Triple Threat Comes to Cambridge

Singer, actor, and dancer Bebe Neuwirth offers master class on ‘Manson Trio’

Bebe Neuwirth is one of a kind these days. She’s a talented singer, actor, and dancer, or a “triple threat” as they call it in the business. “She represents a very specific tradition that is becoming rarer and rarer...a standard of excellence,” said Thomas Lee, a program manager for the Learning From Performers program at the Office for the Arts, which organized Neuwirth’s visit to Harvard last week. To be sure, Neuwirth has been honored for excellence in different areas of the performing arts, winning two Tony awards for her musical theater work in “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity,” and two Emmys for her role on “Cheers.”

“Having someone as talented and extraordinary as Bebe come and show us how ‘the pros do it’ is just an extra special treat!” said participating student Salena M. Sullivan ’12. Leslie Woodies, the instructor of a dance class with which Neuwirth worked, is adamant that her students learn from her as well as other performers currently in the business. “I want them to be in the room with them. [Neuwirth] worked with giants, she was molded by them; she’s one of the only people,” Woodies said.

Neuwirth’s two-day residence at Harvard began this past Wednesday with “An Evening with Bebe Neuwirth,” where she casually talked about her career and her work. Neuwirth considers herself first a dancer, having begun ballet lessons at the age of five. “I’ve always been moved to express physically,” she said. “Dancing is primal, it’s what we do.”

As she moved onstage later in the evening, coaching members of the class in their rendition of “Manson Trio” from “Pippin,” Neuwirth’s love of dance was evident. She first worked on this piece with fellow dancer Pam Sousa, who had learned it directly from Bob Fosse, the original choreographer. Neuwirth, who has also worked with Fosse in other productions, described him as a phenomenal choreographer, a perfectionist with great creative impulse. “Everything came out of one clear, specific vision,” she said.

Woodies explained that through Neuwirth, the students would be able to bring Fosse’s passion back to life by understanding his vision more concretely. This is, in fact, one of the objectives of Woddie’s course: “To go back to the big bang of creativity, when it first came out of the artist,” she said.

The master class that Neuwirth conducted the following day allowed for more time to fine-tune the smaller aspects of “Manson Trio.” Woodies explained that Neuwirth would help the students understand the artist’s vision and transform the piece into “something full-blown, complex, emotional, and physical.” During the class, Neuwirth explained how attention to detail would help clarify other steps of the choreography, reassuring the students with her contagious laugh and words of encouragement. She pointed out the smallest details in each individual student’s movements, yet she was constantly aware of the overarching work of art they were creating. “It’s not doing the steps while the music is playing. You’re still dancing,” she explained.

After working with the class to find clarity, precision, and passion in “Manson Trio,” Neuwirth ended with these words: “Don’t get complacent, find your own way... Get onstage and practice. Each time you work, you’ll find out who you are as an artist. You’ll learn about yourself.”

Woodies said of the visit, “It was absolute perfection.”