Bebe Neuwirth: At Home on the Boards

Bebe Neuwirth was a favorite on the TV series "Frasier." Fast forward to today, and you'll find her getting *cheers* from the audience at "The Addams Family Musical" on Broadway. Russ Mitchell has prepared this Sunday Profile:

Morticia Addams, matriarch of the family that's "creepy" … "kooky" … and "all together ooky" … may not seem like an obvious candidate for Mother of the Year.

When daughter Wednesday Addams asks Morticia to make her "feel better," she responds with these bright thoughts: "Life is a tightrope, my child. And at the other end of it is your coffin."

"Thanks, mom!"

But Bebe Neuwirth, who brings Morticia to life on stage in "The Addams Family Musical," would beg to differ:

"She deeply loves her husband, is deeply loved by her husband. She loves her children. And she's elegant, at all times. Kind of unflappable. And very human and warm at the same time."

. . . Even if her character delights in morose thoughts every now and again. For inspiration in fleshing out Morticia, Neuwirth looked to the macabre cartoons of Charles Addams, which debuted in The New Yorker in 1938.

"I don't know what Charles Addams thought she sounded like. I don't know really anything else about her but her physicality. So, I tried to incorporate that. I tried to stand like the cartoon stands."

"For those people who are not familiar with the cartoons, how would you describe them?" Mitchell asked.

"They are very dark. They are very morbid. And somehow, just really funny!"

And as with all of the Morticias who've come before, whether in the 1960s television show (Carolyne Jones) or in the movie versions (Anjelica Huston), a large part of Morticia's persona comes from her dress . . . black (of course), complete with tattered sleeves and hem.

Neuwirth called it "a feat of architecture and engineering!"

Nathan Lane, as Gomez Addams, even refers to her attire as cut "down to Venezuela."

Does she ever worry about a "wardrobe malfunction" on stage?

"No!" she laughed. "Thanks for putting that in my head. No, everybody asks that. But so far, we're a PG show."

A veteran of Broadway, movies and television, this is not the first time Neuwirth has been cast as a tough yet alluring woman.

In the 1996 revival of "Chicago," her portrayal of Velma Kelly, the scheming double murderess, earned Neuwirth a Tony Award.

And then there's Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane from the hit comedy show "Cheers" (at left, with Kelsey Grammer).

Was she surprised when Lilith became an iconic character?

"Yes, I mean, not that I was surprised because I thought she wasn't worthy of that. It's just I was surprised because it was just this little part that came onto the show one season, one episode."

Neuwirth ended up winning two Emmys for the role, and played the straight-laced, emotionally frigid character for almost 17 years.

"Women like that part," Neuwirth said. "I think they liked her honesty. And they liked that she wouldn't take any BS from her husband."

And Neuwirth admits there are elements of herself in each of the characters she plays, including being socially awkward like her TV counterpart Lilith.

"If I say to you that I'm shy, you would think that doesn't make sense because I don't behave like a shy person," she told Mitchell. "I'm not easy in groups or with, you know, meeting new people. It's not easy for me."

"So at a cocktail party where you're meeting a bunch of new people . . . "

"Yeah, strikes terror in my soul."

Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, Neuwirth knew from a young age that she was destined for the stage . She said she was born with the bug to go into show business.

"It's congenital," she said.

"And just over time it's become stronger and stronger, is that right?" Mitchell asked.

"Yeah, yeah, there's no vaccine for it."

Neuwirth's parents - Lee, a mathematician, and Sydney, an artist - encouraged their daughter to pursue her dreams.

"She knew what she wanted to do; it's different from other kids," said Lee. "She was not distracted by a lot of the things going on at the time."

And school life for Neuwirth held little appeal.

Her mother says Bebe was very smart but a tough student who'd say, "I don't know why I have to take algebra. I'm never gonna use algebra."

"So it was always a battle," Sydney said.

Neuwirth did graduate from high school and attended Juilliard in New York City. But by age 19, she traded college for the stage, landing a role in the touring company of "A Chorus Line."

"It was absolutely thrilling. You know, it was 'A Chorus Line' when 'A Chorus Line' had only been running on Broadway three years. It was 1978. I'm 51 - we'll save you the math."

And in 1986, Neuwirth said, her life changed when she worked with the legendary choreographer Bob Fosse in a revival of "Sweet Charity."

"How important was Fosse to you, to your life and to your career?" Mitchell asked.

"I can't quite express just how deeply everything is sort hinged on what he did, my seeing what he did when I was 13 and going 'Okay, that's me up on that stage. I know that. That's who I am.' I just found myself.

"And then to work with him, he kind of showed me who I am as an artist and as a performer. He saw me. You know, that's what we look for, I think, in life, are people who see us, that bring out the best you are."

Broadway clearly agreed, recognizing her with two Tony Awards for her performances in Fosse shows.

And while "The Addams Family Musical" hasn't exactly been a knockout with the critics, it has been selling out at the box office.

Neuwirth says she doesn't read reviews. Once again, thanks to Bob Fosse . . .

"He looked at me, and he said, 'Don't read the reviews. Don't read them. Don't read them.'"

Good advice? "You know, if Bob Fosse tells you something, don't question it." She laughed, "Just do it."

When not performing, Bebe Neuwirth makes her home in New Jersey, where she lives with husband Chris Calkins.

But of course, Broadway is never far from her thoughts . . .

"I've been on stage since I was seven years old, dancing, and I feel most comfortable on the stage," she said. "I like doing television and movies. But your home is your home. And, you know, it's like staying in a fantastic hotel, where you're having a great time, but there is no place like home."

For more info:
"The Addams Family Musical" (Official Website)