Interview by Danny Coleman
“I couldn’t keep a straight face! I can’t tell you how many times we had to stop taping because I was cracking up and if I watch episodes now, I know my face and I can watch myself and see where I’m just starting to go and I’m trying not to smile; so much for Lilith and the dead pan. We had a very good editor and that’s what that is,” stated a laughing Bebe Neuwirth as she recalled her past role as Lilith Sternin-Crane on the popular 80’s television sitcom, “Cheers.”
Unlike her straight-laced character in that long running series, Neuwirth was funny, engaging and very candid as she discussed her upcoming September 15 and 16 cabaret shows at the Enlow Recital Hall in Hillside, NJ. These events are the openers of the Kean Stage 2018-2019 theater season and for this Tony and Emmy Award winning actress, dancer and vocalist, whether the setting is intimate or grandiose she enjoys both equally.
“No pressure there,” she said once again with a laugh. They each have their charms. I’ve done concerts with symphonies which is absolutely thrilling. I didn’t think I’d like doing that at all and I don’t know why I didn’t think I would but it’s thrilling to have a 70 piece orchestra behind you and then I do the other extreme where it’s just me and this pianist which is also thrilling in its own way. I don’t prefer one over the other because they both have their unique charms and they are very, very fulfilling as a performer. I would say that it’s probably a more visceral event in a way to perform with symphonies because you have that power of so many musicians that I’m playing with but on the other hand it’s a very, very intimate and really just a fine experience to play with just a piano. I’ve not really done anything in between, I do have an album that’s got a couple of other instruments. I’ve got an album that’s called, “Porcelain” and that’s with Scott and maybe three or four other instruments but I haven’t really done concerts with anything in between. Once I did a show with just piano and bass (laughs) but that’s it! So it’s either really, really big or really, really small but I always prefer to be on the stage more than anywhere else. Regardless of what I’m doing there I’d much rather do that. I’m much, much more at home doing that; I’m what they call a theater rat (laughs).”
Accompanying her on these performances will be pianist Scott Cady. When asked if she felt, “Naked to the world or audience” on stage with so little margin for error, where mistakes can be magnified as all eyes are on her; she did not hesitate to respond.
“Interesting but I don’t feel that way. I don’t know whether it’s self-imposed or just the way it is. I really feel like I maintain and need to perform and be truthful all the way through regardless of how many other people are or are not on stage with me. Even if you’re dancing in a huge chorus, if somebody or if I make a mistake, you’ll see it; if everyone is dancing together and one person doesn’t, you’re going to see it. Maybe it’s different if there’s a musician in the audience or somebody who is finely tuned into the music; they’re going to hear everything and then those who aren’t, somebody who just comes to listen, I think they’ll perceive that glitch. I like to go in thinking that there is never anywhere to hide. I mean for me personally that’s not a good way for me to go in, thinking well it’s OK if I make a mistake here because no one is going to know. First of all, I’ll know and no one is going to beat me up any harder than I am but also whether it’s specifically perceived or not it will be detrimental to the whole and you’re really there to serve the piece.”
Performing from a young age, Neuwirth hit the road with a touring company and then received her first taste of the bright lights of Broadway and to this day she struggles describing the feeling of the very first time she stepped onto a Broadway stage.
“I can’t even describe that to you,” she said with an almost reverent tone. “I’ve been performing on stage since I was seven and a lot, not just recitals or in school. I was performing every year, sometimes twice a year at McCarter Theater in Princeton, I went down to the War Memorial in Trenton and performed there and we toured these ballets a lot when I was a kid. We performed in nursing homes and libraries and grammar schools and there was a lot of performance experience for which I am so grateful because you can go to class all you want but that’s not going to prepare you for what it’s like when you perform and are actually on stage. My first job was when I was 19 to go on tour with, “A Chorus Line,” so I toured all over the country and a few cities in Canada and then I got to do the show on Broadway and here I am, at this point I had an enormous amount of experience performing all different ways and all over the country and yet there was just something different about stepping onto the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in New York City. I cannot describe to you, unless I was a poet, what it was like but I can’t and that’s the best description that I can give to you, is to say that I can’t unless I was a poet. It was amazing, it was beyond thrilling, it was just; now here I am trying to come up with the words to describe it for you but it was supernatural and it was really something and then I couldn’t wait to get back and try it again because I wasn’t sure that I did it as well as I could’ve (Laughs).”
With experiences like that and her love of acting; is Broadway her favorite place to perform? “I love to be on stage, so wherever the stage is I’m just happy to be there. Live theater is really where I prefer to be and certainly Broadway is a really fantastic place to perform but if I say it’s my favorite it sort of denies how wonderful it is to perform in Chicago or San Francisco or Omaha, Nebraska because there are beautiful wonderful amazing stages all over the country.”
A total entertainment package; has she ever been nominated for a Grammy Award to go along with her other accolades?
“No they’re doing something different now but the “Chicago” original cast album did win a Grammy Award so I am on a Grammy Award winning album but I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that the individuals that are on the original cast albums are named and therefore they receive Grammy Awards also. So I’m not sure what the technical thing is there but many original cast albums have won Grammy Awards but the artists performing on those have not received the award and that’s changing these days. I don’t know what the mechanism for that is or not but my short answer for that is, no I have not won a Grammy (Laughs) but I have participated in a Grammy Award winning album.”
We know of her love for theater and dance but where did her love of music come from? What did she listen to as a youth that may have had an impact and for that matter what does she enjoy now?
“The Beatles of course,” she said confidently. “But I was a little kid and I appreciate them more and more and that’s what we listened to mostly in my house was The Beatles but I love Led Zeppelin (Giggles) and I love Eric Clapton and I love Jimi Hendrix, I mean holy cow and I love AC/DC also so I’m a little bit all over.”
So what does the future hold for this multi-talented lady? “Boy if I knew what was going on in the future,” she said with a sly chuckle. “Let’s see, I’ve shot a “Blue Bloods” episode this year, there are some penciled in plans to do some more “Blue Bloods” this year which I hope works out and a few more concerts are scheduled. There’s a whole bunch of things that I do for the Actors Fund and for a dance company that I’m on the board of so there’s a whole lot of other things that I do like stuff for Broadway Cares, we’ve got a flea market coming up at the end of the month. In terms of my appearances and performing, those are the only ones that are scheduled right now although there are things that are sort of in the planning stages which of course I can’t talk about right now, so yeah we know how that goes.”
“Stories With Piano,” features music from Kander and Ebb, Tom Waits, Edith Piaf and Kurt Weill. Neuwirth has stated in a recent press release that she, “Likes the audience to be open to the unexpected” and that is because she, “Takes an unusual approach to some of the songs in her show.”
So if looking for what promises to be an outstanding evening of music, look no further, the Enlow Recital Hall is located at 215 North Avenue in Hillside on the East Campus of Kean University. To purchase tickets please go to www.keanstage.com.
Danny Coleman (Danny Coleman is a veteran musician and writer from central New Jersey. He hosts a weekly radio program entitled “Rock On Radio” airing Sunday evenings at 10 p.m. EST on multiple internet radio outlets where he features indie/original bands and solo artists.)