Fans of her work are about to witness an up-close and personal side of Neuwirth when she takes the stage for her first-ever solo appearance in Philadelphia, May 23 at the Prince Music Theater. Backed by a piano player, Neuwirth will perform songs by Stephen Sondheim, Edith Piaf, Tom Waits, Irving Berlin and Kander & Ebb. Neuwirth spoke to PGN about her remarkable and multifaceted career and what it’s like to perform without the usual large cast of characters surrounding her.
PGN: When you’re accustomed to being part of a big production, whether on TV or on stage, is it less pressure for you as a performer to do these more-intimate cabaret shows?
BN: It’s very different from being in a show with a bunch of other people and a costume and a story to tell. It’s a very different performance experience. It’s a different pressure. I don’t know if it’s more or less. It’s just two of us on the stage. That’s kind of strange and I am used to dancing in a group or being with a lot of people so it feels very different. I don’t want to say it’s more pressure because I’ll get nervous. It’s just different.
PGN: When selecting the songs, do you like to stay closer to a repertoire that your fans would expect from you or do you like to surprise them with songs they aren’t expecting?
BN: Well, I don’t know what the fans expect. So I find the best thing to do is, with my music partner, Scott Cady, create the show that we are interested in doing and feel that we want to do. Our show is called “Stories with Piano #3.” Almost all the songs are story songs. It’s really what is right for the show and like I said I don’t know what people are expecting. I can’t second-guess them.
PGN: Who are some of your favorite singers and/or songwriters?
BN: Songwriters are Kurt Weill, Tom Waits, John Kander and Fred Ebb. And I do a lot of their songs. I used to do symphony shows that were just Kurt Weill and Kander and Ebb. In this piano show, we’ve incorporated a lot of their songs. Personally I listen to rock ’n’ roll. But to perform, I love to perform Weill, Kander and Ebb and Waits.
PGN: Do you think the influence of rock music is growing in the world of theater?
BN: I think it’s always been there. There’s always been at least one show every season for as long as I remember that has something from popular music. Like “Smokey Joe’s” or “Jersey Boys,” there’s always something that comes from that world. Not so much from the music that I listen to. I listen to classic rock ’n’ roll.
PGN: So, will you be breaking out some Led Zeppelin at your show?
BN: No. I’m not going to sing Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull. I used to sing some Beatles. No, I’m not going to do that because I’m not really good at that. Not Led Zeppelin. I would love to be able to sing like that. I am on Dee Snider’s new album, “Dee Does Broadway,” and I do a duet with him. He’s taken all these Broadway songs and put rock orchestration and arrangements on them.
PGN: The roles you have played have run the gamut from comedy and musicals to drama. Is there a specific kind of role that you prefer over the others?
BN: No, I don’t think so. I like a role that when I read it and play there’s something that tickles me or moves me on a deep level. And I’ve had the good fortune to play a lot of those. They make me laugh, like that person just cracks me up, or I am moved by the passage that that person goes through in their life. Good writing is really what I’m attracted to.
PGN: Has your work on TV had a huge impact on your stage career?
BN: Well, there’s no secret that it’s a helpful thing. Working in theater now is to be recognized in another medium that gets a bigger audience. You could do a show on Broadway for a year and the number of people that will see you is fractional compared to the number of people who will see you in one episode of a television show. The trend, and it’s been going on for a couple of decades now, is to bring people from larger-audience media to the stage. At the box office people go, “Oh, I know that person from that show. Let’s go see that.” I was doing Broadway shows. I had done “Sweet Charity” before I did any television. When the opportunity to do it came, television was not something that I had thought about and all of a sudden I had to think about it when the opportunity to do “Cheers” came. I thought, It seems like that’s what’s happening now and this is the best show on television and this is a spectacular part. So, OK I’ll do it. That was the decision process for taking the role of Lilith and I am sure that that’s made things easier for me when I came back to Broadway. I’m sure that that was helpful.
PGN: Are there any drawbacks from being so famous for the work you do on television?
BN: None that I can think of. There were a lot of roles that I turned down during and after “Cheers” — film parts mostly because I didn’t want to get stereotyped into the person that only does that kind of part. Of course no one has ever written a role exactly like Lilith but there were a lot of parts that I could see that I was being offered because of the work on “Cheers” — just roles that I thought aren’t going to help me be seen as someone who can do anything. But then I got a part in a movie that Barry Levinson directed and I asked him how come he offered me that part and he said, “Well, I saw you on ‘Cheers.’” And I said, “But this part is nothing like that part.” He said, “I know but I saw that you were funny and that you were a good actress.” So there were directors out there who could see my work and say she’s good at what she does. But there were some roles that came my way just because, “Oh, she does that. Let’s get her to do that.” There were many parts that I turned down like that.
PGN: Who has been your favorite character to play?
BN: Oh, I can’t answer that. I’ve gotten to play so many great parts. Can I give you five? Velma [Kelly in “Chicago”], Anita in “West Side Story,” Sheila in “A Chorus Line,” Cassie in “A Chorus Line” and right now Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Oh, and then I have to say Katherina in “The Taming of the Shrew” also.
PGN: Do you ever see yourself working more behind the scenes, writing and producing shows?
BN: Not writing or producing but I’m very interested in directing. I find that I see things and I’m interested in coaching. The step beyond coaching is directing. I do see myself starting to think in those terms as a director. That’s in the future.
PGN: Beyond these cabaret performances, what other projects and productions are in your future?
BN: I have my first solo CD out, “Porcelain,” and I’d like to do more of those. That album has a lot of the songs I do in “Stories with Piano” plus others. I’d like to do some more Shakespeare. But my plans so far are I have a few more concerts, then I’m going to see my nephew’s bar mitzvah.
PGN: Do you think the success of TV shows such as “Glee” and “Smash” are getting more people interested in theater and/or Broadway?
BN: I think it will bring more people to actual theaters. I think that is a very exciting prospect. Without the audience, we’re just rehearsing. The audience is the other part of the show. They are the other element. They are a collaborator. If people are enjoying these television shows, once they get inside a theater they will find a much more visceral experience of that. The experience they have watching television will now be enhanced because they will actually be part of the event and I’m very excited for them for that prospect. As to how these television shows happened or what generated that, I have no idea. That is something that happened in the world of television.
Bebe Neuwirth performs to benefit The Gershman Y, 8 p.m. May 23 at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. For more information or tickets, visit www.gershmanY.org.