEN: All right. All right. Do you get stopped on the street and - say, oh, Dr. Lilith, Dr. Lilith, I am so happy to see you; from, of course, your role in "Cheers" and then "Frasier."

NEUWIRTH: I do get stopped, and it's really interesting. Some people are very quiet about it. They say (Whispering) I just want you to know, I really loved you on "Frasier." And she goes, Lilith, thank you so much. And then sometimes people just stare at me and talk about me. It's just happened on the subway the other day. I was right in front of a couple; and they were looking at me, talking about me. I thought, I don't know how to be with that. But I am very, very grateful for the recognition, and the time spent playing that part.

LYDEN: So what's next for you, Bebe Neuwirth? This is an eight-week run, all - from start to finish, and then what?

NEUWIRTH: Right. I honestly don't know. I've got two CDs out. I hope people continue to listen to those. I'm about to shoot my fourth episode of "Blue Bloods," which is another smart, really nice show on CBS. I really don't know. I'm open to seeing what the universe has in store.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Bebe Neuwirth joined me from our New York bureau. You can see Bebe on Broadway, playing Mama Morton in the musical "Chicago." It is fantastic. Thank you.

NEUWIRTH: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You can find more on WEEKEND EDITION on Facebook and on Twitter: @NPRWeekend. I'm there too: @NPRJackiLyden. B.J. Leiderman composed our theme music. And this is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Scott Simon returns next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.