With her wry sense of humor, distinctive voice, legendary legs and inimitable movement quality, Bebe Neuwirth has carved her own niche among musical theater’s most famous dames. From her first gig as Sheila in A Chorus Line to her Tony Award–winning work in Sweet Charity and Chicago, the Princeton, New Jersey, native and former Juilliard ballet student has wowed audiences with her elegant presence on both the stage and screen. Perhaps most well-known is her Emmy Award–winning, sharp-tongued portrayal of Lilith on “Cheers” and “Frasier.” But this self-proclaimed “dancer first” says she always felt most comfortable onstage. So it’s not a surprise that Neuwirth has returned to the boards once again, this time starring opposite Nathan Lane as the macabre matriarch Morticia in the new musical version of The Addams Family. And after a successful eight-week run at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the show opens on Broadway in New York City April 8.
Dance Teacher: This is the first time you’ve created a role on Broadway: Tell us about the process.
Bebe Neuwirth: This show is based on the cartoons. I studied the drawings to see how she stands, her body language. I thought, “If that drawing could move, how can I incorporate that physicality?” There’s something very elegant about her, so it’s a good thing I’ve been taking ballet class for 45 years.
DT: What was it like to work with Jersey Boys choreographer Sergio Trujillo?
BN: Wonderful. He creates for the characters, including the ensemble dancers. In a good piece of musical theater, they’re not just a chorus—they’re individuals.
DT: You’ve done so many different types of work. How has your dance training benefited you throughout?
BN: There was a long time when I felt like I was a little different: I didn’t quite fit in with the actors. For years I didn’t realize it: I’m a dancer! I’m a different animal. Whatever that animal is, that’s what I bring to all of my jobs.
DT: Who is your biggest influence?
BN: Bob Fosse. From the minute I saw his choreography to even now, I look to him, his words, his way of working and his direction. He had a clarity of vision and always knew exactly what he was doing. He taught me about detail, motivation, cleanliness and elegance.
DT: Any dancers who inspired you?
BN: I don’t think it’s good for dancers to try to emulate anyone. Try to be your own dancer. I was lucky enough to see Rudolf Nureyev onstage when I was a teenager, but I didn’t want to dance like him or [Margot] Fonteyn. They inspired me to be the best I could be.
DT: As the founder of The Dancers’ Resource at the Actors Fund, what do you think is essential for dancers to consider health-wise?
BN: Nutrition. There’s a lot more consciousness about this today than 35 years ago. But unfortunately, eating disorders still run rampant. We have a certain line and look that we want to attain. I just hope teachers don’t demand that students achieve a certain body type if that’s not their natural body shape. It’s up to the teacher to keep an eye out for problems. The first step is always awareness. DT
Lauren Kay is a dancer and freelance writer based in NYC.
Photo of Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia at Chicago's Oriental Theare, by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Publicity Office