Bringing up Bebe

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR

We spoke for just 40 minutes, but at the end of the conversation it was clear: actress Bebe Neuwirth and I have a lot in common. Consider that:

* She has two Tony Awards and two Emmy Awards (for her roles in Chicago and Sweet Charity and on TV’s Cheers). I have two friends named Tony and once worked for a woman named Emmy.

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* She began dancing on stage at the age of 7. I was kicked out of dancing school at the age of 7.

* She grew up in Princeton, N.J. and my brother works there now.

* She’s getting ready to marry a vintner in May. I am married and like to drink wine.

OK, so maybe that last one is a stretch. Regardless, Neuwirth, who is a seasoned Broadway singer and dancer but still best known for her role as psychiatrist Lilith Sternin on TV’s popular sitcom Cheers, will be performing at the Sheldon Concert Hall on March 28.

The Light caught up with her recently to talk about her traveling show, upcoming projects and what Jewish mother she one day hopes to play.

What can the audience in St. Louis expect when you perform here?

I have a show called Stories with Piano. It’s just me with a beautiful pianist, Scott Cady. Some of the songs I do are well known and some are not. It’s a broad range — Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Kander and Ebb, Tom Waits. It’s an interesting mix of songs. They all sort of go together in some way, and are tied, if somewhat loosely, emotionally.

Has being Jewish impacted or informed your career?

No, not that I’ve noticed.

You played a Jewish mother in Barry Levinson’s film, Liberty Heights. Are there any other Jewish mothers you would like to play?

Mama Rose in Gypsy. My friend, Patti LuPone, has a lock on that one. Someday, somewhere, I’d like to take a crack at (Rose). I think she’s a very interesting character.

When you started playing Lilith on Cheers, were you aware of the Lilith figure in Jewish folklore as Adam’s “evil” first wife who refused to be subordinate to him?

I didn’t know anything about Jewish mysticism and I didn’t know anything about the character of Lilith when I started playing her, nor did the writers. One day I walked into a bookstore and a friend of mine pointed out a book called The Book of Lilith. And I started reading about her.

It’s interesting. She is not the evil wife of Adam, but she’s the first woman. Because she wanted to be on top literally and figuratively, she got thrown out of Eden. She really embodies female power and sexual power.

And yes, there certainly were wild similarities because Lilith Sternin, my character, was very strong and had a strong sexuality which was really irresistible, not just to Frasier but she seduced Sam. And the person who named the character Lilith, the writer, had no idea about any of this — she just thought Lilith was a very uptight name.

I loved the character, but Lilith was something of an uptight, controlling, know-it-all. Some people might say you were playing the stereotypic post-modern Jewish feminist. How did you see the role?

Not that way at all. It’s not that she was controlling, it’s that she had no editor in her head. She was completely honest and socially awkward and a brilliant scientist. I’m sure there are a couple of Jews who are like that but there are a couple of Jews who are strippers. That’s my point.

You recently finished filming a remake of the movie Fame in which you play the dance instructor. The movie also features your Cheers husband, Kelsey Grammer. What was that like?

I never saw him. I never saw him on set or at the production offices. I never had a scene with him. I kept waiting.

You’re rumored to be starring in The Addams Family musical in 2010 playing Morticia opposite Nathan Lane’s Gomez. That sounds like a hoot so I can see what would attract you, but didn’t the TV theme song say it all? You know, they’re creepy and they’re kooky . . .

This musical is based on the original cartoon, not on the TV show or the movie. Those came from the cartoons and a musical of the Addams Family will come from the cartoons as well. I’m not really allowed to say anything right now. But I will tell you that when I was a little girl I always wanted to be Morticia.

One of your Tony Awards is for the role of Velma in Chicago. But you returned to the show on the night of your 48th birthday as Roxie. Why the switch in roles?

I had my first hip replacement when I was 47. (She had the second one last June.) I was back in ballet class eight weeks later getting my dancing back in shape. I wanted to get back on stage. I thought maybe I could play Roxie in Chicago. Velma is a very athletic role. I didn’t think I could do it as well as I should or as well as I had. That wouldn’t be fair to anybody, including myself. I thought I would be able to handle Roxie and so I chose my birthday, New Year’s Eve, to come back. I love to perform on my birthday — it’s a great present to me.

You’ve done films, television and theater. Do you have a preference and if so, why?

Live performance is my first love and there are two reasons: First, I’ve been on stage since I was 7, and it’s very comfortable for me there. I am at home on the stage and it feels quite natural. And secondly, I’m a dancer first and dance is performed on the stage. It’s best performed live no matter how well Bob Fosse filmed it, or how great it is to see old video tapes of Nureyev and Fontaine dancing. It is a visceral medium. It’s best experienced in the same room as the audience.

Do you have a favorite role?

It’s the role that I am playing at the moment.

Is there any role that you covet?

There are a lot of (Clifford) Odets plays that I love. I’d be happy taking a crack at any of those. I’d also like to do more Shakespeare.

Any favorite film roles?

They are all fun. I once did a film for Robert Rodriquez called The Faculty, and he had one of the most fun sets I’ve ever been on. I did a film last year, Adopt a Sailor, which is being shopped around at festivals right now. Each one that I do I try to invest completely in them at the time. Once they are finished, I try to honor them all.

You recently turned the big 5-0. Are you freaking out?

I’m cool with that — it’s excellent.

Bebe Neuwirth

What: 2009 Sheldon Gala featuring Bebe Neuwirth “Stories with Piano”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 28

Where: Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard

How much: $55-$45

More info: 314-533-9900 or online at

wwwsheldonconcerthall.org