Oral History: Tony-Award Winning Actress Bebe Neuwirth interviewed by Arts-Journalist Patrick Pacheco
Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
(65th Street & Amsterdam Ave)
Monday, May 5 at 6PM
Free Admission, Seating first come first served
League of Professional Theatre Women, Friends of the League, New York Women’s Agenda, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition Members may RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This program is produced by Betty Corwin.
This program is made possible by the generous support of the Betty R. and Ralph Sheffer Foundation.
Ms. Neuwirth starred as Velma in the Broadway production of CHICAGO, for which she won a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Astaire Award, and Distinguished Performance of theYear Award. A few years later she returned to the show, this time portraying Roxie. She received her first Tony Award for her portrayal of Nickie in SWEET CHARITY. Other Broadway credits include FOSSE, DAMN YANKEES, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, DANCIN’, LITTLE ME, and A CHORUS LINE. She has performed in regional productions, including Anita in WEST SIDE STORY, Jenny in THE THREEPENNY OPERA, the title role in KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN (London’s West End), and Katherine in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.
Off-Broadway credits include a Woody Allen play (directed by Mr. Allen) at the Atlantic Theatre Company, a Terrence McNally play at MTC, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at the Classic Stage Company, and singing and dancing an evening of Kurt Weill music in HERE LIES JENNY at the Zipper Theatre. She has also played in comedy revues such as UPSTAIRS AT O’NEAL’S.
Concert work includes appearing with symphony orchestras around the country, singing the music of Kander & Ebb and Kurt Weill, and also a more intimate show called STORIES with PIANO. On television Bebe is well known for her role of Lilith on CHEERS, for which she received two Emmy Awards. Other TV appearances include her Emmy-nominated portrayal of Dorothy Parker in DASH and LILY, and a starring role in the series LAW & ORDER: TRIAL BY JURY.
Film work includes LIBERTY HEIGHTS, SUMMER OF SAM, CELEBRITY, JUMANJI, MALICE, GREEN CARD, THE FACULTY, BUGSY, and TADPOLE. Bebe has also provided cartoon voices for several characters in both television and the movies. Ms. Neuwirth is a recipient of the 2007 Dance Magazine Award, The CTFD Rolex Dance Award, and is proud to be an Honorary Ziegfeld Girl. As a vice-chair of The Actors Fund, she founded The Dancers’ Resource, a program committed to addressing the needs – emotional, financial, physical, etc. – of professional dancers across the country. Bebe recently returned to CHICAGO to perform the role of “Mama” Morton, the third principle role she has played in the Broadway production, surely a record of some kind.
Patrick Pacheco is a New York- based arts journalist whose work has appeared in “The New York Times,” “The Los Angeles Times,” “The Wall Street Journal,” and many other periodicals and webzines. His blog “Play by Play” is published on Artinfo.com and he is a regular contributor to the TV programs, NY1 “Onstage” and PBS’s “Theater Talk.” He wrote the 2009 Disney documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” and is the co-author, with Maria Cassi, of the play, “My Life with Men…and Other Animals.”
in conversation with
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
Monday, May 5th, 2014 6:00PM
Blog for the League of Professional Theatre Women Website
From Ballet to Broadway and Bebe Neuwirth’s nod to Ben Vereen!
Last evening, I was once again in attendance at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ fabulous Oral History program, this time featuring the “Triple Threat” Tony Award winning actress/dancer/singer (the “correct” alphabetical listings for the admitted “obsessive compulsive disorder with a bit of Asperger’s thrown in”) BeBe Neuwirth in conversation with arts journalist Patrick Pacheco. This on-going series in collaboration with The League of Professional Theatre Women is arguably one of the most satisfying theatrical experiences in New York City. It is always fun, informative and FREE!! Yes, free! (I must admit that I would go even if I had to pay an admission price!)
Founded by the indomitable Betty Corwin, whose passion for preserving live performances on tape for future generations led to the creation of TOFT (Theatre on Film and Tape) in the late 1960’s. Thanks to Betty (and her solid successor Patrick Hoffman), over 7,000 Broadway, Off Broadway and regional theatre productions have been archived for professional and scholarly viewing. The Oral History, “Women in Theatre” initiative features acclaimed actresses interviewed by critics, collaborators and even friends in the intimate Bruno Walter Auditorium. Last night was one of the highlights of this delightful program. Thanks to the fascinating and funny Bebe Neuwirth and the charming Patrick Pacheco, the stage lit up with warmth, intelligence and humor and I believe everyone in attendance, including the participants, did not want the interview to end.
What did we learn about Bebe? Back in Princeton, New Jersey as the daughter of a mathematician father and an artist/dancer mother, Bebe had the support of parents who were open to their children’s career choices, even if that did not include a traditional path of college and a secure job. Ballet influenced Bebe as a very young child and she eagerly began lessons at 5. As a teenager, Bebe wrestled with the imposing reality of a lifetime career in ballet and felt quite heartbroken at the thought of giving it up. As fate would have it, at 13, she attended a production of “Pippin” on Broadway starring Ben Vereen. According to Bebe, “It was a religious experience. I recognized myself.” As she watched Ben Vereen move in his role as the Leading Player she had the feeling that her “broken heart was rescued”. Now, she had a new passion…to dance on Broadway! And dance she did!! How poignant that when Bebe won her first Tony for Nicki in “Sweet Charity” at the age of 28, Ben Vereen presented her with the award. The moment is not lost on her. She is reverential and fully aware of the significance of this moment in her career and her life. ‘It was mystical.” I was truly impressed with the humility and respect Bebe displayed throughout the interview. She is a wise and gracious woman and acknowledges the artists who influenced her. Her parents indeed deserve recognition for allowing Bebe to create her own curriculum after one year at Julliard in the dance program. Bebe had landed her first professional job in “A Chorus Line” as Sheila and had no longer time nor desire for college. She obviously did a fine job educating herself for her chosen career. (College or on the job training?? Everyone is different of course. I think she knows how lucky she was to have the resourceful parents who had saved for their children’s education and were flexible. In this case, the risk paid off. They surely recognized the drive, ambition and focus that Bebe displayed…. I digress.)
It is clear that Bebe is a genuine “Broadway Baby”, but the opportunity to star as a featured performer in two hit television sitcoms is hard to resist for most actresses. The character of Lilith on both “Cheers” and “Fraiser” has earned Bebe numerous awards and forever cemented the idea of the immovable woman, an image Bebe says people expect of her. She claims she is not as strong as she appears, “delicate to loud noises”, not at all as confident as she appears. She claims her low voice and persona have led folks to believe she is more like her characters than the actress. I say that like every great artist, Bebe adapts to the role. Without the courage to do that, she would not have won the numerous awards and recognition that she has to date. And, she keeps going! After starring as Velma and Roxie in “Chicago” the Musical, she recently trod the boards as Matron “Mama” Morton in the current Broadway revival.
As far as the great theatre artists she has encountered in her illustrious career? Bebe spoke so eloquently about the influences of Bob Fosse… “There are two kinds of dancers…feline and canine. Bob was definitely feline! Michael Bennett… canine! Bob had this “pulled up” yet “dropped down” physical approach to dance that lent itself to the ballet/jazz feeling of his work. Michael said ‘” Don’t dance on the music, dance in the music. It was very Zen. They both possessed clarity of vision. Woody Allen has that as well. Everything serves the vision.” Her discipline and focus led her to these “geniuses” and her respect and admiration for these choreographers and directors as well as such performers as Chita Rivera (“There is nobody like Chita Rivera!”) Juliet Prouse, Gwen Verdon and, of course, her first love, Rudolph Nureyev and the ballet (“Ballet training is great for a Fosse dancer”) is profound. And she has not forgotten her mother, who was a dancer and an artist and had given Bebe, along with her father, the gift of opportunity and freedom to follow her dreams.
When asked if she modeled herself after any of these great women artists who came before her she clarified that she is “completely different” from them. When preparing for a role she is revising, she will look at the film version of the production for understanding. The original Morticia (Carolyn Jones) in “The Addams Family” on television was a great inspiration for Bebe when she played the role opposite Nathan Lane on Broadway’s “The Addams Family”. “She was so elegant. She had a great humor. She was empowered.” But Bebe also was inspired by the original images and words by Charles Addams, the creator.
Asked if she felt, after such great success in television, film and live theatre, if she had “arrived”, Bebe spoke like a true craftswoman and artist who knows the challenge never ends. “Artists should stay curious. I don’t want to “arrive”.
And finally, when asked what is next for her? “Good writing draws me to a role. I ask myself “Can I serve the character?” I would love to do more Shakespeare. The poetry of the words is like ballet.” Ah yes, back to the ballet where everything was beautiful….
I loved listening to Bebe Neuwirth and Patrick Pacheco and I look forward to the next Oral History interview on September 22nd, 2014 when celebrated stage and television actress Phylicia Rashad will interview actress and stage director Billie Allen, Founding Member of the Women’s Project and Productions and Founding Member and former co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women.
The Oral History program is produced by Betty Corwin and is made possible by the generous support of long-time LPTW member Angelina Fiordellisi.
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centre is the LTPW’s long time partner for this program and is open to the General Public at no charge. LPTW members may reserve in advance and attend the post interview Green Room reception (another benefit of membership!) At risk of sounding cliché, the best things in life are often free.