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Saturday, November 17 Living

In song, Bebe Neuwirth stays in character

Bebe Neuwirth doesn’t use her concert appearances as a chance to shoot the breeze about her life and career in between songs.

The actor-dancer-singer would rather turn an evening into a collection of scenes that she can act out through the words and melodies of great songwriters.

Earlier in her career, the two-time Tony Award winning Broadway star wondered if she could ever perform by herself in front of an audience without having a character to play.

“That’s why I resisted it and why it didn’t make sense to me,” the performer says of her wariness about stepping out of musical theater roles for an evening of song. She understands why Angela Lansbury once said that singing a song as “herself” was impossible.

What now makes it possible for Neuwirth to do shows like the one she will be presenting at Ridgefield Playhouse on Nov. 10 is her belief that each tune represents a different character.

“If I do these story songs I am emotionally involved and I am in character,” the star says of “Stories with Piano,” a show she has been doing with musician Scott Cady for some time now.

Neuwirth will be performing songs by Kurt Weill, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Waits and John Kander and Fred Ebb, among others.

“They all have an emotional point of view,” she adds. “They are all beautiful and each one is a scene in and of themselves. ... The way Scott plays makes them even more emotional.”

“It’s an intimate evening. ... I feel that theater (and cabaret) is what has evolved from the tribal fire ... we tell stories, make music and it becomes a communal event,” Neuwirth says.

Neuwirth doesn’t worry about the idea of live performance fading away due to the competition from ever-growing forms of home entertainment.

“Every once in a while they say theater is dying, but it doesn’t die because of that primal urge to gather together.”

The performer is well aware of the power of movies, but where and when we saw a particular film is rarely engraved upon our memories the way a live performance is.

“I have a memory of seeing Nureyev at the age of 9. Live performance is exponentially more thrilling (than recorded entertainment). It gets ingrained in our DNA,” Neuwirth says.

The incredibly long run of “Chicago” — for which Neuwirth won her second Tony — is a testament to the power and durability of a classic Broadway show.

“In two weeks, it will be the 22nd anniversary of our first preview,” the performer notes, adding that she believes the simplicity of the show’s staging was a game changer in a 1990s Broadway scene that was dominated by special effects-heavy musicals such as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Miss Saigon.”

The “Chicago” revival originated as a concert presentation in City Center’s “Encore” series and it was moved to Broadway more or less intact. The material by Bob Fosse and Kander and Ebb is so strong that the show doesn’t need any smoke and mirrors.

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“When we opened, the pendulum was swinging to that extreme of having all this stuff on the stage, Neuwirth recalls. “We showed that you didn’t need all of that. We did the Fosse style as he intended where you don’t go at the audience. That’s the glamour, the spell of the Fosse style.”

“The show is nothing but great material — the audience would start applauding on the (Kander and Ebb) vamps before anything happened.”

The performer has had great success in television in her roles on “Cheers” and “Madam Secretary,” among other shows, but she was very happy when a TV pilot she did was turned down in 1996.

“While waiting for us to be picked up, (the concert version of) ‘Chicago’ happened and there were rumors backstage (that a Broadway move) was actually happening,” she says. “But I thought, ‘Wait, I just did a pilot.’ If it gets picked up I can’t do the greatest role ever written — a role I’ve been waiting for all my life.”

Neuwirth had signed a contract with Dreamworks which mandated her participation if the show went to series, so she was anxious as the final decision drew near.

“Over the weekend I got the call telling me, ‘So sorry, ‘Dear Diary’ wasn’t picked up,’” she says, adding that she told the caller, “So I’m released? I’m really sorry about this.”

As soon as Neuwirth put the phone down, she yelled “Yay!”

Neuwirth went on to triumph on Broadway, but there was a happy ending for the pilot, too. DreamWorks submitted it in the live action short category at the Oscars and it went on to win.

“Boy, you never know what is going to happen,” the star says of her life in show business.

jmeyers@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @joesview

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