Skip to main content

Remembering Jamie Hammerstein.

We remember Jamie Hammerstein, Broadway producer, director and son of composer Oscar Hammerstein. He died last week at the age of 67 from a heart attack. (REBROADCAST from 3/14/95)

09:25

Other segments from the episode on January 15, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 15, 1999: Interview with Gwen Verdon; Interview with Bebe Neuwirth; Obituary for Jamie Hammerstein; Review of the film "The Thin Red Line."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Gwen Verdon
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

"Fossi," a musical tribute to the choreography of the late Bob Fossi, opened last night on Broadway. It features some of Fossi's most memorable dance numbers, including choreography from his musicals "Sweet Charity," "Damn Yankees," and "Dancin'." And his movies "Kiss Me Kate," "Cabaret," and "All that Jazz."

On today's archive edition, we'll hear from two of Fossi's most well-known dancers. A little later in the show Bebe Neuwirth talks about working with Fossi on the musical "Chicago." But first, Gwen Verdon. She's the artistic adviser of the new show.

Bob Fossi created his musicals "Damn Yankees," "Sweet Charity," and "Chicago" for Verdon, who was his wife at the time. She is a four time Tony Award winner and the standard against which many Broadway dancers are measured.

A 1959 "Time" magazine review of the show "Red Head" described her like this: "Her articulate hands, toes and torso are parts of speech. Her body is an erotic spoof spelling sex in quotes as she over tilts a wayward hip or dislocates an amorous shoulder."

Here is Gwen Verdon singing one of numbers from "Sweet Charity."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- GWEN VERDON SINGING A SONG FROM MUSICAL "SWEET CHARITY")

If they could see me now
That little gang of mine
I'm eating fancy chow
And drinking fancy wine

I'd like those dumbo bums
To see for a fact
The kind of top drawer
First rate chums I attract

All I can say is wow
Will you look at where I am
Tonight I landed pow
Caught in a pot of jam

What a setup
Holy cow
They'd never believe it
If my friends could see me now

BOGAEV: Since retiring from the stage, Verdon has acted in films and on television. Terry talked with her in 1993.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Your mother was a dancer, and a dance teacher.

GWEN VERDON, BROADWAY DANCER; ACTRESS: Yes.

GROSS: So I imagine you grew up in an atmosphere where there was a lot of dance.

VERDON: I thought everybody danced. I thought every mother and every daughter danced because she was also a performer. And I would go with her -- I'm speaking of being two-years-old. And I just thought that all those women had children, and that everybody danced.

GROSS: Now, I read about you that you had rickets when you were very young, and that damaged your legs.

VERDON: Yes. You're born that way. I guess it's from some kind of malnutrition. But with corrective exercise not surgery, which they wanted to do and my mother wouldn't allow it. But the orthopedic surgeon explained to her that one muscle was too long on the outside of the leg. And the inner muscle on the leg -- no, that one was too long.

And the outside one was too short. So it would allow the knee joint to swing out so my legs made an "X." If you can picture that. Anyway, she decided to -- through exercise -- shorten the inner muscle and stretch the outside one.

GROSS: And did that work?

VERDON: It sure did. That and corrective boots. They never operated.

GROSS: What did the corrective boots look like?

VERDON: Oh, God. They were just dreadful. They were big high top brown things. And the heel was very crooked. It would make me walk on the outsides of my feet so that the inner muscle would stay short. I must say it worked, because within -- oh, I would say -- two to four years my legs looked straight. Though I had to wear these shoes -- corrective shoes -- whenever I was home or in school.

GROSS: I don't understand how you were able to dance with your knee -- with your legs in such bad shape and having to wear these corrective boots all the time.

VERDON: Oh, no I didn't dance with them on. And I did all kinds of exercises. My mother kept saying, yes, you're doing ballet. But instead of my heels being together in a turned out position, I was always doing everything with my toes as much together as possible which would keep stretching that outside muscle.

GROSS: So you did almost corrective dance.

VERDON: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: I guess I'm wondering if you were ever self-conscious when you started to dance onstage since you grew up so self-conscious about your legs.

VERDON: You know, I was so young when I began performing that I don't remember being self-conscious. I do remember in 1959, I think it was, again it was "Red Head," and it was the first time I ever read reviews. And I never read reviews on any of the other shows.

And in "Red Head," they kept calling me a great beauty. An Arlene Dahl (ph) type, who is a great beauty. And then I became very embarrassed, very -- well I did develop a stage fright.

GROSS: After that review you developed stage fright?

VERDON: Yes.

GROSS: Why did that review lead to stage -- it's such a flattering review, why did it lead to stage fright.

VERDON: It's very flattering, but I never thought -- and I still don't -- and I know it's the truth -- I am not a great beauty. I feel like one on stage, but I certainly don't look like one.

GROSS: But don't you think a lot of beauty on stage comes from projecting that feeling?

VERDON: I agree. But somehow -- I mean, I felt very good and very secure, strangely enough, when they said I looked like a red haired Fanny Brice. Or a female Charlie Chaplin. I mean, I'm honored to be compared to people like that, but I felt like an absolute fool being compared to Arlene Dahl. And I thought those critics must be sitting in the back row of the third balcony.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: So that made you feel like a fraud?

VERDON: Yes.

GROSS: Well, when you started getting stage fright, what were the symptoms, and how did you deal with it?

VERDON: I would shake. My mouth would go dry. And I was afraid to be onstage.

GROSS: Would somebody have to talk you onto stage?

VERDON: I'd get out there and panic.

GROSS: You can't panic onstage though.

VERDON: Well, I did. They say you can't sneeze onstage, but I did.

GROSS: What's a time when you actually panicked onstage?

VERDON: It, again, was during "Red Head." And I would be out there with the entire cast and everyone would leave and I would have to sing a song. And sometimes I would just walk off and get my aunt, with whom I had to play the next scene. And I'd just skip the song -- I couldn't sing it.

GROSS: What would the director say when you did that?

VERDON: He was my husband.

LAUGHTER

He understood. He sent me to an excellent doctor. I was fine. But then I was also given an article to read about Lawrence Olivier, who also had stage fright. And would turn his back -- everyone thought, what a unique way of playing -- being an actor. To be able to turn your back on the audience and play a scene.

So, whenever I would get this feeling, because by that time I'd be afraid of being afraid. And when that would happen I would turn my back and sing a song. And it worked.

GROSS: Did people in the audience assume that this was innovative stage direction?

VERDON: Well, if it worked for Lawrence Olivier, it was going to certainly have to work for me.

GROSS: My guest is one of the great Broadway stars of the '50s and '60s, Gwen Verdon. This is Gwen Verdon in a show stopping number from "Damn Yankees."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- BROADWAY PERFORMER GWEN VERDON SINGING FROM BROADWAY SHOW "DAMN YANKEES")

Whatever Lola wants
Lola gets
And little man
Little Lola wants you

Make up your mind to have
No regrets
Recline yourself resign yourself
You're through

I always get
What I aim for
And your heart and soul
Is what I came for

Whatever Lola wants

GROSS: I think "Damn Yankees" was the first Broadway show that you worked on with Bob Fossi, who later became your husband.

VERDON: True.

GROSS: What was it like the first time you worked with him and danced to his choreography? What was different about his choreography and direction from what you had experienced before?

VERDON: The first thing that I noticed was it was so amusing. I know -- I know it was sensuous. I know it was all of those things, but it was done with such a sense of humor. And also done with the innocence of a child.

So, you weren't acting sexy, it just came out that way. And I was amazed at the training. Because I had excellent training in many disciplines of dance. And I was amazed at how disciplined, and what was required with Bob's work.

GROSS: What was required of you that you...

VERDON: ...ballet.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

VERDON: Tap. Isolation -- which I learned from East Indian dancing. And, I mean, there was his humor -- I had worked with Jack Cole who always did very sensuous women. He did "Gilda" -- that number "Gilda" from the movie "Gilda" for Rita Hayworth.

I think he's probably more famous for that number, but it's not funny. And Bob would do the same kind of thing. Not the same steps, but his point of view was the flip side of that. It was just making fun of being sexy, which comes out much more sexy.

GROSS: Do you feel that you played Lola, the devilish seductress, as funny?

VERDON: I played it as a child. Have you seen little girls all dressed up in their mother's clothes?

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

VERDON: You know, lipstick smeared all over their face. I did it like that.

GROSS: When you said that there was isolation required for Bob Fossi's choreography, do you mean just like moving one shoulder or an elbow or just like one part of the body?

VERDON: Yes. And it was extremely musical. That was up to Bob. I mean, the music -- he would catch every little thing. If you moved your little finger, there would be a ting on a triangle. So -- and there was an economy to the movement. You didn't sort of blast out and dance. It was isolation and discipline, that's the only thing I could think of.

GROSS: Would he do the moves to show you what he wanted?

VERDON: Yes, and they were hysterical. And I once said, "I don't think I can do that in high heels." So Bob put on high heels and did it.

GROSS: Oh, no!

VERDON: Oh, absolutely.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: So...

VERDON: ...well, he believed me, but he had to find out for himself.

GROSS: Well, could he do it in high heels?

VERDON: Sure he could.

GROSS: So, then you were forced to do it.

VERDON: Forced? I thought, uh-oh. As soon as I could see how he did it in heels.

GROSS: Well, what was the trick?

VERDON: It was not a trick. It was a certain step in "Lola" where you keep twisting, and I kept thinking the heels -- one heel is going to scrape by my other foot.

GROSS: So what was the solution he came up with?

VERDON: Just do it. Turn in enough. You had to be very turned in, which worked just great for me because that's how I studied dance. That's how my father taught me when I was two.

GROSS: Because of your muscle problem?

VERDON: Yes.

GROSS: You worked with Bob Fossi on several musicals. "New Girl in Town," "Red Head," "Chicago," "Sweet Charity," as well as "Damn Yankees." Were there particular things that he liked to use you for that he thought of as being Gwen Verdon moves? You know, that were just saved for you.

VERDON: No, you know, because you couldn't do the same movement on somebody else. And because they're built differently and have a different point of view, it does not look the same. And Bob was very good about, I guess, using what the person had.

I don't know what I've got, but I know when Annie Rankin (ph) replaced me in the show -- she has great legs and she can jump even in high heel shoes. I was never a jumper -- even barefoot. And so Bob would use this extension that Annie had and the fact that she could leap like that -- great (unintelligible) -- and so he would change the steps.

GROSS: Once you and Bob Fossi were married, was it any harder or easier to work together?

VERDON: No, because I never thought of him, when we were working, as my husband. In fact, Judy Garland came backstage one time and she said, oh, your husband's done a fabulous job. And I actually said, who? I don't associate that at all.

GROSS: Why was it easier to not think of him as your husband?

VERDON: It was not that I just did not think of him -- he was the director, he was the choreographer. He wasn't my husband when we were working.

BOGAEV: Gwen Verdon, with Terry Gross in 1993.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, DC
Guest: Gwen Verdon
High: Legendary Broadway dancer Gwen Verdon. She starred in "Damn Yankees," "Sweet Charity," "Red Head," and "Chicago." Verdon won four Tony Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the New Dramatists playwrights workshop.
Spec: Entertainment; Culture; Lifestyle; Gwen Verdon

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Gwen Verdon

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Bebe Neuwirth
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:20

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: If Gwen Verdon originated Fossi's most enduring roles, Bebe Neuwirth inherited them. She starred in the revival of Fossi's "Damn Yankees" and in "Sweet Charity" and "Chicago," which won her a Tony Award.

Off Broadway she's best known for her role as Dr. Lilith Crane, the pretentious shrink on "Cheers" and "Frasier." Last night, Bebe Neuwirth returned to her role as Velma Kelly in "Chicago" for a two week run. Terry spoke with Neuwirth in 1997, when she first starred in "Chicago." Here she is in the opening number.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- ACTRESS BEBE NEUWIRTH SINGING IN THE MUSICAL "CHICAGO")

Come on babe
Why don't we paint the town
And all that jazz
I'm going to bruise my knees

And roll my stockings down
And all that jazz
Start the car
I know a whoopee spot

Where the gin is cold
But the piano's hot
It's just a noisy hall
Where there's a nightly brawl

And all that jazz

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Bebe Neuwirth, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BEBE NEUWIRTH, ACTRESS: Thank you.

GROSS: You know, watching you dance in "Chicago" I thought, well, how could you possibly be content in a performance without dancing? You just dance so wonderfully.

NEUWIRTH: You know, that's actually -- you're actually right. I'm not completely content in a performance without dancing. I have been dancing since I was very very young, and my first stage experiences from the age of seven continuously have been in ballets and dancing.

And so, you're absolutely right I really don't feel like I've given a complete performance unless -- unless I start, you know, kicking my legs around at some point -- unless I start dancing. So, as much as I have enjoyed a lot of the other work that I've done, I always do feel like something is missing from the experience -- something didn't get covered.

GROSS: Now, I know that -- I think this is your third Bob Fossi musical. You were in a revival of "Sweet Charity," you were in the dance anthology show "Dancin'." Could you talk a little bit about how Fossi choreography is different -- how it uses the body differently than other choreographers who you've worked with -- or than ballet even?

NEUWIRTH: Yeah. Well, actually, I find that people who have very strong training in ballet do better, actually, with the Fossi choreography then those who lack the ballet background. If you ever saw the guy, and if you saw the way he stood and moved around a room and looked at you when he talked you, you understand his movement. A lot of it is simply based on his posture.

He was a little slope-shouldered, a little hunched. His hips were a little forward. He was a little knock kneed and turned in. And wildly sexy without being, you know, in your face sexy. He was just a very very -- and there was something really attractive about him. And it was kind of sly. And, you know, the way he looked up and look at you.

If you get the feeling of that, if you understand that, then you understand something about the movement that will make it not -- that will fill out the movement. You know, you could technically replicate the steps, but if you don't understand that essence of it then you're not going to really make the movement dance.

GROSS: In Fossi choreography there's a lot of pelvis swivels and shoulder swivels and elbows moving.

NEUWIRTH: It's a lot of isolation.

GROSS: Yeah. Did you have to learn how to move parts of your body that you hadn't thought of as dance parts before or how to coordinate them in a different way?

NEUWIRTH: No. I have to say I don't know why, but ever since the first time I saw Fossi choreography when I was 13 and saw "Pippen," I just -- that movement spoke to me. And it was quite clear and quite -- I just understood it. And it made absolute perfect sense.

You know, it sounds very simple, but it actually requires a great deal of control -- and control physically, you know, that a ballet dancer has especially. The ability to be pulled up and very centered -- and also, in a way, it requires a control taste wise.

Fossi choreography is never vulgar, it's very very sexy. It's very very sensual, but it is never vulgar. And there is a line -- you could be doing hip isolations, you could be doing shoulder isolations -- these very very sexy moves, but there's something elegant about them always. They could even be part of a show that's based on Vaudeville which is a pretty bawdy medium. But there something that's not -- just not vulgar. It is elegant.

BOGAEV: Bebe Neuwirth, from a 1997 interview with Terry Gross. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of our show.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Let's continue now with Terry's interview with Bebe Neuwirth. To television audiences she's best known for playing Lilith, Frasier's wife on "Cheers" and on "Frasier." Terry spoke with Neuwirth in 1997 about her starring role in the revival of the musical, "Chicago."

GROSS: The cast recording of Chicago has just come out, and I want to play another track from it. I want to play your part of the song called "Cell Block Tango." This takes place in jail where you're being held on charges of murdering your husband and sister. And the part of the song that we're going to hear tells your story. So, why don't we hear it.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- BEBE NEUWIRTH SINGING "CELL BLOCK TANGO")

My sister Veronica and I
Did this double act
And my husband Charlie
Used to travel around with us

Now for the last number
In our act
We did 20 acrobatic tricks
In a row

One two three four five
Splits spread eagles
Back flips flip flops
One right after the other

Well this one night
We were in Cicero
The three of us
Sitting up in a hotel room

Boozing and having a few laughs
And we ran out of ice
So I went out to get some
I come back

Open the door
There's Veronica and Charlie
Doing number 17
The spread eagle

Well I was in such a state of shock
I completely blacked out
I can't remember a thing
It wasn't until later

When I was washing the blood off my hands
I even knew they were dead
They had it coming
They had it coming

They had it coming
They had it coming
All along
I didn't do it

But if I'd done it
How could you tell me that I was wrong
They had it coming
They had it coming

GROSS: That's Bebe Neuwirth from the new cast recording of "Chicago." You have a very deep, strong voice. Now, do you think that your voice has effected the kinds of roles that you've been considered appropriate for? And I'm thinking that often on Broadway the women's leading roles often seemed to be written for a higher voice.

NEUWIRTH: Yeah, they have this sort of formula with most musicals -- most classically structured musicals -- the leading lady is a soprano who, you know, doesn't necessarily dance. Maybe she'll move around a little bit, but she's not a dancer, she's a singer. And she's an ingenue, and a soprano.

And then she's got her best friend whose got a belting voice and she's a great dancer and she's tough as nails and she has a heart of gold and she's funny.

GROSS: God, that's so true, isn't it?

NEUWIRTH: Yeah. So, I've played a lot of those parts.

GROSS: The best friend?

NEUWIRTH: Yeah.

GROSS: What musicals are you the best friend in?

NEUWIRTH: Tough as nails, heart of gold. Well, "Sweet Charity." Nickie Pignatelli (ph) to Sweet -- to Charity. Even Sheila in a way -- Sheila in "A Chorus Line" is a similar type of part. "West Side Story" was a similar kind of a part.

GROSS: Were you Anita?

NEUWIRTH: Mmm-hmm. Yeah. I've done almost all of Chita Rivera's roles now.

GROSS: It's true

LAUGHTER

NEUWIRTH: Thank God for Chita Rivera.

GROSS: Because she originated the part in "Chicago."

NEUWIRTH: Yes. Yeah. There's a number called "Velma Takes the Stand," where Velma, my character, describes what she thought she just might do once she gets -- takes the stand in her trial. Ways to, you know, win the jury over -- it should be very funny.

And Chita Rivera was just amazing, and I was about 15 when I saw it, and just looking at that stage thinking, what the -- God, I just couldn't believe what she was doing. She was fantastic.

GROSS: Describe what happens with the chair.

NEUWIRTH: Ah, well, it's kind of hard to describe. I mean, I dance with it, on it, around it, on top of it, under it. I carry it. I wiggle my butt. I lay out on it. It's -- I did a production of "Chicago" about five and a half years ago with Juliet Prowse (ph) in Long Beach, California. And Chita Rivera called the theater on opening night, and she said to me, you make very good friends with that chair.

LAUGHTER

That was her advice.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the song that you were just referring to when Velma takes the stand. This is Bebe Neuwirth.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- BEBE NEUWIRTH SINGING A SONG FROM MUSICAL "CHICAGO")

Well when I got on the stand
I thought I'd take a peek
At the jury
Then I crossed my legs

Like this you know
Then when Harrison
Cross-examines me
I thought I'd give him this

And if he yells at me
I thought I'd tremble like this
Oh no please don't
Look at

Little Vel
See her give him hell
Can she do it right
(Unintelligible)

Then I thought
It would all be too much for me
Real dramatic
Oh

Then I thought I'd get thirsty
And I'd say please
Someone could I have a glass of water
(unintelligible)

GROSS: That's Bebe Neuwirth from the new cast recording of the musical "Chicago." How did you first get the role of Lilith on "Cheers."?

NEUWIRTH: I was in Los Angeles for a couple of months. When we did "Sweet Charity" on Broadway we had a run in California -- San Francisco and L.A. And then we had a few months off while Debbie Allen was finishing up her season of "Fame" -- she was our star.

And then we were going to start up for Broadway in the spring. So during those months I was in Los Angeles and I thought, well, I might as well see if I can pick up some television work, because I'd never worked on television. That was sort of all there was in Los Angeles for me.

And so it was just a one shot deal on the show. Just one scene in one episode. And I read for it -- I didn't think I was right at all for it, but I went in and read. And that's what happened.

GROSS: And then after your performance they wanted to enlarge the role?

NEUWIRTH: Well, the following season -- I guess that was in January -- so the following season I was playing on Broadway in "Sweet Charity," and they called up and said, would you come and do another episode?

So I went out and did another episode of -- that was in the fall -- and then that winter they said, oh, could you come and do another episode. I said, sure. I went out and did another episode and then after "Sweet Charity" closed they asked me if I would do -- it was this thing where you would do four episodes and then there was option to pick you up for a seven out of thirteen player, you know, a part-time player on the show.

And I had a really hard time deciding whether or not to do that. I mean, I remember sitting back stage during "Sweet Charity" with Michael Rupert (ph) who was playing Oscar in the show, and after I'd done and episode or two. And he said, now, what would you do if they asked you to go out there and be on that show. I said, no way would I go out to Los Angeles and be on a TV show. Forget it. I'm on Broadway. I like Broadway. This is where I'm staying.

So, I deliberated a very long time about that, and I had some advice from some people whose opinions I respect and are really smart about either me or about show business, and decided that it wouldn't be such a bad thing for me to do. And I'm very glad I did it.

GROSS: You said that when you first read for the role of Lilith you didn't think you were right for it. What was the role like that first time, and why didn't you think you are right for the part?

NEUWIRTH: Well, the description of it was -- I don't know -- dry, no sense of humor, rigid, hair slicked back, intellectual, analytical and all this other stuff. You know, unattractive -- older -- also quite a bit older than I was. And all these things -- which were a description of parts that I would never have been sent up for.

You know, as I said, I was always sent up for sexy, funny, tough as nails, heart of gold, you know, dancer big built. So, it was a very unusual character description for me. And I was actually having a hard time cracking the script for a while, and then something -- I don't know -- some character just occurred to me and really tickled me and made me laugh. So, that was what I did at the audition.

GROSS: So you found a very funny way of playing somebody who is humorless?

NEUWIRTH: Yeah.

GROSS: I guess that's the key. So, can you talk a little bit about how you did that?

NEUWIRTH: I don't know. There's something funny about being humorless, isn't there? At least to me, I don't know. I think there's something funny about being really not funny at all.

GROSS: I thought you were particularly funny during the pregnancy episodes. When it was as if you were the first woman ever to be pregnant. That you embodied all that is Mother Earth.

NEUWIRTH: Yeah. Yeah. They asked me to do some good stuff on that show. They have great writers, great producers.

GROSS: Can you talk about the pregnancy episodes?

NEUWIRTH: I liked this one time we went off to a cabin. Kelsey and I went off -- you know, Frasier and Lilith went off to a cabin. And she was pregnant -- well, I guess this is just because I like the episodes were I got to sing. I thought it was really funny that Lilith loved to sing, and I think I was singing "My Funny Valentine" pregnant out there in the woods freezing.

GROSS: How did you sing as Lilith?

NEUWURTH: Well, I tried to sing pretty well, but I also tried to sing, you know, in her voice.

GROSS: Could you demonstrate how that sounds?

NEUWIRTH: (Singing) My funny Valentine.

LAUGHTER

But then they did a lovely thing. One time they had something about Lilith -- I think the story was that -- the B story was that she had taken singing lessons so that she could sing to her child. And they did a really sweet thing when she sang -- what is it? It's an Al Jolsen song -- "Sonny Boy." I actually got to sing "Sonny Boy" really sweetly to the baby, and it made everybody in the bar cry. That was fun.

BOGAEV: Bebe Neuwirth talked with Terry in 1997. She's now back on Broadway, starring in the musical "Chicago" for a two week run.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, DC
Guest: Bebe Neuwirth
High: Actress Bebe Neuwirth. She played the humorless shrink Lilith on the television show "Cheers" for which she won two Emmy Awards. She's also appeared in many films, including "Bugsy," "Malice," and "Jumanji." She starred in the recent revival of the hit Broadway musical "Chicago." Neuwirth won a Tony Award for her performance as Nickie in "Sweet Charity."
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Culture; Lifestyle; Bebe Neuwirth

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Bebe Neuwirth

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011503NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Jamie Hammerstein
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: Jamie Hammerstein, a producer and frequent director of the musicals of his father, Oscar Hammerstein, died last week at the age of 67 of a heart attack. In his 40 year career in show business, Hammerstein directed the shows "Damn Yankees," Harold Pinter's (ph) "Tea Party," and Simon Gray's "Wise Child" among others.

After his father's death in 1960, he concentrated on revivals of the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. In 1981, he staged a revival of "Oklahoma!" A 1990 production of "The Sound of Music." And in 1996, the musical "State Fair," which was adapted from the film.

Terry spoke with Jamie Hammerstein in 1996.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Your family really has quite a theater legacy. I mean, your father, of course, was Oscar Hammerstein the lyricist. Your grandfather was in Vaudeville?

JAMIE HAMMERSTEIN, BROADWAY PRODUCER; DIRECTOR: Yeah, he was a Vaudeville producer. My great uncle was an operetta producer. And my great grandfather was Oscar the first, who was an opera impresario among other things. He was a real estate developer and in Vaudeville himself, and an inventor.

GROSS: So, theater was the family business when you're growing up.

HAMMERSTEIN: Yes, but you'd never know it. You'd never know it. It was not what people imagine with Judy Garland running in with a tennis racket. I mean, it just wasn't. It seemed like -- well, it was the only life I had as a kid so it seemed perfectly normal to me.

And my father wrote in his study for many hours everyday, and he'd come out having, I'm sure, sweated bullets all day. And he would come out and go, well, who's winning the baseball again? Or do you want a game of tennis?

And you'd never guess he'd been working for eight hours trying to find a rhyme for "Surrey," (ph) you know.

GROSS: Well, did he walk around the house going. "Surrey," "scurry," "Surrey," "scurry."

HAMMERSTEIN: No, you never -- he locked himself in or he walked down -- we had a long yard where he would also pace. And we also -- his mother built him a walk around porch from his study so that nice whether, or even reasonable weather he could take a walk by opening his study door. He always worked walking and he was inaudible.

I know he worked terribly hard. And I know he was a perfectionist. There's no doubt in my mind about those things. But he also could turn it off like a light and come out as one of the more normal people you've ever met.

GROSS: I guess that's unusual in theater

HAMMERSTEIN: It's unusual with a writer, I think. I mean -- I think it's almost supernatural, myself.

GROSS: Your father was Stephen Sondheim's mentor. I think it was when Sondheim's parents divorced when he was 10 or 11 or something that he and his mother moved to rural Pennsylvania -- or suburban Pennsylvania where your family was living.

HAMMERSTEIN: You got the facts right but the order wrong. They actually -- his parents had been divorced. He was living with his mother and he came out to play with me one weekend, because we're about -- he's a year and a day older than me. I know that because we shared birthdays for year in and year out.

And he came out because we had just met and liked one another. And we had a good time, and instead of going off to camp he decided to stay. He was the boy who came to dinner. He never left.

Then his mother moved out to be close to us and see her son once in a while. Because he literally moved in. And I think -- it's odd, I was thinking last night about that -- how much Steve owes my father. Though I think he would be pretty much of a great writer if my father had not taken him in.

But also my mother. I think that both my parents were kind of adopted by Steve and vice versa. He was like another brother, I suppose.

GROSS: How did you feel about him moving in?

HAMMERSTEIN: I don't know. He didn't bother me that much. We had a good time. You know, we fought like brothers fight, but we didn't -- I don't think I felt any great jealousy. My father had a strangely objective form of love which sound like an impossibility.

And so it never became like a favoritism or -- no, it just didn't happen, as far as I know. Maybe I should go to a psychiatrist and find out what really happened.

GROSS: How old were you when your father became partners with Richard Rodgers?

HAMMERSTEIN: I was about 11.

GROSS: So what do you know about the story of how he started to work with Richard Rodgers?

HAMMERSTEIN: Well, Dick was approached by the theater guild to make a musical out of "Green Grow the Lilacs." And he went to Larry Hart, and Larry Hart said, I'm not interested. And Dick still thought he could persuade Larry, and went to dad just in case.

He said if Larry quits on me in the middle of this, will you save me? And my father said, if Larry doesn't want to do it or quits I will not only do it, but I'll let Larry's name stay on it if you like. I'll just sit in the back and do the work.

And then Larry actually insisted that he didn't want to do it, and so Dick went back to dad and said, now this is yours. And that's how happened.

GROSS: It's always been so interesting to me, and probably everybody else who listens to musicals, how different your father's lyrics were than Larry Hart's lyrics.

HAMMERSTEIN: Yeah, but I think the really interesting part about it is how different Dick's music was.

GROSS: Yeah, right. What do you perceive of how his music changed when your father became a lyricist?

HAMMERSTEIN: Well, you see, they're totally different people. I mean, my goodness, Larry Hart and my father were night and day in the way they looked at life. My father was an optimist. My father believed optimism was the only useful thing to be. That pessimism was just a waste of time, basically. And my father was very -- not into writing song songs, my father was into developing -- was a dramatist who was also a lyricist.

And Dick is a dramatist who was also a composer. And I think dad gave Dick the chance to be a musical dramatist. I think Larry wrote songs, and my father wrote characters and plot and everything else in his songs.

GROSS: What did your father think of Larry Hart's lyrics?

HAMMERSTEIN: Oh, he loved most of them. I think Larry Hart -- see, my father never had a great facility for strange and wonderful rhymes. Larry Hart did. So, it's like there's no competition involved. My father could never right like Larry Hart.

And my father, not being a fancy rhymer, just wrote very honestly and very easy to sing lyrics. But I think he spent his time saying exactly what he wanted to say, dramatically, and what I think is the most difficult dramatic form you can write in which is lyrics.

You have to make things about metrically. You've got to have rhymes -- the right kind of rhymes. Not too many of them if it's a serious song. If it's a light song, maybe triple rhymes -- inside rhymes. It is something which takes years to master and I think my father mastered it. And just trying to say what you want to say in that form is deadly difficult.

You can get so seduced by a very clever rhyme. You can get so seduced by an easy rhyme. And it just takes a little bit of the edge of what you really want to say, and it goes on some tangent which isn't too far off. So let's take that tangent and get it over with and go have a drink.

And my father would never do it. He'd keep on -- he'd just throw out more and more lyrics until he was saying what he wanted to say, and somehow it rhymed and was singable.

BOGAEV: Jamie Hammerstein, in a 1996 interview with Terry. He died last week at the age of 67.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Washington, DC
Guest: Jamie Hammerstein
High: We remember Jamie Hammerstein, Broadway producer and director and son of composer Oscar Hammerstein. He died last week at the age of 67 from a heart attack.
Spec: Entertanment; Movie Industry; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Jamie Hammerstein

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Jamie Hammerstein

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 011504NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: "The Thin Red Line" marks the return to Hollywood of filmmaker Terrence Malick. The director of "Badlands " and "Days of Heaven" left Hollywood, fed up, nearly two decades ago. Now, he's assembled a cast of stars and unknowns for his new movie which is based on the James Jones war novel.

Our film critic John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Terrence Malick's adaptation of "The Thin Red Line" is thrilling, frustrating, and utterly distinctive. A metaphysical war movie whose opening line asks, "what is this war at the heart of nature."

It tells the story of Charlie Company which is fighting on Guadalcanal one hill at a time. Some of the soldiers cower, others go mad, while still others -- a lot of them -- simply dash across the screen and die.

The story centers on five vivid faces. There's Private Bell, played by Ben Chaplin who's obsessed with memories of his wife back home. There's the decent Captain Starros (ph), played by Elias Koteas who's in constant conflict with the bullying Captain Tall, that's Nick Nolte, because they have contrary attitudes about sacrificing the men.

Above all, there's a spiritual debate between cynical Sargeant Welsh, he's Sean Penn, and the constantly AWOL Private Witt played by Jim Caviezel who sees the glory in nature. The two dispute the meaning of existence as when Welsh offers his basic philosophical axiom.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM FILM "THE THIN RED LINE")

SEAN PENN, ACTOR: In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.

JIM CAVIEZEL, ACTOR: You're wrong there, Top. I've seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.

PENN: Well, then you're seeing things I never will.

POWERS: It's not surprising that Malick would make his moral beacon a runaway soldier. After all, he's Hollywood's most famous AWOL -- a genius on the run. When it was announced that this legend was making a new movie famous actors lined up, but so did worrying questions.

Could this visionary still make a movie after 20 years? Would he still be Terrence Malick? The answer is yes. "The Thin Red Line" is an absolutely personal film, from Malick's customary fondness for beautiful young male heroes to the way he portrays inner transformation with a deliberate burning of property.

Never one to worry about the audience, he adopts a boldly avant-garde storytelling style in which characters appear and reappear, often without explanation. And yet the movie holds us and moves us. We feel the terror of battle and the loneliness of being a soldier.

John Toll's photography is dazzling without being prettified. Hans Zimmer's score has a burrowing melancholy. And Malick wins some amazing performances. Nolte's bellowing Tall. Chaplin's love struck Bell, whose face has a silent movie expressiveness. And Penn's Welsh, a restrained piece of acting that's his best in years.

Malick's one of the handful of filmmakers whose work contains a vision of life. This is both a down and dirty movie were men fight in the mud, and a meditation on the endless struggle between darkness and light in all of nature. The movie begins with a sinister crocodile sliding into water, and ends with a life affirming image of a plant growing from a rock.

From start to finish, the screen is suffused with the natural world. Light shining through trees, wounded birds, cobras slithering among the soldiers. Malick is suggesting that animals and men and even rocks are part of a huge over soul.

At the beginning of the film the AWOL Witt has a vision of utopian harmony when he hides out among the beatific Malonesian (ph) people. This vision lets him see life more deeply than others. He's kinder than anyone to the terrified Japanese POWs. And it leads him, in the end, to become Malick's very own Prince Mushkin (ph). A Christ figure whose seeming naivete is actually wisdom.

Still, this attempt to evoke the transcendent is far from perfect. Malick's use of the beautiful smiling Malonesians is corny and retro. As are the relentlessly lovely flash backs to Bell's wife, who starts resembling a woman from a tampon commercial. But these are only local failures.

Far more damaging is the movies editing style which tries to cobble together an unruly story by giving us several character's interior monologues. Most of the voice overs are dreadful. Overwritten, redundant and as explicit as a bullet in the head. About halfway through we want these voices to shut up and let the imagery take us to a new level of awareness.

The trouble is, Malick's vision of life doesn't deepen or grow more complicated as the story progresses. He sees the world in such an abstract height that he obliterates history. Was the really no relevant difference between the values that the Japanese and the Americans were fighting for? And he ignores the kind of undignified, but all to human preoccupations that Jones wrote about so compellingly in his original novel.

If "The Thin Red Line" could have incorporated all of this, it would have been a masterpiece. As it is, it's merely a film that anyone who cares about movies ought to see.

BOGAEV: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Barbara, Washington, DC
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "The Thin Red Line."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Culture; Lifestyle

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue