Her Kooky Destiny

Photo: Ruven Afanador. Left: Styling by Freddie Leiba/Bryan Bantry; Hair by Roberto Di Cuia/L'Atlier; Makeup by Scott Barnes/Rona Represents; Manicure by Elisa Ferri/See Management; Right:Vintage dress by Romeo Gigli, hat by Pier Atkinson

‘Igave a lousy show last night,” Bebe Neuwirth says about fifteen minutes into a chat in her dressing room at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. It seems she fell victim to the storied theater curse that is the “second show,” in which, as Neuwirth explains it, the relief of nailing a part in the first performance before a paying audience leads to a deceptively difficult following night. “It’s a trade secret,” she says. When I note that the cheering audience didn’t seem to notice, Neuwirth immediately regrets her candor: Leaning into the digital recorder at her knee, and with a pointed look in my direction, she says, “I don’t want anyone to tell them I had a bad show!”

Sorry, but what might in another context serve as a cheap gotcha provides a humanizing moment for Neuwirth, who, in her 25 years in show business, has excelled at the stylized and remote. As shrink Lilith Sternin on Cheers, she etched pop culture’s platonic ideal of an ice queen. Her 1996 Tony-winning turn in Chicago as Velma—little black minidress, big red lips, blinding white skin—was an equally iconic take on a brassy Broadway siren. Her current role, as Morticia, in the new, $16.5 million musical adaptation of The Addams Family (opening April 8), finds Neuwirth back in signature pallor and basic black. Although the production is based on Charles Addams’s macabre drawings for The New Yorker, the 51-year-old Neuwirth took the part because of a childhood infatuation. “Marshall Brickman called me up to say he’d written this musical, The Addams Family, and I just about screamed because I loved Carolyn Jones. Her Morticia [on the mid-sixties ABC sitcom] was really an archetypal character. As a child, I wanted to embody her qualities.” Wry, stoic, and smarter than her hot-blooded mate (John Astin’s Gomez), TV’s Morticia was a dark prefeminist outlier in a TV landscape known more for the va-va-voom vacuity of Ginger, Mary Ann, and Jeannie. “She wasn’t even part of that competition,” says Neuwirth. “She was doing her own thing. Who knows what that inner life of hers was, but she was hip. You know, I think Rhea Perlman’s character on Cheers once referred to me as Morticia.”

There is a certain Shelley Duvall–playing–Olive Oyl inevitability to Neuwirth’s latest role. “From the very top of the show, the audience sees Bebe and they go, ‘That’s Morticia,’ ” notes composer Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party). “It’s like that feeling you get watching Barry Bonds at the plate; this fantastic moment where it looks like it’s going to be great … and then it is great. And boy is that satisfying.”

Neuwirth with Nathan Lane as Morticia and Gomez.Photo: Joan Marcus

This being Broadway, there’s the usual tabloid gossip of backstage bickering between Neuwirth and her Gomez, Nathan Lane. “I was told Cindy Adams reported that we had a frosty relationship,” says Lane. “And then [Post theater columnist] Michael Riedel—or as I like to call him, Rosemary’s Baby—picked up on that. The most shocking thing about that is that Cindy Adams is still alive. God bless her, still trying to stir it up, and I wish her well. But it couldn’t be further from the truth.” As Neuwirth puts it, “I think we both have a nice, healthy dose of diva. But we also do really go together. You’ve got the little clown running around, and you have a very still, dry person. That’s a fun pairing.”

Neuwirth’s last extended appearance on Broadway was a second go-round with Chicago in 2006, that time as Roxie. Since then, she’s mostly been offered TV roles. But she finds regular series work, like her two short-lived Dick Wolf dramas Deadline (2000) and Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005), too ponderous. “It’s the waiting around and the long hours on set,” says Neuwirth. “I’m a dancer first, and a very physical person. Even Cheers was difficult for me, and that’s one of the best shows ever.” On the other hand, scripts were not “piling up outside my door … and being middle-aged makes it exponentially harder to find a role. I don’t fit into the wives, mothers, and housewives stereotype.”

Unless it’s the sort of wife and mother who wears black gowns slit to here and dominatrix boots up to there. (The boots were Neuwirth’s contribution to Morticia’s costume, revealed to thunderous audience approval.) It’s been nearly two years since the actress did her first Addams Family table read. After a commercially boffo but critically so-so holiday-season tryout on the road, the production has been, depending on whom you ask or read, tweaked, reshaped, or overhauled. And that’s especially true of Morticia. The show’s plot has a smitten Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) rejecting her parents’ eccentricity in the hope of marrying a milquetoast small-town boy, spurring a conflict that leaves Morticia feeling old and irrelevant. In the harshest of the out-of-town reviews, the Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones noted that Neuwirth “looks like she’s not having much fun.” Neuwirth was stung by the comment but doesn’t necessarily disagree: “In that production, Morticia was deeply, deeply unhappy from the middle of the first act through the end of the show.”

“That’s not a fun thing to play,” says Lane, “and it kind of undermined the character.” The creative team, he adds, “had to find a wittier way of dealing with it and not make it her main story line.” That, presumably, is part of the job of multi-Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks, who was brought in at the end of last year to consult with the show’s designer-director team, Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott (Shockheaded Peter). Songs have been cut, others are still coming; Neuwirth is getting an upbeat number that will help tip Morticia away from concerned mom and back toward vamp. “My forte is restrained sarcasm and a certain kind of bearing, which is what Morticia has also, so it’s a good match. But the character wasn’t served as well as she could have been—the part stressed panic,” says Neuwirth, pointing out that Morticia doesn’t do panic. “The show’s getting better all the time, but I don’t think it’s quite right yet. I’m awaiting more wisecracks.”

Her Kooky Destiny