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One-Step Therapy

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Patrick Pacheco, based in New York, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In accepting the many awards she has won for her acclaimed performance as Velma Kelly, the sexy murderess in the smash hit revival of “Chicago,” Bebe Neuwirth has often acknowledged the late director Bob Fosse “for teaching me that cleanliness is next to godliness.”

By which, she explains, she means purity of gesture--the sharp, eagle-eyed honesty that the 38-year-old actress has tried to bring to all her projects, both on the Broadway stage as well as on film (“Green Card,” “Malice,” “The Associate”) and television (“Cheers” and occasional guest spots on “Frasier”). Indeed, so fierce is her commitment to excellence that Neuwirth is known in industry circles as very talented, but also, well, rather difficult.

Indeed, despite the fact that this clearly is her moment in the spotlight, she can even be prickly about agreeing to be interviewed--a process that can take months to set up. She didn’t want to talk before the Tonys because, she said, she thought it would be inappropriate. And even after she won for best actress in a musical, she admits that she is reluctant.

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“I had people convince me to do this interview today,” Neuwirth says. “I just can’t bear to be misinterpreted. ‘Trust me, I’m nervous,’ as Velma would say.”

Yet when asked whether her narrow margin for error hasn’t at times gotten her into trouble, she bristles.

“And what kind of trouble do you imagine that it could get me into?” she asks, her eyes narrowing with a glint of steeliness, her voice husky with sarcasm--a dark presence sitting on a red-velvet couch in the lounge of the Shubert Theatre, where she has just finished a matinee performance.

“Am I a pain in the ass? Is that what you’re asking?” she says, a laugh melting the hardness into playfulness. “Yes, I’ve been involved in productions where directors or choreographers didn’t come up with the goods. And if you’re real strong, then you get into arguments.

“But I think any choreographer or director worth his or her salt would be happy to have a performer who wants to do their very best at every moment. That’s the point. You don’t slough off.”

No, indeed. If Neuwirth raises the bar high for those she works with, she invariably raises it higher for herself. It is arguable that it has never been raised higher in her career than in her Tony-winning performance in “Chicago,” and the actress--who considers her first love the theater--clears it cleanly.

“Neuwirth has translated her deadpan comic persona and technical proficiency as a dancer into an ecstatic benchmark performance,” raved a review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times, praising as well co-stars Ann Reinking (who won a Tony for her choreography), James Naughton (best actor) and Joel Grey. Los Angeles Times critic Laurie Winer described her “feline” performance as stealing the show: “In her clinging black slip, Neuwirth glows an alabaster white, radiating steely confidence. . . . [She] perfectly embodies the Fosse aesthetic of minimum, taut movement for maximum effect.”

Even across-the-board raves, however, are not sufficient to quell Neuwirth’s inherent insecurity, any more than had the plaudits and Tony win for supporting actress in the 1988 revival of “Sweet Charity.”

“No matter what it is, I’ll find a way to beat myself over it,” she has said. And there is no doubt that since the age of 13 when, as a self-described “nice Jewish girl from New Jersey,” she decided to become a Broadway dancer after seeing a production of Fosse’s “Pippin,” she has “beaten up"--herself and others--over anything that fails to measure up.

Neuwirth’s most visible role, as Lilith Sternin-Crane of course, was a variation on this theme. She played the chilly psychiatrist first on “Cheers,” for which she won two Emmys, and since has made occasional guest appearances on the spinoff “Frasier.” In a Thanksgiving special in 1996, the ex-wife of Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier, doing her best to get into the family spirit by preparing dinner, says, “I’m nearly done defrosting.” “And the turkey?” Frasier responds.

Given her edgy reputation, one is surprised to find that in person she seems, yes, a control freak, but also a woman who has a sardonic sense of humor about both life and herself. She frequently bristles--at the press, at the business of theater, at the musical “Cats"--yet even all this can, at times, seem a form of warmth.

Her hair cascades down her back (it is tucked under a ‘20s bob for her current role). Her small, lithe frame is swathed in a black jumpsuit with an “Associate” logo--from the Whoopi Goldberg film in which she again played a vamp. Neuwirth toys with an early snack of sandwich and cookies as she coolly deliberates on each question. Here, the athletic sexiness she brings to her stage role is tempered with a keen intelligence.

Velma Kelly was created by Chita Rivera for Fosse’s original, 1975 production of the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical “Chicago,” the story of a group of women being held for murderin a Cook County jail. While the show had some success, its run was overshadowed by that year’s phenomenon, “A Chorus Line.” At the time, some theater-goers were turned off by the plot’s dark, Brechtian vision of American society. Much has been written about how the extraordinary reception to the revival--which began as a pared-down concert version in a four-night engagement as part of City Center’s Encores! series--is a reflection of sour post-O.J. cynicism. But Neuwirth feels that shortchanges the show.

“Yes, we make some very strong points, but it’s not a downer, it still translates as a joyous event,” she says. “The most important thing Fosse taught me was that if there’s no joy in the work, it’s empty. What the audience gets in ‘Chicago’ is a very human experience--without pyrotechnics.”

Indeed, the success of the pared-down “Chicago” and her role in it is particularly satisfying to Neuwirth, coming at a time when she was in a career crisis. Her disenchantment with Broadway’s glut of musical spectacle, which a couple of years ago seemed the only viable currency on Broadway, was making her frustrated and angry--a rage that is comically aroused when she is asked how she feels about “Cats” overtaking the performance record of “A Chorus Line,” the latter of which gave her her Broadway debut.

“ ‘Cats’ is a West End musical, not a Broadway musical, so it doesn’t count,” she says with withering sarcasm. “ ‘A Chorus Line’ is still the longest-running Broadway musical. Period. Thank you. ‘Cats’! Oy, God!”

At the same time of her crisis, Neuwirth was also coming off some “unhappy” experiences in the theater--starring as Lola in a revival of “Damn Yankees,” for which she received mixed notices, and taking over the lead role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in the London production.

“I felt really out of it,” she says. “A lot of great choreographers had died. That left people who did some nice work, but there was no one around I felt that I could really hook into, could really click with.”

An exception had been her work in a 1992 production of “Chicago” at the defunct Long Beach Civic Light Opera, opposite Juliet Prowse and choreographed by Reinking. During the annual hiatus from filming “Cheers,” Neuwirth says that she was “chomping at the bit” to do a musical when she heard about the production, then slated to star both Reinking and Prowse. Though she was already a star by then, she called the producers and volunteered to understudy the roles. “I told them they didn’t even have to pay me,” she recalls. “I just wanted to drive down there and learn that stuff.”

As it turned out, Reinking was glad to turn over the role of Velma Kelly to Neuwirth so that she could concentrate on the choreography. As a result, when director Walter Bobbie and Reinking were preparing the staged reading of “Chicago” for the Encores! series in the spring of 1996, Neuwirth was at the top of the list.

Above all, to dance was what Neuwirth wanted to do while growing up in Princeton, N.J. The daughter of Lee Neuwirth, a mathematician who worked with the Institute for Defense Analysis, and his wife, Sydney, a painter, young Bebe was galvanized by a performance of “The Nutcracker.” She at first wanted to become a ballerina and was giving ballet recitals at regional schools by age 7, but when a boyfriend took her on a date to see Fosse’s “Pippin” when she was 13, she set her sights on Broadway.

Dating? At age 13? Well, yes. And she admits that her false-eyelashed self had also been arrested for smoking marijuana by that time as well. Was she always so precocious and wild?

“I guess so, yeah, I drove my parents crazy,” she says. “I’ve gotten younger as I’ve gotten older, which is good, because I’d be in my hundreds if I’d proceeded at that rate.”

After spending a year in Juilliard’s dance program, at 19 she landed the part of an understudy in a touring company of “A Chorus Line” and two years later, she made her Broadway debut in the show as the wryly cynical Sheila (“Can the adults please smoke?”), a role meant to be played by an actress at least a decade older.

“It’s a tough role, but I understood Sheila on some instinctual level” she says now.

After moving on to the cast of Fosse’s “Dancin’ ” and a spate of jobs that included Anita in a European tour of “West Side Story,” some rock videos and an appearance in a off-Broadway revue called, “Upstairs at O'Neal’s,” she played another hard-as-nails tootsy in the revival of “Sweet Charity.” Critics welcomed her performance as funny and sexy.

“Bebe has a lot of fun with her sexuality,” says Reinking. “There’s always a twinkle in her eye, and that makes the sensuality even more appealing. One sort of suspects that Bebe came out of her mother’s womb smoking a cigarette and rolling her eyes.”

“Well I’m certainly not uncomfortable with it,” says Neuwirth, referring to her sensuality. “As a person with an ounce of feminism, I don’t find the women of ‘Chicago’ offensive at all. Velma’s a very strong, powerful person. If she uses her feminine wiles, she knows exactly what she’s doing it for. And if that doesn’t work, she’ll do something else.

“ ‘Damn Yankees’ is a terribly sexist play, no matter what efforts they made to bring it into the present,” she adds, “and when I was playing Lola, I kept saying to myself, ‘Yeah, it’s a problem--but hold on, maybe we can work it out,’ but it remained sexist. But [in ‘Chicago’], the women are so empowered. Look, everyone has sexuality. Is it sexist if you use it? Well, hellloooo!”

In 1986, just before beginning work in “Sweet Charity,” Neuwirth received a call for what she calls “this ‘Cheers’ opportunity.” She says her foray into television was a reluctant one, a calculated gamble to raise her profile so that she could have more choices in theater. It paid off, although she has remarkably little to say about the medium that made her face famous and gave her clout as an actress. In fact, only when she became unhappy with the theater in 1995 did she commit once more to television, and that was to film a pilot, “Dear Diary,” that was turned down as a series. Later, however, the show was released as a live-action short subject and won an Oscar.

The added advantage of “Dear Diary,” Neuwirth says, was that it was to be shot in New York. She hates Los Angeles. Asked why, she muses, “Should I tell the L.A. Times why I hate L.A.?”

The truth-teller wins out, and she launches into a funny, neurotic aria: “I don’t like the architecture. I don’t like the climate. It makes me claustrophobic to have all the days be the same for nine months and the other three months have all the days be the same. I don’t like the air quality. I don’t like the fact that for one day in winter, you look at the mountains and suddenly, there are mountains behind the mountains and you had no idea they were there! That’s very upsetting to me. I don’t like the, um, value system out there.

“When I get off the plane, I can feel that this is not a good energy, at least for me. I feel that there is this big silent blanket that’s over everything. It just sort of dulls everything down. I can’t bear it.

“Um, does that answer your question?”

The exchange seems to release something in Neuwirth, and she visibly relaxes. She offers her guest a cookie and is genuinely pleased when it’s accepted. She’s known as an animal lover--she used to have a cat called Frankie, named after Frank Lloyd Wright in homage to her first love, an architect, and to a period in her life when Ayn Rand’s neo-Nietzschean novel “The Fountainhead” was her “bible"--and is asked, idly, if she is living with animals now.

“Well, there’s the boyfriend,” she quips. Divorced, she lives in Greenwich Village with Michael Danek, a Broadway actor whom she met while doing “A Chorus Line” 15 years ago. “And two cats: Kiku and Sugi.”

As for her spotty film career (the apogee of which, for her, was a film called “The Paint Job,” which went “straight to time capsule”), Neuwirth says that she’s eager to do “a period-piece tragedy,” since she feels that no one is better suited to playing tragedy than comedians. “You have to have a great sense of humor and good timing to play that; otherwise it becomes self-indulgent,” she says.

For now, Neuwirth is simply pleased to be continuing in “Chicago,” at least through the end of the year. (Currently she is not slated to come to Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre with the show in May, and Jasmine Guy is playing the role in the touring production.) She says that, after some “difficult periods” which she refuses to talk about, she has never been “happier” in her life than she is right now.

“What really matters to me now is the spiritual nature of things. I think understanding the world from that viewpoint can really make for a joyful existence.

“There are moments in the theater . . .,” Neuwirth stops and considers whether she wants to go into this. “At the risk of sounding hugely pretentious, there are nights when you experience something on a soul level that is truly astonishing. People call it ‘a performance high.’ For me, it’s something totally different. I call it ‘touching God.’ We touch God. We put up with whatever for that.”

*

* “Chicago,” Shubert Theatre, 225 W. 44th St., New York, (800) 432-7250.


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