By Michelle Trauring
Bebe Neuwirth has only made one decision in her life — that, one day, she would dance on Broadway.
She was 13 years old.
That ambition would come to fruition, first in “A Chorus Line” in 1980 and then, six years later, in “Sweet Charity,” which won her the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
The streak continued with “Chicago,” which brought her unbridled fame and accolades, including another Tony. But this was now 1996, and Neuwirth had lived a full life in between — one that’s impossible to summarize in a few quick sentences, or without stumbling over her thoughts, she recently explained during a telephone interview from her home in Greenwich Village, in anticipation of an upcoming performance on Friday at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
“Rarely have I ever decided to do anything in my life, or in my career,” she said. “I like to think of it as a Zen progression, of things happening and unfolding in a natural way under my very, very fortunate start. There’s absolutely been many heartbreaks and setbacks, but things just unfold.”
A young Bebe Neuwirth knew what she wanted from age 4, when she asked her parents if she could take a ballet class. She enrolled when she was 5, found the stage by age 7, and hasn’t stopped dancing since, she said. Singing came second, she noted, as a prerequisite to performing in musical theater.
“There is no longer such a thing as the dancing chorus and the singing chorus. A very long time ago it was like that, but those days are over. So I learned how to sing, and I started getting work,” she said. “If that meant dancing in a Broadway show, fantastic. If that meant going to Europe and doing ‘West Side Story,’ equally fantastic. If that meant dancing for a commercial for HBO, which was a new thing at the time, then that’s what I did. I just wanted to be a working dancer in New York City.”
She put in her dues — a concept lost on a generation of instant-stardom dancers thanks to television contests, she pointed out — and they paid off. Though, arguably, the most widespread exposure she saw was in thanks to her role as Dr. Lilith Sternin on “Cheers” and its spin-off “Frasier.”
But she never lost sight of Broadway, returning to the stage in 2002 as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” and as Roxie Hart and Matron “Mama” Morton in “Chicago” in 2007 and 2014, respectively, having already played Velma Kelly in 1996. Her love of song, and especially dance, has found a new home in Neuwirth’s latest endeavor — a cabaret show called “Stories with Piano,” which she will perform at Guild Hall.
“They are story songs sung with piano. It’s simple as that. It’s not a show biz-y show at all,” she said. “Some of the stories are told in the narrative, some of them are in the first person, some of them are happening in the moment, some of them are a little more abstract than that. Some of them convey a feeling that speaks to a story that led a person to this point. There are a lot of character-driven stories, as the best stories are. And I love all the music that we play.”
Most of the songs strike a specific chord with Neuwirth, and if they don’t, they typically make her laugh. Within them, she finds joy and heartbreak, nostalgia and longing, and her own love of dance. “It’s both personal and universal,” she said, “because anything that’s personal is universal.”
Together with her musical director, arranger and pianist, Scott Cady, they look at “lots and lots of different songs” and find those that are meaningful in some way, she said, and see how they work together.
“Several times in rehearsal with Scott, one or both of us have said, ‘Well here’s a really bad idea, what if we do this?’ And I learned that from a great friend of mine, who was a great actor. He would say, ‘Have really bad ideas,’” she recalled. “Sometimes those things that seem like a crazy bad idea are fantastic, and they are just what we need. And sometimes we say, ‘Oh, that was a really bad idea. Let’s just forget about that and think of something else.’
“I think that’s a great way to work,” she said. “There has to be a trust and respect in the room, and we have that.”
To be clear, this is not an evening of 19 songs that Neuwirth loves, but have nothing to do with each other, she said. There is cohesion — though what that may be specifically, she’d rather not say.
“I don’t like to tell the audience too much about what a song is, because I like them to have a strong experience for themselves,” she said. “I don’t want them to be thinking about something else. I like them to just have the experience and let it mean for them what it means for them.”
Bebe Neuwirth will perform “Stories with Piano” on Friday, July 21, at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Tickets range from $55 to $150, or $53 to $145 for members. For more information, call (631) 324-4050, or visit guildhall.org.