Bebe Neuwirth
Bebe Neuwirth

Cabaret Marks a Broadway Reunion for Bebe Neuwirth and John Kander

It’s a “perfectly marvelous” Broadway reunion! Two-time Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth is back on the boards with celebrated composer John Kander with the new revival of Cabaret. Neuwirth famously originated the role of Velma Kelly in the hit revival of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago in 1996 (and won her second Tony Award to boot!). Set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party, Cabaret takes place in the seedy yet luxurious Kit Kat Club. Neuwirth plays Fraulein Schneider, a no-nonsense landlady who operates a nearby boarding house. In the show, Schneider, who is not Jewish, falls in love with Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor played by Steven Skybell. Entertainment journalist for Spectrum News NY1 Frank DiLella caught up with both Neuwirth and Kander right before rehearsals for Cabaret to get the scoop on this exciting and timely piece of theater.

John, how does it feel to know a revival of your masterwork is about to open on Broadway?

JOHN KANDER: On the one hand, it’s swell that it’s opening! On the other hand, the fact that it continues to be pertinent is terrible. And I’m more and more aware of that. When we first did the show, it was only 20 years after World War II, and it was reflective and a history lesson. But ever since then, and particularly now, it seems like we’re doing it all over again.

John, when Cabaret opens here in New York City, it will be your first time seeing this production. There have been many clips from the London production that have been posted on social media and on YouTube. What intrigues you the most about this production based on what you’ve seen online?

JK: The element that interests me the most with this production is that instead of watching society become wilder or grotesque, we watch it become more regimented. And that’s a really great observation, which actually we did not make originally, and I like it a lot. Because that’s what happens in a dictatorship and autocracy. And if we can’t recognize that now, we’re in big trouble.

Bebe, what made you want to return to Broadway, specifically with this revival of Cabaret?

BEBE NEUWIRTH: I feel very privileged to be able to say I feel quite at home on Broadway even though it’s been a few years since I’ve been on Broadway. I love the community and I love being a part of it. Cabaret is a beautiful piece of writing and theater. The music is extraordinary. The book is beautiful. And this part of Fraulein Schneider is fascinating. I think she’s complicated and not the thing you think she is, and she’s not the other thing that you think she might be, and maybe’s she’s unknowable, in a way. The thing that she does in the show is quite literally pose the question to the audience — and all of us in the cast as well — that question is “What would you do?” It’s an extraordinary place to be in, to be the person to ask that question, and to ponder that question and give some deep thought to. I look forward to this role, and it’s a privilege to step into something that was created for and by Lotte Lenya.

Bebe, this is a reunion for you on a few levels. First, you’re reuniting with the great John Kander. John Kander and his longtime writing partner, the late Fred Ebb, have been significant figures in your career.

BN: Their music feels right to me and so good to embody in every way. To feel that music in my body as a dancer — even if I’m not dancing, I’m still dancing. I feel it all and it feels natural to me.

John, how do you feel about reuniting with Bebe?

JK: I think she’s going to be really, really good. I’m very happy for both of us. Years ago she did a series of Berlin/German songs — she has history with this kind of material. I’m eager to see her in it.

Bebe, having been an interpreter of Kander and Ebb’s music over the years, what makes a Kander and Ebb score so unique and special?

BN: The standard answer is always “the vamp.” Their vamps are their vamps — and you know it by the time the second note plays, you know it’s them! They have a sound, they have a world, they have an irony, they have humor, wit, a slyness, they have a huge heart within all of that. It’s that particular alchemy that happens with all of these different qualities.

John, with the first few notes of Cabaret, we do get a brilliant John Kander vamp with the song “Willkommen.” How did you come up with that vamp?

JK: That’s the very first thing that was written for Cabaret. It just happened. Freddy and I were sitting and starting from the beginning — which is what we always did, because things that you find at the beginning of the score when you’re writing it tell you about the piece itself and you can continue to make quotes from that all the way through. I had listened to a lot of German jazz from the ’20s and I just let my fingers work, and that vamp was the first thing that happened.

Bebe, this is also a reunion for you and Steven Skybell.

BN: When I heard that Steven Skybell was playing Herr Schultz, I did quite literally get tears in my eyes. I love him so much. I love him as a colleague. I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with him. He’s fantastic. That’s the person you want to be on stage with. That’s the person you want to be in a scene with because of his openness and his generosity.

John, let’s go back to the beginning. What spoke to you about Cabaret when producer and director Hal Prince first brought this idea to you way back when?

JK: This piece belongs to Hal more than anybody. We were doing Flora the Red Menace with Liza Minnelli. And Hal said, “Whatever happens with Flora, we will meet the next day at my apartment, and we will start on our next piece.” Flora opened and was kind of a minor flop. And the next day, just as he said, we met. Joe Masteroff [Cabaret book writer] was there. And we talked about the material for The Berlin Stories. And then for the next few weeks and weeks we just talked. The thing about that gestation period was that nothing happened until we talked and talked and talked. And it was a real lesson.

Bebe, what’s your first memory of Cabaret?

BN: The film. I didn’t see a stage production of it for a very long time. I saw a stage production and I thought, “Wait, what’s going on?” I didn’t realize that Bob Fosse had done this extraordinary thing of making a film out of the show and he didn’t just do a verbatim thing; he just pulled what he felt needed exploring. He made an extraordinary film. And so when I saw the show, I thought, this is fabulous!

Bebe, what has director Rebecca Frecknall shared with you about this production and your character of Fraulein Schneider?

BN: We haven’t really gotten into it yet. I only met her once and auditioned. We haven’t talked too much about it. I’ve been thinking about Fraulein Schneider for months now. I’m curious to see how she fleshes out. She is a complicated character — she’s not a rubber stamp, she’s not just an old landlady. There’s a whole lot going on there.

John, I know it’s hard for an artist to pick favorites of their work, but where does Cabaret rank for you in terms of your body of work?

JK: Cabaret is one of the best pieces we did. Without going into it too much, there are some pieces I’m really happy with because they were what we intended to do, whether they were hits or flops. Cabaret is a piece that I think fulfilled our intentions and I think it also taught us a lot about working.

The time feels right to bring this show back to Broadway now.

BN: Sadly, some of the themes are timeless, and happily some of the other themes are timeless. It’s complicated and nuanced, but there are themes of joy and love and creativity and striving to love and fighting to love. And those themes never go away. And there are themes of evil and suppression and striving against evil and suppression, and that sadly never goes away.

John, I can’t wait for Cabaret on Broadway and I also can’t wait for the recently announced film version of your Kiss of the Spider-Woman with Jennifer Lopez. What can you share about the film?

JK: I can tell you that Bill Condon’s script is gorgeous! The work we’ve done together is really honest. It’s quite different from the stage piece in many ways. And Terrence McNally is very much alive in it as well.

Learn More About Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club