Bebe Neuwirth's return to the long-running Broadway revival of Chicago is not what anyone expected—including Neuwirth herself. She was a devastatingly sexy and hilarious Velma Kelly when the show opened in 1996, staking a definitive claim to the role while picking up a Tony and pretty much every other award for Best Actress in a musical. Neuwirth stepped back into Chicago now and then while juggling other roles on stage, television, and film, but eventually her dancing career was sidelined by a problem hip. Recent surgery has restored her to fine form, eager to tackle Ann Reinking's stylish version of Bob Fosse's original choreography. On New Year's Eve, in a very Chicago "Stop the presses!" reversal, Neuwirth returned to the musical, this time as Roxie, the hapless hausfrau at the heart of the show. It's a good fit; we might miss her amused cynicism as one of the "Merry Murderesses," but as Roxie, she's a cutie with the heart of a gold-digger, a wistful chorine with stars in her eyes and a gun in her hand. Neuwirth is no stranger to Fosse's work: She won her first Tony, for Best Featured Actress, as Nickie, the sadder-but-wiser dance hall hostess in his 1986 revival of Sweet Charity. Between those Tonys, she achieved mainstream fame as ice goddess Dr. Lilith Sternin on a little sitcom called Cheers two Emmy Awards and reprised the role on Frasier Emmy nomination. Among other projects, she heated up film screens as the mature paramour of a younger man in Tadpole, was a formidable force on television's Law & Order: Trial by Jury and even played herself on Will and Grace. Not bad for a girl from Princeton, New Jersey who took a ton of ballet classes, studied at Juilliard and made her Broadway debut in 1980 as Sheila in A Chorus Line. Neuwirth speaks formally, with no traces of her dumb-bunny, whispery Roxie. Though she says she thinks of herself as primarily as a dancer, it's very clear that girlfriend can act.
Where did the idea for you to perform the role of Roxie originate?
It was my idea. It evolved over time; it didn't just occur to me at one moment. I do a lot of [John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb material when I sing with symphony orchestras, including the "Roxie" song and the monologue into it. I have such a great time doing it, so that was part of the germination of the idea. Additionally, when I had hip replacement surgery not long ago, I wondered if I was going to be able to dance again. I certainly wanted to. And guess what? I can. I'm not quite able to do the athletic dancing that Velma does just yet, but I'm so satisfied with my experience as Velma that I didn't feel any motivation to go back to that—even if I could throw my leg over my head again. Plus, I love this show so much. All of these things worked toward feeling that maybe I could play Roxie.
I went in and asked [producer] Barry Weissler.
He must have been delighted.
Oh, I would never speak for Barry Weissler [laughs]. You can ask him how he felt. But here I am.
Did you see the original production of Chicago?
I saw the show when I was 15. I thought —and still do—that [original Billy Flynn] Jerry Orbach was the sexiest man I'd ever seen on stage. Chita [Rivera] and Gwen [Verdon] were amazing, along with every other woman on the stage. I couldn't wait to grow up so I could hopefully take my place among them.
How did you start to work with Bob Fosse? Did he see you in A Chorus Line?
I worked with Bob very briefly in the early '80s revival of Little Me. During that time he recommended me to replace in Dancin'. A couple years later, he saw me in the workshop of 13 Days to Broadway, written by Russell Baker, Cy Coleman and Barbara Fried.
What do you like about the Fosse style? Do you feel it particularly suits your body, or your personality?
It's the way I naturally move. Sort of an unanswerable question…sorry. But, you know, I was not really able to dance for about three years, the pain in my hip was so bad. With the hip replacement, at a certain point I was able to go back to ballet class and start dancing. And for that I have such a profound gratitude. I feel great, and so far so good. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can continue to do this show and continue to dance.
How did you feel taking part in the 10th anniversary celebration of the Chicago revival last November?
It was very moving and stirring for me to sneak out to the front of the house and watch Chita do "All That Jazz." It was equally moving and stirring to come backstage when it was over and hug her. She's a magnificent human in every way.
Chicago started out in the 1920s as a play, which was made into a very funny Ginger Rogers film, and then Fosse, Kander and Ebb turned the story into a musical. What accounts for the longevity of this material?
I can't speak about the play, but the longevity of the musical has to do with a couple of things. The production in 1975 that Bob and John and Fred created was brilliant—years ahead of its time. However, Chicago opened the same year as A Chorus Line. Those two factors kept the show from running as long as it might have, though it was a big success and ran for three years, mind you. Bob Fosse was a genius, and as frequently happens, he was ahead of his time. The portrayal of our society—the fractures in its legal system, its celebrity culture—as an evening of vaudeville is fantastically eloquent as a metaphor. With this revival, the public has caught up to his ideas. This production stays away that from anything that detracts from the material itself. You see the musicians; they're on the stage in a jury box. It's Brechtian in a way. There are no special effects. Even when those silver shiny things come out of the sky in "Razzle Dazzle," that's a snow bag—any grammar school can make that happen. But with the set-up and timing, it's magnificent. So the audience becomes part of a communal event. And yet nobody comes out into the house to interact with the audience in that horrible way [laughs]. Don't turn on the house lights, for the love of God! Nobody wins when that happens.
I started with [dance captain] Greg Butler in the rehearsal studio. The first day I learned "Baby." The second day I learned "Roxie." The third day I learned the courtroom scene. This was all brand new to me. Over the years, various performers have done different things with the numbers; as with any solo, you tailor the dance to different interpreters. Well, it was very important to me that I do exactly what Annie Reinking [who originated the role of Roxie in the revival] did. First we had to see if my hips could do the choreography. It turned out I could. So I am doing the choreography Bob Fosse's way—that's the truth of the show. Annie and I don't dance the same, but we both danced for Bob Fosse and we're coming at the choreography from the same world. If that's the original intent, if that's the choreographer's impulse and intent, then that's what I want to do, to satisfy his or her vision.
Honoring a choreographer's or director's original intent is something you hear dancers talk about more than, say, actors.
I suppose it's because I am a dancer. Show me the choreography, and I'll do it. As an actress, I work from the outside in. If I know how a person walks, moves and stands, that tells me something about them. The steps she does tell you a great deal about Roxie. The steps Velma does tell you a lot about her, too, and that's why Velma always cracks me up so much. Her choreography told me a lot about her level of sophistication—which is not exactly very high [laughs]. And the same for Roxie, when she fantasizes about the act she's going to do with her boys.
Stage acting requires a very different physicality than film and TV, doesn't it?
Working on film and TV can be frustrating. There are physical limitations and, because everything is chopped up and out of sequence, you rarely get a good run at things. It's unusual to get a really nice rehearsal situation where you can work out scenes. The kind of approach I take as an actor is technically a little problematic when you can't get up on your feet and work things through, but I find my way with film and TV as best I can. Frequently I feel like the odd man out, a fish out of water. A dancer who works as an actress—that's more the animal I am. It's what I've done all my life.
But you've managed to move back and forth from stage to movies and television dramas and sitcoms.
I jump at it the chance to do different things. I've been doing cartoon voices, too. I love doing those—they can be hilarious. They are a whole other performance experience, and what makes them really fun is that they generally contain glee. I love to perform.
On television or film, a performer can reach millions of people. On Broadway, it might be a thousand a night. What makes live theater so meaningful?
That exchange of energy with an audience is quite satisfying. I also believe that theater is a sort of primal need. It's the contemporary version of gathering around a fire with your tribe and telling stories; every person present is part of the communal event. That said, I don't think that I'm a ham. I don't thrive on audience response. It's not a question of showing off—performing is more of a spiritual event for me.
Yes. I happen to think that people in musical theater are probably the best suited to Shakespeare. Shakespeare is physical, there's music in it and a lot of it is poetry. We're comfortable in that heightened reality. Shakespeare was putting on a show for the folks, not involved in some academic, intellectual exercise. Well, putting on a show for the folks is what musical-theater people do, especially dancers. I can get a little bored doing regular plays. Maybe I've done the wrong ones, although I've done some lovely ones. Anyway, doing Shakespeare was the one theatrical experience that was similar in feeling to when I was a kid doing classical ballet.
So you're saying you're a classicist.
Not really. Rather, it's the appeal of being deeply involved in a visceral experience on the stage. I can't get away from wanting that—not that I would want to. That is the performer that I am.
You have also created your own possibilities, as with your star turn off-Broadway in Here Lies Jenny. Does a contemporary performer have to be entrepreneurial about her career?
I have no idea. Here Lies Jenny was me and some fantastically talented friends—Ann Reinking, Leslie Stifelman and Roger Rees—making a beautiful piece of theater with some beautiful Kurt Weill music, because we wanted to. We wanted to because we love the music and had something beautiful to say with it.
Any roles that you'd just love to do?
Lorna Moon in Golden Boy by Clifford Odets.
You have played some tough women, yet you manage to let us see their vulnerability. How does an actor play two values at once?
Now, that's a secret.
See Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre.