Bebe Neuwirth in ‘An evening of Kurt Weill’


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 chambermaid’s 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 schoolmarm’s shoes with an assassin’s 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 Chorale’s “An Evening of Kurt Weill” this coming Wednesday, February 4, 8 p.m., at Lincoln Center’s 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: “That’s actually incorrect.” And adds, dryly, sweetly (just like Brecht/Weill!), matter-of-factly: “I made my cabaret debut 22 years ago. At Martin Charnin’s Upstairs at O’Neal’s on 43rd Street.”

Neuwirth, who was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on a New Year’s 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 she’ll be singing that incredibly haunting number as well as the ‘Sailor’s 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 d’Aquitaine,” ‘J’attends 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 that’s 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 she’ll say about the project is that “it’s set in a harbor bar, and there’s 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.

What’s 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.