Bebe Neuwirth in An evening of Kurt Weill
By JERRY TALLMER
I was young, I was just sixteen then,
When you came up from Burma one day
And you told me to pack up my suitcase
And I did, and you took me away . . .
You said a lot, Johnny, It was all lies.
You sure had me fooled from the start.
I hate you when you laugh at me like that.
Take that pipe out of your mouth, Johnny.
Surabaya Johnny. Is it really the end?
Surabaya Johnny. Will the hurt ever mend?
Surabaya Johnny. Ooh, I burn at your touch.
You got no heart, Johnny, but oh, I love you so much.
from Happy End, words by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill
Kurt Weill said that every note he ever wrote he heard in the voice of Lotte Lenya.
Well, Lenya is gone now, she left us in 1981, but Bebe is very much with us, and if any woman now alive, any American woman, can step into the shoes of Lenya the blow-em-all-to-hell chambermaids shoes of Pirate Jenny in Threepenny Opera, the two-sizes-too-big clodhopper shoes of Anna No. 1 in The Seven Deadly Sins, the squared-off schoolmarms shoes with an assassins knife in the heel in From Russia With Love it is dark and dangerous Bebe Neuwirth.
Who will be singing Surabaya Johnny and some half-dozen other seething, sexual, cigarette-stained, lemon-tinged, imperishable songs some in English, some in French as soloist in the Collegiate Chorales An Evening of Kurt Weill this coming Wednesday, February 4, 8 p.m., at Lincoln Centers Alice Tully Hall.
The actor Roger Rees narrates, directs, and will sing some Weill in his own right. Conducting the company is Chorale music director Robert Bass.
I am excited to lead the Collegiate Chorale on this journey, he says.
A press announcement had billed Bebe Neuwirth as making her cabaret debut this evening, but over the telephone the other day the two-time Tony Award winner (for Sweet Charity and Chicago.) says: Thats actually incorrect. And adds, dryly, sweetly (just like Brecht/Weill!), matter-of-factly: I made my cabaret debut 22 years ago. At Martin Charnins Upstairs at ONeals on 43rd Street.
Neuwirth, who was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on a New Years Eve when Threepenny Opera was still playing at the Theater de Lys on Christopher Street, and who first hit the spotlight in A Chorus Line in 1975, had not really been exposed to much of Kurt Weill until what may have been 1991 or 92.
That was when I was in a production in Los Angeles of [what the Nazis damned as] the degenerate cabaret material. There was a big exhibit at the same time there in L.A. of degenerate art work mostly of the Weimar period. Many of the artists had committed suicide or gone into the camps or [like Brecht and Weill and Lenya] gone into exile.
Weill, of course, was a three-strikes winner: a homosexual, a Jew, and a Communist.
Actually, Robert Rees was in that show with me, and in it I did also sing Surabaya Johnny.
At Alice Tully shell be singing that incredibly haunting number as well as the Sailors Tango, both from the 1929 Brecht-Weill Happy End, a cynical morality saga of good (Salvation Army) and bad (Al Capone types) set in a movie-imagined 1920s never-neverland Chicago.
From Marie Galante (Jacques Deval and Weill, 1934), a melodrama about the short unhappy life and death of a goodhearted prostitute in the Canal Zone, Bebe will do four songs, all in French: Le Roi dAquitaine, Jattends en navire, Les filles de Bordeaux, and Le train du ciel.
And from Lost in the Stars (Maxwell Anderson and Weill, 1949), the title song.
Neuwirth was far too young to see and hear Lenya in Threepenny on Christopher Street, but she has, of course, listened to Lenya on CD, and was herself a Pirate Jenny at ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco five years ago.
Far more recently, she and Roger Rees and Ann Reinking and music director Leslie Stifleman got together to work up a Kurt Weill show of their own for Off or Off-Off Broadway. Last October there was what is called a presentation of it at a rehearsal studio in this city.
Roger invited Robert Bass to see it and thats how Neuwirth and Rees find themselves on the bill at Alice Tully this Wednesday. Executives of the Kurt Weill Foundation were also invited and did attend.
All shell say about the project is that its set in a harbor bar, and theres a bartender, and two rough guys, and a woman, and everybody sings, and we dance a little anybody who saw, for one excitement, Chicago, knows how Bebe Neuwirth can dance.
Whats the working title of your show-in-progress?
That should probably be for another interview.
Does the woman in it have a name?
If she does, that would be known only to me. For an actor, there are things about a character that nobody else knows, or should.
Surabaya Bebe: We burn at your touch.
You got no heart, Bebe, but oh, we love you so much.