By Lesley Goldberg
Originally published on Advocate.com September 24 2009 3:20 PM ET
Perhaps best known for her two-time Emmy-winning role as stern Dr. Lilith Sternin from sitcoms Cheers and Frasier, Bebe Neuwirth is a busy lady. From playing the iconic Dorothy Parker in 1999's TV movie Dash and Lilly to claiming a pair of Tony awards for Sweet Charity and Chicago, the multihyphenate always seems to be jumping from film to TV to the stage -- singing, dancing, and acting along the way. The recent newlywed, enjoying a rare break in the New Jersey countryside with her husband, paused to discuss her roles as the tough dance teacher in the Fame big-screen remake (opening September 25) and Morticia in the Broadway-bound musical The Addams Family (world-premiering in Chicago in November) as well as who Lilith would rather get down and dirty with: Diane Chambers or Rebecca Howe.
Advocate.com: You're playing the beloved -- and hated -- dance instructor, Lynn, in Fame. What can you tell me about how you play her?
Bebe Neuwirth: In the original production Debbie Allen played the dance instructor, and this is a different person. I'm not re-creating Debbie's part. Debbie actually plays the principal of the school. This character that I play, she's from the ballet world but she's well-versed in theater and theater dancing and other forms, but she made a living as a ballet dancer, and I think because of the training and the discipline that goes into being a ballet dancer, she carries that over and tries to instill that focus and that discipline into all of her dancers, which I don't think is a bad thing at all, speaking as a theater dancer with ballet training. I think that is actually a very good way to approach any kind of dance; I think she's demanding, but I think that she's quite compassionate.
You spent a year at Juilliard and have been involved with ballet since the age of 5. Would it be safe to say that playing Lynn is a collection of all the people who have influenced you over the years?
I wouldn't say that. I'd say it's more like what I would be like if I was that person, if that makes any sense. If I was Lynn, if I had been a professional ballet dancer and I had gone into teaching at a public high school in New York City. I find her very sympathetic; I understand that. I believe in the same things she believes in: discipline, hard work in class, focus, and I have compassion for people who love it and are not going to be able to do it professionally. That's heartbreaking to me and it probably breaks her heart, but she's probably so used to it that that's where she and I are different.
Is this the first time you've been able to use your extensive dance background in a film or TV production?
Funny thing about that -- you'd think they'd have asked me to dance, but no, they did not ask me to dance in this picture. I was very disappointed that I didn't get to dance on film, but on the other hand, what you get is somebody who is a professional dancer, and I think you see that in the person. I think you can see that I'm a dancer, and I think it's in my carriage and in my bearing and in my physicality and in my body, so it's different from having an actress play the part to have a dancer play the part. I appreciate that they cast me, a real dancer, in the part of a real dancer. I think I also am very grateful to the producer and director that they came to me and checked on authenticity. They had a script and they said, "Now what really would a ballet teacher say here? What really would a jazz teacher say?" because they really wanted to make it authentic, not somebody's idea of what a dance audition is like, but really what a dance audition is like.
You’re costarring with Nathan Lane in the musical version of The Addams Family. What can we expect from you in that role?
A long black dress! [Laughs] I'm still in the development stage, so I'm not exactly sure of how it's going to go, except that I know it's going to be fantastic and the cast is magnificent and incredibly talented and people that you've heard of that are going to be great and people who you may not have heard of who are going to be great who you're going to discover.
If you could create the perfect role for you, what would it entail?
There are all kinds of beautiful plays that exist in the world that I'd like to work on. I did a Shakespeare play some years ago and I'd love to go back and take a crack at another one -- or two or three. Don't ask me which ones, just what ever I can pull off at this age. Also, there's an off-Broadway piece that I made called Here Lies Jenny at the Zipper Theater [in New York]. It was a very moving, beautiful piece, and I really want to make that into a film.
With your vast résumé, can you speak about how instrumental gays have been in your career?
What a funny question! I have no idea. I don't know how instrumental they've been. Certainly most of the people that I've worked with in the theater have been gay. The first show I ever did was A Chorus Line, and that was [renowned director-choreographer] Michael Bennett. The first or second time I did a straight play -- no pun intended -- a play without music, I remember a guy in the cast said, "So what's the difference between a straight play and musicals?" And I said, "There're more straight guys here!" [Laughs] I'd never seen so many straight guys in a play without the music, singing and dancing. Most of the people that I've worked with are gay.
Your two-time Emmy-winning role, Lilith, was beyond uptight, but Sam Malone got her to let her hair down. Do you think Lilith would have ever gotten down and dirty with Rebecca Howe?
[Laughs] You know, probably! That's such a funny question. Sure, yeah! I think because if you'd asked Kirstie [Alley] whether Rebecca Howe would have ever gotten down and dirty with Lilith, I think she'd say the same thing ... I hope she'd say the same thing! My feelings might be hurt!
Who do you think Lilith would go for, Shelley Long or Kirstie Alley?
I think probably Rebecca. Please don't take offense, but there'd probably be alcohol involved. [Laughs]