JACKI LYDEN: Now, to Broadway to talk with Bebe Neuwirth. Everyone may know her name, but not for this role.
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LYDEN: She played Lilith Sternin, Frasier Crane's tightly wound paramour.
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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.
WOODY HARRELSON: (As Woody) Oh, thank you very much, Dr. Sternin.
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.
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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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.