What can turn caustic soda into strawberries and cream? A little bundle named Cicely.
"Yeah, thanks," said Sandra Bernhard on the phone from California, in return for double congratulations. "Yeah, right. The baby and Broadway. Broadway baby! One and the same." If the words were wisecracking, the tone -- from a mouth that's been known to blister -- was somewhere between genial, warm and radiant.
The baby, daughter Cicely, had been born July 4 in Los Angeles, said Ms. Bernhard, keeping most of the rest of the details to herself. The big leap to Broadway of her one-woman show, I'm Still Here . . . Damn It! -- following 11 smash weeks in an Off-Off-Broadway cabaret in Westbeth last winter -- would be starting at the Booth in late October.
Don't bring diapers.
Last time around, for just one of several dozen thorned pearls in the show, she set the pace with the reconstruction of a meeting she'd had with her good friend, rock singer and actress Courtney Love, at Madison Square Garden. "In front of the paparazzi Courtney tries to kiss me on the mouth, then yells: 'Get the fuck out of my face!' I feel like Winona Ryder," says Bernhard dryly. "Here's a woman" -- her friend Courtney -- “stronger than me? "I've always been a big admirer of Courtney Love," Bernhard told the Westbeth gathering. "The way you admire a bruise."
A friend whom Ms. Bernhard admires even more deeply -- truly admires -- is Liza Minnelli. "The woman has put herself on the line for so many years." Yet from there, Bernhard onstage is just as apt as not to whip into a letter-perfect wicked takeoff of Liza at a fund-raiser skidding helplessly from a heartfelt plea about AIDS, or whatever, into her big "Come to the cabaret" number and then into: "Mama! I love you, Mama!"
"I'm not making that up," says Bernhard later, a wee bit defensively. "That's the way she is. That's Liza, you know. It's just the irony of the thing."
Okay, it may not be cruel, but it's pretty sharp.
In the matter of irony, nothing in the Westbeth I'm Still Here was more devastatingly on target than a three-second bit of a breathy, whispering Marilyn Monroe and a breathy, whispering Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis exchanging a couple of words on a telephone call of their own. Bernhard supreme.
The performance at the Booth, its perpetrator says, "will be 75 percent the same show" -- a take-no-prisoners, yet not altogether unloving cascade of words, thoughts, anecdotes, zingers, parodies (of her celebrity pals and others), home truths about sexual ambiguity, loneliness, wackiness, plus a few -- well, more than a few -- truths about herself, interspersed here and there with astonishingly strong, romantic outpourings of her lifelong secret other self: Bernhard the singer. "I'm also working on new stuff, of course."
About the arrival of the baby?
"Oh yeah, I'll probably talk about it. But nothing cliche. Some funny stuff." Dry pause. "Probably."
Sandra Bernhard, born in Flint, Michigan, raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, the fourth child and only daughter of Jerome Bernhard, M.D., and Jeanette LaZebnick Bernhard, who were divorced when Sandra was 28, speaks easily of her "unconditional love of my mom," less easily of the father whom she last saw "on his 70th birthday, when he could barely look me in the eye, barely hug me."
That's still true today, as Bernhard heads for New York and the Booth Theatre. "It was my mom who kept encouraging me [to have a baby]. How does she feel about being a grandmother? Well, it's her seventh or eighth time."
The idea of transporting I'm Still Here from downtown to up came toward the end of the Westbeth run. "It just seemed to me and my agents that it would be a shame to make it end there. And I'd never been on Broadway. So why not? Why the hell not? There's a whole untapped audience out there.”
She's been constructing and polishing the new show at Luna Park, an L.A. club, as before. Same musical director-keyboard player-joke maker Mitch Kaplan, as before. Nor has she been idle in other respects, not even counting Cicely. There's a new HBO special of the most recent show. She's got spots in two new movies, "Somewhere in the City" and "Wrongfully Accused." And there's a new book coming out in November, a collection of pieces under the title "May I Kiss You on the Lips, Miss Sandra?"
Which is what a house painter in Los Angeles suddenly inquired out of the blue one day. And Ms. Bernhard said? "I said: 'Are you CRAZY? Get out of my house right now!'" Cicely would have giggled and gurgled.