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Neuwirth Returns To Broadway, With More 'Class' Than Ever

Taking on her third role in the long-running revival of the musical <em>Chicago,</em> Bebe Neuwirth (left) plays prison matron Mama Morton. Amra-Faye Wright currently plays Velma Kelly — the part for which Neuwirth won a Tony Award in 1997.
Jeremy Daniel
Taking on her third role in the long-running revival of the musical <em>Chicago,</em> Bebe Neuwirth (left) plays prison matron Mama Morton. Amra-Faye Wright currently plays Velma Kelly — the part for which Neuwirth won a Tony Award in 1997.

Bebe Neuwirth is probably best known for her role in the hit TV show Cheers and its spinoff, Frasier, in both of which which she played Lilith, Frasier Crane's ice-blooded, uptight sometime wife.

But she's also an accomplished dancer and Broadway star, having won two Tony Awards — one of them for her portrayal of the murderous nightclub singer Velma Kelly in the 1996 revival of Chicago, the Kander and Ebb musical that was the sizzling-hot hit of the season.

Neuwirth returned to the same production 10 years later to play Velma's conniving, sexy prison rival Roxie Hart. Now she's back — yes, in that same production, which is now the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history — for one more go.

This time, Neuwirth is playing Chicago's third major female role: prison matron Mama Morton. Modeled on big-bodied, big-voiced vaudevillians like Sophie Tucker, Mama is the one who explains, raucously, that prisoners have it better "When You're Good to Mama" — and later, in a hilariously dirty-minded duet with Velma, laments the lack of "Class" among the newer breed of murderess. (Queen Latifah played the role in the Oscar-winning 2002 film version.)

Neuwirth tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that she's not fretting about missing out on the fairly spectacular choreography that the actress playing Velma gets to execute every night. "I had my time doing it," she says, and "I'm fine."

Besides, there's plenty to dig into in the mercenary character of Mama Morton.

"Walter Bobbie, our director, said the one thing to remember about Mama is that there's a reason she's called 'Mama,'" Neuwirth says. "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; she's got a heart."

Neuwirth joined Weekend Edition Saturday to talk about about discovering the choreography of the legendary Bob Fosse, about being recognized by fans, and about the ups and downs of musical theater.

Bebe Neuwirth as Velma in the 1996 revival of <em>Chicago</em>.
Max Vadukul /
Bebe Neuwirth as Velma in the 1996 revival of <em>Chicago</em>.

Interview Highlights

On coming back as Mama Morton

Well, I was having a meeting with Barry Weisler, 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: This show's been running so long I'm old now. I'm in my 50s — I can play her.'

On the demands of Bob Fosse's choreography, and of the three roles

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. I had no idea that Bob Fosse was God. But when I saw the choreography I felt like I recognized myself in some way. And I was just this kid, you know, taking ballet class in a nonprofessional, regional ballet company. And I just thought, 'That's me. I know I feel that.'

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!' But thinking about it now, it's his world — of light and dark, of irony, of sensuality. 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.

On the waxing and waning of musical theater

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 [flying] in, and I don't know how the pendulum is swinging now. For a while it was all revivals, and then it was all thinky things. 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.

On being recognized on the street

I do get stopped, and it's really interesting. Some people are very quiet about it, and they say, 'I just want you to know I really loved you on Frasier,' and I'll say, 'Well thank you so much.' And then sometimes people just stare at me and talk about me. This 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.

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