'I Didn’t Know That I Was Talking About God!': Bebe Neuwirth Walks Down Memory Lane | Playbill

My Life in the Theatre 'I Didn’t Know That I Was Talking About God!': Bebe Neuwirth Walks Down Memory Lane

The two-time Tony winner on Chicago, A Chorus Line, and her Broadway return in Cabaret.

Sometimes, the theatre chooses you.

“I had always wanted to be a ballet dancer,” Bebe Neuwirth recalls, thinking back to her classical dance career, which began when she was only 6 years old. “I only studied ballet, and I only performed in ballets. But when I saw Pippin on Broadway… I recognized myself on the stage. I felt that choreography in my bones, and in my soul. I didn’t know who Bob Fosse was, I didn’t know that I was talking about god.” Neuwirth chuckles. “I just knew that I had to do that.”

Do it she did. A two-time Tony winner, Neuwirth is now one of the most celebrated dancers in Broadway history, working with Fosse himself on Dancin' and Sweet Charity, as well as starring in the mega successful revivals of musical theatre classics Damn Yankees and Chicago. She’s returning to Broadway this spring in the hotly anticipated revival of Cabaret at the August Wilson Theatre, which begins performances April 1 and opens April 21. Nearly 50 years will have passed since her first time on the Broadway boards.

A Chorus Line was my very first professional Equity job,” Neuwirth smiles, her eyes sparkling with glee. It took three tries for her to land the job, largely due to her age. Barely 18, it took her two years to convince the production that she could convincingly play as age appropriate next to the other dancers in the cast, many of whom were in their 30s. By 1977, she had won them over. 

“I played Lois, the ballerina who gets cut from the opening, and she is traditionally the understudy for Sheila and Cassie. I eventually took over the role of Sheila, and then I took over the role of Cassie, and left the show at the ripe old age of 22.” She laughs, shrugging. “When I took over the role of Cassie, Michael [Bennett] coached me on the scene and also coached me on the dance. So, I actually was on a stage dancing parts of the Cassie dance with Michael Bennett dancing next to me. I haven't forgotten it yet, and I hope I never ever forget what that felt like. It was magnificent.”

To see Neuwirth share her love for co-stars Victor Garber and Roger Rees, her extensive Off-Broadway career, and why getting to star opposite Steven Skyball in Cabaret “literally brought tears to [her] eyes,” check out the complete video of Neuwirth journeying through a binder of all her past Playbills in the video above.

Bebe Neuwirth photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

Neuwirth’s association with Chicago has gone down as theatrical legend. First appearing in the show at Long Beach Civic Opera, Neuwirth was a member of the revival company that roared the formerly troubled musical back to life. Beginning as a limited run at New York City Center in 1996, the production transferred to Broadway that same year and became the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. But long before it became a cultural touchstone, the NYCC production was a scrappy act of love.

“I worship that show. And I did something I never do,” Neuwirth confesses. “I’m not a go-getter. I don't strategize, I'm not ambitious like that. I just want to work. But this show, I'm like, ‘OK, I'm gonna screw up my courage and I'm gonna call [director] Walter Bobbie.' I said, ‘I just would like to be considered for the role of Velma.’ And he said, ‘You're at the top of the list.’ And I thought that means, you know, like, number three? But I was actually at, literally, the top of the list.”

The first night of the NYCC Encores! production was “a supernatural experience” for Neuwirth. “When the overture started, the audience at City Center went nuts. And when Michael Beresse popped up and introduced the ‘Cell Block Tango,’ before we did anything, the roof came off.” Neuwirth laughs, clearly still awed by the power of the memory. “The love for John Kander and Fred Ebb could light up this city for a week. It was just incredible. And we, the cast, we just rode on it. Almost all of us had worked together before. Almost all of us were connected to Bob. We were lucky, lucky people.”

Over the years, Neuwirth has played all three leading ladies at the Cook County jail, winning a Tony for her performance as Velma before returning in the role of Roxie, and later as Matron Mama Morton in 2014. To date, Neuwirth is the only actress to have been contracted full-time for the triple crown on Broadway. “When I played Mama, I felt very maternal. There's no other word for it. I'd sit on the side, and I watched the girls…” Neuwirth pauses for a moment, gathering her emotions before continuing on. “I was old enough to be their mother at that point, and I really felt for the girls. I just loved it.”

Now, Neuwirth is back on Broadway in another Kander and Ebb classic, Cabaret, playing Fraulein Schneider, Sally Bowles’ landlady who falls in love with Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit merchant, in Nazi-era Germany. Neuwirth says it was director Rebecca Frecknall who convinced her to join the project—this new Cabaret will be immersive and performed in-the-round.

"I put on my little suit, and I met this woman, and the first thing she said to me was, 'I love musical theatre. I grew up with A Chorus Line.' And I was like, WOW!" Neuwirth flings her arms open, marveling at the passage of time and the turn of generations. "We talked and talked, and I just didn't want to leave. I just wanted to listen to her ideas and thoughts about theatre and life for hours. It was wonderful, and I'm very grateful to be going on this journey with her."

My Life in the Theatre is filmed at Alchemical Studios.

Bebe Neuwirth photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang
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