Lilith singeth: Cheers Bebe Neuwirth to play JCC

For those who know her best as Lilith, the uptight shrink with the vacuum-sealed coiffure on “Cheers,” Bebe Neuwirth is coming to town and she’s letting her hair down.

The Jewish actress-singer will appear Oct. 5 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. She will perform her new cabaret show, “Stories with Piano,” accompanied, appropriately enough, by pianist Scott Cady.

Fans may recall Neuwirth’s 2005 San Francisco appearance with her more elaborate stage show, “Here Lies Jenny,” which featured the music of Kurt Weill. This time around, she weaves a story with several Weill songs, along with selections by Kander and Ebb (of “Chicago” and “Cabaret” fame), Irving Berlin, Tom Waits, Edith Piaf and, for good measure, the Beatles.

How did she choose such an eclectic group of songs?

“I gathered all the songs I love,” she says. “Then you see which ones go together beautifully. There is a progression of how love matures: from the moment you first fall in love when you’re young, to a point where you see the reality of a loving relationship. It’s not always all pleasant, but it is all love.”

Her love of Weill’s music goes back to her earliest days as a student of musical theater. Weill, the son of a cantor, left his native Germany early in the Nazi era, eventually settling in New York where he wrote for Broadway.

“I am such a huge Kurt Weill fan that I try to put in as many of his songs as possible,” Neuwirth says. “I talk about him in the show, but I don’t tell the story of my life. The way I sing the songs, you can learn something about me if you really want to know.”

The story of her life began in Princeton, N.J. The daughter of an artist mother and mathematician father, Neuwirth had little Jewish religious influence growing up. She was far more taken with ballet, which she began studying at an early age.

Neuwirth took her ballet studies further at Juilliard, though she says seeing Bob Fosse’s “Pippin” on Broadway when she was a young teen proved a transformative moment.

“Ben Vereen’s dancing and the entire ensemble was so inspiring to me,” she recalls. “I felt I had that choreography in my body. I had no idea who Bob Fosse was. All I knew was it made sense to me.”

She got her Broadway break in 1980 playing Sheila in “A Chorus Line.” Other plum Broadway shows in which she starred and garnered her Tony Awards include “Sweet Charity” and “Chicago” (in the latter, she has played both Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart in different productions).

But there’s no getting around it, Neuwirth achieved pop-culture immortality playing psychiatrist Lilith Sternin Crane opposite Kelsey Grammer on “Cheers.”

She won two Emmys for that role, which endured nearly 20 years through “Cheers” and its hit spin-off, “Frasier.” Not bad for a character originally intended for only one scene. “They really liked what my character did to Kelsey’s character,” she recalls, “so they brought me back once, then again.”

As for Lilith’s rigid persona, Neuwirth says all that dance training helped her strike the right pose.

“Because I’m a dancer, I worked from the outside in,” she adds. “With a character it’s very helpful to know the physicality, to feel how they would walk, sit and stand. That physical stuff informs me on the inside of who the person is.”

As for Lilith’s Jewishness, Neuwirth is proud the “Cheers” producers never made too big a deal about it. In fact, until a late episode when the Cranes prepare for their son’s bris, Neuwirth wasn’t even clear her character was Jewish.

Says the actress: “If you make a thing out of it you say there is something unusual about being a Jew. If you don’t, then it continues to be a non-issue.”

Next up for Neuwirth, she hopes, is a Broadway musical still under development based on “The Addams Family.” She will play Morticia to Nathan Lane’s Gomez. Sounds altogether ookie.

Later this year, Neuwirth hits 50, and though she decries the ageism she sees striking women in her profession, she insists she is very happy with her age and her life.

“It is what it is,” she says. “I’m looking forward to my big birthday.”

Bebe Neuwirth performs 7 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California, S.F.

Tickets: $62-$68. Information: (415) 292-1200 or online at jccsf.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.