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INTERVIEW: Bebe Neuwirth Has a Sweet Midsummer Night's Dream

The Tony Award-winning star discusses her roles in Classic Stage Company's production of Shakespeare's comedy, her new CD, Porcelain, and returning to television. logo
Bebe Neuwirth
(© Tristan Fuge)
"I can't express how deeply I love saying all of the words that I get to say," says Bebe Neuwirth of her work in the new production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, now being presented by Classic Stage Company, in which she plays the dual roles of Hippolyta and Titania.

For Neuwirth -- who is the proud possessor of two Tony Awards, among other honors -- the play marks her overdue return to the world of the Bard of Avon. She was Kate opposite Roger Rees' Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1999 and hasn't tackled his language since.

"As soon as I did that show -- which was my first time playing Shakespeare -- I thought, 'That's it. I just want to do Shakespeare,"" she says. "I couldn't wait to do the next one. And it's taken until now to finally do one. Boy, I just love it!"

Still, her participation in this production came about by chance. "I met with artistic director Brian Kulick to talk about doing something with the Classic Stage Company, and he said, to my shock and delight, 'Well, would you like to do A Midsummer Night's Dream?' There was no hesitation on my part. I said, 'Absolutely! Sign me up!'"

Since Hippolyta and Titania aren't on stage simultaneously -- one is the queen of the Amazons, and the other is the queen of the fairies -- it's not unusual for both roles to be played by a single actress. However, director Tony Speciale's production departs from custom in some respects, with Neuwirth acknowledging that the dream is more literal at CSC. "Hippolyta and Theseus -- this is their dream, and we actually see that happen," she says. "We see them go from those characters into their dream."

During previews, Neuwirth was thinking hard about how to tackle Hippolyta. "The problem is that her husband-to-be, Theseus, won her 'doing her injury,'" she notes. "We don't really know exactly what that is so I have to pick something to play that will fuel the scene and the relationship in such a way that it causes a conflict for me. I'm not, 'Oh, boy, I can't wait to marry Theseus' -- it's not that. It's just been so fascinating to delve into and try to figure out what is going on."

Neuwirth also recently released her first solo CD, Porcelain. The selections are eclectic -- ranging from Tom Waits to Kander and Ebb to Stephen Sondheim's bawdy "The Madame Song" -- but they reflect the way she grew up with music. "In my home, when I was a kid, there was classical music, modern jazz quartet, Gregorian chants, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Tom Lehrer, and the Beatles."

As might be expected, several of the CD's selections relate to dancers or dancing, including "The Bilbao Song" from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Happy End, and Irving Berlin's "It Only Happens," another song about dancing. And there's the pop classic "Mr. Bojangles," about a southern singer-dancer who has fallen on rough times. "It's very hard for me to sing that one without crying," says Neuwirth.

Another highlight of the disc is the seldom-heard, Latin-inflected novelty number, "The Coffee Song." "A friend of mine had a big stack of music from her home in the Midwest and we were going through her records, looking at the covers because the art was so beautiful," she recalls. "And I said, '"The Coffee Song"? What does this sound like?' I don't read music. So my friend Scott Cady, who orchestrated the album and arranged it, played it for me. And I said, 'I have to sing this for a couple reasons. One, it's fun. Two, it's really funny. And three, my husband, Chris Calkins, is in the coffee business.'"

Porcelain isn't her only recent recording project: she is one of the guest artists on Dee Snider's upcoming CD, Dee Does Broadway, in which she duets with the rock superstar on "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees. (The CD, due out on May 8, also features duets with Patti LuPone, Cyndi Lauper, and Clay Aiken.)

Of course, Neuwirth is well known to many for her television work, most notably for her Emmy Award-winning role as steely psychiatrist Lilith Sternin-Crane on Cheers and Frasier, as well as roles on such series as Hack, Law & Order: SVU, and Bored to Death.

But she has been basically absent from the small screen, concentrating on stage and concert work, instead. However, Neuwirth appeared earlier this season as feisty judge Claudia Friend on CBS' hit drama, The Good Wife, and she would be thrilled to return to the series.

"They asked me to come back, but I was in rehearsal for this show," she notes. "Hopefully, they'll ask me again."

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