Bebe Neuwirth Steals the Show in Revival of Cabaret

During the 2023-2024 Broadway season, Bebe Neuwirth was awarded a well-deserved Drama Desk Award for the role of Fräulein Schneider in the recent revival of Cabaret. On Sunday night, she was up for a Tony Award in the same category along with actresses Amber Iman (Lempicka), Nikki M. James (Suffs), Shoshana Bean (Hell’s Kitchen), Lindsay Mendez (Merrily We Roll Along), Leslie Kritzer (Spamalot), and Kecia Lewis-Evans (Hell’s Kitchen). Although Hell’s Kitchen’s Kecia Lewis-Evans won in the category (and deservedly so), I will carry Bebe’s performance with me for many years to come.

Directed by Rebecca Frecknell, the second women to direct a major production of Cabaret, this production is a transfer of the 2001 West End production. Although critically acclaimed in London, the Broadway production received mixed reviews in the U.S., including from Jesse Green, who compared it to “cough syrup cut with paint thinner” in The New York Times. Personally, I could not disagree with Green more. This production of Cabaret is startling precisely because we initially get caught up in the glitz and glamor; when the facade disappears and the Nazis appear, we are caught by surprise, even if we are already familiar with the show. In that way, we, as the audience, become culpable. We are here enjoying the show, and in doing so, we also are ignoring its political reality. This experience is mirrored by Bebe Neuwirth’s Fräulein Schneider, who has a similar trajectory in the show, and this is a large part of why her performance is so powerful.

Click image to enlarge.

I grew up watching Bebe Neuwirth in reruns of Frasier, and I always dreamed of seeing her live on stage. As soon as I heard she would be appearing in Cabaret, which also stars Eddie Reymayne as the Emcee, she was the performer I was most excited to see. Her performance during the Saturday, April 13th matinee more than met my expectations. For as good as she is onscreen, nothing could have prepared me for seeing her onstage.

From the moment she first entered the stage, she moved with a grace and confidence that shows why she is such a beloved star. Her Fräulein Schneider, the landlady of a boarding house, is both likable and thorny, and her song “So What?” is a highlight early in the show. She and Steven Skybell’s also excellent Herr Shultz, her Jewish grocer love interest living at her boarding house, are sometimes treated as the more comic couple, but in this production, they emerge as the heart of the show. They are less broadly portrayed than they were in the 2014 revival, which I also saw, and I personally preferred their performances to 2014 actors Linda Emond and Danny Burnstein.

When Fräulein Schneider reveals that she can’t marry Herr Shultz because he is Jewish in the Act Two number “What Would You Do?” I found myself getting choked up. Bebe is Jewish herself, and this brought an extra dimension to her performance that further enriched its power. As a Jewish woman, Bebe Neuwirth deeply understands the ramifications of her character’s actions, and that subtext is deeply felt in her performance.

At the end of the performance, I found myself wondering what a Cabaret would look like that was primarily focused on Fräulein Schneider and Herr Shultz instead of Sally and Cliff, the main couple of the show. For Cliff and Sally, the threat of Nazism never touches them directly, and they play more passive roles in the story. Especially in this production, I found them much less compelling as characters. Neuwirth, on the other hand, allows audiences to emphasize with a woman who chooses her own comfort and safety over someone she loves. At times, Nazism and its threat can appear foreign, but Fraülein Schneider shows how easily we can find ourselves in the same situation.

Interestingly, Fraülein Schneider and Herr Shultz’s romance is completely absent in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film adaptation. They are instead replaced by the much younger Natalia Landauer, a wealthy Jewish heiress, and the poorer Fritz Wendel, who is Jewish but passing as Protestant. Unlike in the Broadway production, their story has a happy ending, and the two get married, though it is unclear what happens to them after the action resolves. While rewatching the film recently, I found myself thinking about this. Due to their wealth, Natalia and Fritz probably have a better chance at escaping Nazi Germany than the poor Herr Schultz, which makes the choice even more peculiar. Most Jews, after all, were not able to escape, and Natalia’s and Fritz’s happy ending feels at odds with the message of the film. Likely, Hollywood was ambivalent about featuring an older couple—and a middle-aged woman in particular. Distressing though this may be, it makes Bebe Neuwirth’s performance even more noteworthy.

Awards are always subjective, and although she did not win, the recognition for her performance in Cabaret is what will stick with me for a long time. When it comes to this production, Bebe Neuwirth may be nominated as a featured performer, but she makes the performance a leading role.

© Mara Sandroff (6/18/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Watch Bebe Neuwirth discuss her role in the revival of Cabaret on CBS Mornings.

See the cast of Cabaret perform on this year’s Tony Awards.

Get tickets to see the revival here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: Bebe Neuwirth attends the 75th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 12, 2022 in New York City. Image Credit: Ron Adar / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2JCGXB7

Middle photo: Director Rebecca Frecknall in the press room after winning the Best Director award for Cabaret at the Laurence Olivier Awards held at the Royal Albert Hall, London on April 10, 2022. Photo Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2J3XNE9

Bottom photo: Bebe Neuwirth attends opening night of “Pay the Writer” on Broadway at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York, NY on August 21, 2023. Image Credit: Efren Landaos / Sipa USA / Alamy Live News. Image ID: 2RJ9D5G

Tags: Bebe Neuwirth, Broadway, Cabaret, Fraulein Schneider, Mara Sandroff, Rebecca Frecknell, Revival, Tony Awards

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Mara Sandroff is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist based in Brooklyn, New York and Tucson, Arizona. She recently earned an MFA in fiction from NYU, and her work has appeared in the Emerging Writers Series of Roxane Gay's The Audacity. As a critic, Mara loves writing about books, theatre, and and Jewish women in pop culture and the media. She also writes book reviews and literary criticism for Newcity Lit.
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