In the beginning, there was dance.
Sure, say the name Bebe Neuwirth and probably eight out of 10 of America’s television-watching faithful will jump straight to “Cheers.” Look her up on Wikipedia and you’ll see her introduced as “an Emmy Award- and Tony Award-winning American theater, television, and film actress and singer/dancer.”
But she started out with ballet lessons in Princeton, New Jersey, where she grew up, she said in a telephone interview last week, and if she had to be the one to sequence her vocations—and passions—she’d put down dancer first, “with acting and singing tied for second.”
And sure, even on the phone—or maybe because it’s on the phone—that voice is distinctive. Speaking with the animated inflections of a woman who is passionate about all the performing arts at her command, Ms. Neuwirth still betrays hints of her ability to go to the deep down to the diaphragm deadpan of Lilith Crane, seated on a barstool and vexing and perplexing her neurotic psychiatrist husband, Frasier.
But—as anyone who has seen this dancing and singing actor in a Broadway or Off-Broadway theater piece, or who has heard her sing two notes will tell you—that voice has all the emotional colors of a much more extensive palette than Lilith’s trademark black outfits would suggest. And Ms. Neuwirth will likely be painting with all those colors when she brings her newly minted cabaret show, “Stories with Piano,” to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 27, at 8 p.m.
That’s right: no dancing from a woman who considers herself a dancer above all else. A woman who came back from hip replacement surgery in 2006 to take on one of the more demanding dance roles in the Broadway canon: Roxie Hart in Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago,” a show that she first put her stamp on in the role of Velma Kelly, winning a Tony and a Drama Desk Award in 1996.
A woman who feels so strongly about dance and the people like her who put their heart and soul into it, often sacrificing their bodies in the process, that she used her position as an Actors Fund board member to launch The Dancers’ Resource. The program, which she still oversees, offers ongoing counseling and education, “helping with ‘whatever problems dancers face,’ from insurance to nutrition to workers’ comp,” according to an article in Variety.
“Acting and singing are what I do,” Ms. Neuwirth is quoted as saying in the same article, “But a dancer is what I am.”
But listen to her talk about singing for a few minutes, and you’d be hard-pressed to see that form of artistic expression in second place.
After her original training in ballet, she started singing as a performer when she was cast in the chorus of “Oklahoma!” in a school production. “There was a time,” she said, “when musicals had a dancing chorus and a singing chorus,” but that changed with the economics of producing Broadway shows and actors cast in the chorus had to do both. She went on to win roles in “Carousel” and “Hello Dolly!” at school, and she has been a triple-threat performer ever since.
Her first Broadway show was in the role of Sheila in “A Chorus Line” in 1980, the first and only time she had to do any tap dancing—although she’s not sure it really counts because “they didn’t put metal things on our feet.” Cast in a revival of “Little Me” in 1982, she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her work in “Sweet Charity” in 1986. She went on to earn more acclaim as Lola, the devil’s first-string seductress, in a revival of “Damn Yankees” in 1994.
The apotheosis of her combined talents as an actor-singer-dancer arrived with the revival of “Chicago” in 1996. And while that might not be where her love for the songs of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb got started, it certainly didn’t hurt. Prior to developing her new cabaret show, Ms. Neuwirth had been touring with a symphony show comprised entirely of songs by Kander and Ebb and the “unflinching” Kurt Weill, another favorite composer.
In the show she is bringing to the PAC, she said, “A lot of the songs are story songs … If not a story, they are about an emotionally intense moment—an emotional high point or low point.
“In a show,” she continued, “the emotion becomes too much for a character, so they have to start singing. These are stories that need to be sung, because just telling it in words instead of singing it can’t do it justice.”
The set list will feature songs by “many, many different composers, some you have heard before, some not,” she said, noting that there is even a Tom Waits number in the program. Among the classics and show tunes, some better known than others, there will indubitably be some songs by Kurt Weill and Kander and Ebb, of course.
“I won’t be talking about myself much. It won’t be ‘and then I did this’ and then a song that goes with that. If you want to know something about me, you’ll get it from the choice of material.”
For now, “Stories with Songs” is just Ms. Neuwirth and accompanist Scott Cady, the assistant conductor for “Chicago,” on piano. She has considered adding an accordion or a guitar, but isn’t sure either is needed because so many people have said that when Mr. Cady plays, “you can hear all the instruments.”