Sunday, May 01, 2005

Happy Bebe to Me!

Need to wait until morning to confirm I can have a ticket, can't order them on the web or they'd end up posted to Aus! But, the website is showing tickets for Bebe Neuwirth's first SF show tomorrow night available. The desk staff can book me in tomorrow.

With any luck, I get to see Bebe for my birthday. How cool is that?


Bebe Neuwirth is an artist who responds to simplicity. Whether it's a Zen brush painting of a horse or Eric Clapton singing "Over the Rainbow" with solo guitar, she admires "the ability to convey the truth completely and fearlessly and without artifice." It is this ability that has drawn this multitalented performer to the singular music of Kurt Weill, which brings her to San Francisco for an extended run of "Here Lies Jenny." Crafted around songs by the brilliant German composer, the work opens Tuesday. The surprise off-Broadway hit ran at a funky downtown Manhattan space called the Zipper Theater for five months last year.

As a dancer, actress and singer, Neuwirth seeks the unadorned truth. Whether garnering Tony Awards as Velma in "Chicago" (1997) and Nickie in "Sweet Charity" (1986), or Emmy Awards while freezing barstools as Lilith on "Cheers," she is a formidable combination of grace, ferocity, intelligence and beauty. In New York City last week, Neuwirth paused for an interview following a run-through of "Here Lies Jenny," the 90-minute show that she describes as "bigger than the sum of its parts." She calls the production the happy result of a collaboration among friends. After enlisting music director Leslie Stifelman to help her explore the music of Weill, Neuwirth turned to two dear old friends to develop a stage work: director-actor Roger Rees and choreographer-dancer Ann Reinking, artists who share not only a common artistic sensibility but an indelible connection to choreographer Bob Fosse.

"Here Lies Jenny" features some of Weill's Weimar-era collaborations with Bertold Brecht, as well as later work with lyricists including Ira Gershwin, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner and Odgen Nash. Neuwirth said the show offers the broad range of Weill's songwriting talents. "Many people may think of his music as very arch and angular and Germanic, (but) there is great lyricism and tenderness," she said in her dusky alto. In creating a world in which much is left to the imagination, however, Rees set aside the original contexts for the 21 songs; Neuwirth said the unusual show does not follow any rules or theatrical conceit that she has seen before.

It is clear that Jenny, the saloon singer played by Neuwirth, has weathered some grueling times, but her story is etched in shadow. "Who knows who this woman is?" she asked. "I have my ideas, but the audience will fill in (theirs). It's like an Impressionist painting. It could be any run-down saloon in any harbor town by the docks, anywhere in the world, anytime in the last century.

Neuwirth, a self-described "Japanophile" describes "Here Lies Jenny" by referring to the Japanese aesthetic concept known as wabe sabe; she even gave her creative team books about the philosophy. "It refers to the beauty of decay, the beauty of things that are crumbling," she explained. "The show honors that -- all the things that make up human experience."

This thoughtful performer admits that although her own ideas about her character are very specific, she keeps them to herself. "The truer and more specific we are, the freer the audience can be, ironically," said Neuwirth. She delights in hearing audience comments about the characters of Jenny and the four men who come into her life that night. "What did you think happened? Or, oh, you thought there was a child?"

She describes "Here Lies Jenny" as a show without artifice; to Neuwirth, what happens in that bar is "a very private thing. We want people to come and witness it and become part of it." She discussed the subtle yet strong difference between putting on a show and having an experience, once joking to Rees, "If you want me to do any selling, you've got the wrong girl!" For his part, Rees has called Neuwirth "a chameleon" and said that neither she nor Weill could be described in simple terms.

After months of performances, Neuwirth confesses that she is still learning about Jenny's past; sometimes, in the midst of a show or rehearsal, images or flashes give her glimpses into her character's backstory. "The show reveals itself to me sometimes; it's kind of spooky. I really dig that."

This 46-year-old performer describes Jenny as a very physical and emotional role and "the most personal of anything I've done."

She volunteered that in general, she may not be the easiest person to get to know, but Rees and Reinking knew what she could and needed to express. Working with such trusted friends and having such great material helped her dive deeply into the role.

"It's very hard for a performer to trust the material and trust that we don't have to do anything but speak the truth," Neuwirth said. "If you're talking about heartbreak, (Weill's music) goes to the absolute nth degree of what that really means. The way he shows that is with fearless lyrics and the bravery to make the music as beautiful as it can be."

Since creating the role of Jenny, Neuwirth has embarked on concert performances of Weill's music. She was surprised at the visceral thrill she experienced at being backed by a full orchestra. Though the concert stage, film and television may beckon, she said she is first and foremost a dancer. "I've been on stage since I was 7. That's where I'd rather be than anywhere else. Just because you can do a bunch of things doesn't mean you are a bunch of things. I can act. I can sing. But I am a dancer."

The vast television audience that sees Neuwirth arguing cases as the assistant prosecutor in Dick Wolf's new "Law & Order" spin-off, "Trial by Jury, " may plead otherwise. While pleased about the new pilot series, she does admit that doing television can feel a bit "sodden" or "leaden" because she has to keep her steps in check. So it's no surprise that Neuwirth embraces the opportunity to reprise the title role of "Here Lies Jenny," a work that enables her to show the full expression of her considerable talents, and to pursue the simplicity and unadorned truth that she treasures so much.


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