Bebe Neuwirth won a Tony in 1997 as merry murderess Velma in Chicago, but the name on everybody's lips is gonna be Roxie now that she's returned to the revival through March 25. Perhaps best known outside of New York for her Emmy-winning role as Lilith in Cheers, the star of such Broadway shows as Sweet Charity, Dancin', and Damn Yankees spoke to us about her decision to take on the other scintillating sinner less than a year after hip replacement surgery due to debilitating arthritis pain.
By Brandon Voss
HX: Whose idea was it for you to return to Chicago in the role of Roxie?
Bebe Neuwirth: Mine. I walked into [producer] Barry Weissler's office the week following Tony Awards, and I still had a cane with me, and I said, "Can I come back in the show?" He said, "Yes." And I said, "But I want to play Roxie." I think he was really surprised, but he agreed.
Did you ever long to play Roxie while you were playing Velma?
No, never. In fact, I felt sorry for whoever it was playing Roxie because Velma was so much fun! I was so in love with Velma that I never thought of straying. Then, after my hip replacement, I thought, Well, if I can dance again after this, I want to dance again after this. I'm a very lucky girl to have had a really great surgeon and a very successful operation. My gratitude is so profound that it would be a true crime to not do what I love now.
You just had your surgery in May of 2006. How have you bounced back to Broadway form so quickly?
Everybody and every body is different, and certainly it helps if you're young, in very good shape and slender.
Are you at all concerned about injuring yourself? Are you pulling back your performance?
Well, the first tying I did was the 10th anniversary performance on November 14, so I knew from working on that — which was only seven months out of surgery — that I could do "Nowadays" and "Hot Honey Rag." So I was feeling less nervous because I thought, Okay, if I can do this, I'm in pretty good shape. But keep in mind that I went back to ballet class eight weeks after the surgery. Now, I don't think I could dance Velma right now the way I used to dance it. I can't kick my leg over my head — yet.
Do you try to catch the various celebrities who often take over the Chicago roles?
Every once in a while I'll take a quick peek in at somebody, but not terribly often. I saw Usher because I was very curious, and he was a fantastic dancer. But I go and visit at the theater all the time. I've got lots of friends there, so I like to sit in the basement and see my friends. Yeah, it's kinda pathetic. [Laughs] "She's not in the show anymore, why won't she leave?"
Let's talk about your rabid gay fans.
[Laughs] I have to tell you this. I was out in Los Angeles for a press junket a couple of years ago when I was doing Law and Order: Trial By Jury. It was a nightmare. And at the end of the day, my hip was hurting really, really bad and we had to go to this party at the Hard Rock Café in Universal City. I just felt so out of place. It was for television, it was in Los Angeles, it was in a mall and it was at the Hard Rock Café. [Laughs] All of these elements were conspiring against me. Finally, this guy comes up to me and says, "Hi, can I talk to you for a minute? I'm from Out magazine." I said, "Yes! Oh, great! C'mon, let's go get a booth!" [Laughs] I thought, Oh, I feel like I'm home now. My people!
In your Will & Grace cameo you said of Lilith that you "wanted to play that bitch forever." Any truth to that?
No. [Laughs] I love Lilith, but no.
On Frasier, Lilith's second husband left her for a man. Was that your idea?
No, that was just serendipitous.
Have you ever fallen for a gay man?
Yeah, I had a big crush on a guy I danced with in a show in ’83. A beautiful dancer who's since passed away, I'm sad to say. God, he was gorgeous. Oh, and I actually seriously fell in love with one. This was a friend of mine, and we actually fell in love with each other. It was a very strange thing. We were working together in a piece where our characters were in love, and we did fall in love. Then the thing was over and we went back to being deep friends. It was beautiful.
You must've had a good gay friend teach you some tricks before you deep-throated a banana in Celebrity.
Oh, honey, straight girls do that too. [Laughs] That was crazy. I couldn't believe it. I had to step outside of my body for just a minute and say, "Okay, I'm standing on the et of a Woody Allen movie with Judy Davis and Woody Allen himself is giving me direction on going down on a banana. He actually goes, "You look like a housewife doing it. Give it a little flair!" And he sort of held the banana and stuck his pinky in the aid. [Laughs] My head exploded.
SIDEBAR: Velma Takes the Stand
With Neuwirth now rocking Roxie, Velma will be played by Brenda Braxton, the Tony-nominated star of Smokey Joe's Cafe and the original production of Dreamgirls. Though one might think it rather intimidating to play Velma opposite the woman who made the role so iconic, Neuwirth says that Braxton is tops in her book. "She's played Velma for a long time," Neuwirth assures us, "so she has nothing to worry about. I think her Velma is wonderful, and I really like her as a person so much." And that's swell, isn't it?
HX, January 2007.