DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner Kristin Chenoweth Plus News of Greene and Errico

DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner Kristin Chenoweth Plus News of Greene and Errico News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
(from top): Kristin Chenoweth as Eve (with Marc Kudisch), Princess Barb
(from top): Kristin Chenoweth as Eve (with Marc Kudisch), Princess Barb Photo by Joan Marcus

KRISTIN CHENOWETH
Is there anyone busier these days than Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth, that bubbly dynamo whose comic timing and vocal prowess are as impressive as anyone performing onstage today? In the past few months, the singing actress starred in a limited engagement of The Apple Tree (where she missed not a single performance); taped a guest spot for the season finale of "Ugly Betty"; recorded duets for two upcoming CDs; and filmed a TV pilot with fellow stage stars Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz. And, now, she is midway through rehearsals for her latest City Center Encores! outing, Stairway to Paradise.

"I don't even know what I'm doing," Chenoweth said with a big laugh April 23, the day it was announced she received an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Musical for her critically acclaimed work in Apple Tree (she has since received a Drama Desk nod as well and will host those awards May 20). "I just show up at the airport, and they take me where I'm supposed to go."

Chenoweth, who won her Tony for her breakout performance as Sally Brown in the Broadway bow of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, can't say enough about her experience in Apple Tree, the revival of the three-act 1966 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical that originally starred Barbara Harris and Alan Alda. "I've had some really great jobs and really great times," Chenoweth explains. "Candide with the New York Philharmonic — I didn't think anything could top that, but this job brought me so much joy, and it also challenged me in a major way."

One of those challenges included falling into a hole during rehearsals on the Studio 54 stage that left her with a bruised rib. "I did the Nestea plunge into one of Adam's holes," Chenoweth says with a laugh. "It wasn't my finest moment and, evidently, I shrieked like a baby! My dad said, 'If you'd have been a football player, you would have been benched!' [I also] heard [co-star] Brian d'Arcy James squeal, and I was like, 'This can't be good if Brian is screaming!'

"But I have to tell ya, the way Roundabout treats their actors," Chenoweth adds, "[makes it] worth it. . . . They treat you so well that you just can't help but love it. And the audiences there ran the gamut. There were a lot of Wicked fans, and there were also a lot of people that remembered the first Apple Tree. I loved getting to do something that hadn't been done since 1966." Although she loved the experience, Chenoweth admits it was "the hardest thing I've ever done! . . . I'm not gonna joke — it kicked my butt, but it was the kind [of show] that you can't wait to get out there and do every night." What made it especially enjoyable for her (and for the lucky audiences who were able to catch the limited run) was the chance to play (or watch her play) four different roles in one evening: Eve, Princess Barbára, Ella and Passionella. "I don't think there's anything more perfect than that Act One. It killed me every night when [as Eve, I] would start singing 'What Makes Me Love Him,' and the challenge was not to lose it. And then to see Brian come out there with that water can and start to water Eve's flowers — 'She loved them. I guess she got her wish. She went first.' Every night I would just get choked up... I just love, love, love it! But I also loved playing the Princess Barbára because she's just wrong and sort of sex-starved, or hungry, I should say. Sheldon and Jerry always said that's the one that kind of didn't work, but that was a lot of people's favorites this time. [Laughs.] I just loved playing her because she's so different from me. And then going from her to Ella, the chimney sweep girl, that was always sort of a challenge because I only had 30 seconds. But I loved Ella too, because she's such a character."

It was actually the late John Spencer — Chenoweth's co-star in "The West Wing" — who insisted that she take the show to Broadway after watching her performance in the City Center Encores! production of Apple Tree. "He always was very supportive of me," Chenoweth says. "We were close, and he looked me straight in the eyes and pointed at me, and he said, 'If you have an opportunity to do this on Broadway, you must! Because it's you. You have to do it.'"

Chenoweth says she doesn't think she's quite done with her Apple Tree characters. "You know," she reveals, "I miss Eve, I miss Barbára, I miss Ella. I really miss 'em. And I miss Passionella, too. I find myself saying the lines all the time to people in my life, and they'll be like, 'Listen, Eve, calm down.' I'm not ready to let them go — it's sad," she laughs. "And they talked about extending it, and I couldn't because I had to go do a pilot. That broke my heart, but we might do it again sometime. We might do it in L.A."

That pilot, "Pushing Daisies," features a stellar cast of theatre favorites, including Little Shop of Horrors' Ellen Greene, Tony Award winner Swoosie Kurtz and Closer's Anna Friel as well as Lee Pace, who was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his performance as a transsexual in "Soldier's Girl." "First of all, as a guy, [Pace] is hot," Chenoweth laughs. "He's also originally from Oklahoma, and we both flipped out. He's a talented individual. He plays a guy who can bring people back from the dead. Now it sounds hokey, sounds like, 'Oh we've seen that before.' But the trick is this: He can touch people — that's how he brings them back, but he has 60 seconds to decide. If he touches them again before 60 seconds, they go back to being dead. If he leaves it, they live, but somebody else drops dead. It's very complicated. But Bryan Fuller is the writer, and Barry Sonnenfeld directed it. You know, I read the script and, again, I'm pretty picky. It's gotta be something really interesting for me to [accept a role] — whether it goes or succeeds is besides the point. It really has to speak to me. There's a love triangle, and I play one of the girls. It's a great cast."

Chenoweth had also been mentioned for a pilot with Nathan Lane, which would have cast the Tony winners as a pair of talk-show hosts reminiscent of Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa. When asked about that project, Chenoweth says, "Well, we got the script and we loved it. The writer was amazing. He used to be one of the head writers on 'Mad TV.' . . . I think it was a show that was sort of behind-the-scenes, and that hasn't had great luck. I think the networks were scared, and I think they want to work with [us], but I think they want a different premise. . . . Nate and I will do something together, [but] we don't know what it's going to be. But there's lots out there for us to discover. I think we're very similar in a lot of ways. . . . We have a very similar work ethic. We like to come in and get it done and play and fail so that we can succeed in the rehearsal room. So my dream is to do something with him, and I think he would like that as well. So, who knows? I don't think that my time with Nathan is over."

Currently, however, Chenoweth is focusing her attention on her latest Encores! endeavor, Stairway to Paradise, a show created especially for the City Center series that will feature songs and sketches from such classic Broadway revues as The Band Wagon, As Thousands Cheer, Pins and Needles, Call Me Mister, The Garrick Gaieties and New Faces of 1952. Among her co-stars are Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Jenn Gambatese, Michael Gruber, Shonn Wiley, J. Mark McVey, Holly Cruikshank, Kendrick Jones, Capathia Jenkins and Ruthie Henshall.

About Stairway, Chenoweth says, "They came to me two years ago and said, 'We want to do this,' and I read the script and thought it was really great. If 'Saturday Night Live' were back then, it would be that. It's all vaudeville sketches, and pre-vaudeville. And one of the reasons that I want to do it — which is the same reason that I wanted to do Apple Tree — is that it runs the gamut the whole night for me. I get to play a lot of different styles." One of the songs Chenoweth will wrap her golden voice around is Victor Herbert's rarely heard "If I Were on the Stage." "Plus," she adds, "we get to do a lot of Comden and Green. We'll do 'Guess Who I Saw Today,' and Capathia's gonna rock the house! She and I get to do some fun stuff. And then me, Kevin Chamberlain and Chris Fitzgerald are going to get to do some great sketches and a couple cool songs. It's nothing but fun... And, obviously, we've got a great hoofer that's going to harken back to the Nicholas brothers and all of those great tap hoofers of their time."

Chenoweth, who has also appeared in the Encores! presentations of Strike Up the Band and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, says the process of putting these brief runs together is "absolutely insane. The fact that I even do it, I must be very brave! You just can't wrap your mind around the time that we do this. We start Monday, and then we have two weeks, and we're doing a new show! Even though it's old material, it's new because it's compiled differently. . . . I'm scared to death. . . . I've started to work on the music a little bit, but I've been doing 'Ugly Betty' for the past couple of weeks and I have to fly back, so I haven't had the time yet that I've wanted to. But I'm going to get back on Thursday, and I'm going to rehearse for four hours every day until Monday. . . . I told all my friends, 'Don't call me, and don't be offended if I don't call you back.'"

Despite any fears she has about learning the material so quickly, Chenoweth notes, "What I always say [about] Encores! [is] the people that are there want to be there, so they show you love. It kicks in and it does feed you, and then it becomes a great relationship between the actor and the audience. With this kind of material, it's gonna rely on the audience." Chenoweth also hopes that the show will have a life beyond the May 10-14 City Center run. "I think it's very relevant for today," she says. "I think that there's lots to learn from it, and my challenge will be — which is what I look to do in every show, even in a show like Wicked that's contemporary — to bring back a sort of rhythm and an old-fashioned style, but also make it relevant for today. So you can be Mary Martin or you can be Cameron Diaz, you know what I mean? And that's the challenge for this, too, because we're gonna have people who remember this stuff, and then we're gonna have people who never heard it."

Chenoweth is equally enthusiastic about her upcoming appearance on the aforementioned hit series "Ugly Betty," portraying Betty's dentist. "I am so hard on TV, [but 'Ugly Betty'] is fantastic, so how could I not [appear on the show]? And [star] America [Ferrera] is my height," she laughs. "We love each other. I will say [that] I don't know a lot about dentistry, so I made the choice that she's not very good! That's the easiest thing to do in that situation. I didn't have time to go research dentistry, but I had a blast. Just being with cool people and great writers — it was nothing but fun."

Chenoweth's other recent projects include two trips to the recording studio: a duet with baritone Nathan Gunn on John Bucchino's "Feels Like Home" for Gunn's new CD "Just Before Sunrise"; and a duet with Hugh Panaro on "Tonight" for the "West Side Story Tribute Album"; both discs are due in stores Aug. 7.

And, of course, one can't speak with Chenoweth without discussing Wicked, the mammoth hit Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical that cast her as the curly-locked Glinda, where she cemented her reputation as one of the great musical comedy stars of her era. In fact, this writer has seen several terrific Elphabas, and several very good Glindas, but none who has matched the role's originator in both comedic and dramatic moments.

"When Stephen Schwartz called me and talked to me about the show, I had just finished 13 episodes of 'Kristin,'" Chenoweth says, "and I was really tired and not in the mood. And I just thought, 'Do the reading [without me] and then, if you're [still] interested, come to me.' But he sent [the script] to me anyway, and I went, 'Oh okay, I'll do the reading!' [Laughs.] Because I wasn't a fool! I saw what it could be. And by the way, Glinda was very much a side character [at that time], but I loved her. It wasn't until we first started doing the readings, at first with Stephanie [J. Block] and then with Idina [Menzel], that I realized that this was just unbelievable because it's a story that we all think we know. . . . [In the beginning it] really was Fiyero, Madame Morrible and Elphaba. And then Stephanie and I did one scene together, and they saw that this was actually about the relationship between these friends, and so it changed. It wasn't me going, 'I should have a bigger part.' I would have been fine being what it was. . . . It evolved and developed into these two girls, and that's what made it a hit, I think. Now the love story is really them. It's a powerful story, and I always had this hanging on my mirror when I was doing the show: it was about judgment, acceptance, friendship, forgiveness, and love, in that order. Every night — no matter what was going on in my life — I would get to 'For Good' with Idina, and it was just such a wonderful moment. It really did change my life. It was special."

When asked about the much-rumored Wicked movie, Chenoweth says, "I haven't heard a thing! Have you? I've just basically heard they're gonna try and run that sucker and make as much money as they can. But I hope they hurry because pretty soon I'm gonna be old enough to play Madame Morrible! "And I have to say something about that show. It really touched people's lives. I'll be out and about, and . . . a straight guy will come up to me and be like, 'I don't want to admit it, but Wicked really changed me.' You know, like a crew guy will say that! And I love that. And then, of course, you have the young people who it spoke to. And I'm honored. I don't think I realized it while I was doing it, because you're in it. When you're in it, you're just doing your job. But, having left the show, I realized how many people whose lives it touched. And I'm really honored that I was a part of that because not everybody has had that experience onstage. And it's gonna live on forever. I think it'll probably be one of the biggest hits of all time."

Would Chenoweth ever consider returning to the stage version of Wicked? "You know, recently I have. . . . just recently I was like, 'I kinda miss Glinda a little bit.' And I never thought I'd say that just because I'd done it so long. Even though I loved her, you get to a point where you're kinda done. But just recently I thought, 'Well, maybe I could.' But I don't even know if that's a consideration for them or for me. But I did really love her. My challenge there was to make her lovable even though she's not exactly what we call a lovable person. . . . I do love her [though], but by the end, I was popping bubbles with my wand. It was time for me to go!"

[Stairway to Paradise will play City Center (West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) May 10 at 8 PM, May 11 at 8 PM, May 12 at 2 and 8 PM, May 13 at 6:30 PM and May 14 at 7 PM (benefit performance) Tickets, priced $25-$90, are available by calling (212) 581-1212 or by visiting www.nycitycenter.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Ellen Greene, the celebrated singing actress best known for her work on stage and on screen in Little Shop of Horrors, will make a guest appearance on the new NBC show "Heroes." Greene will appear on the May 7 episode of the acclaimed show, which airs in the metropolitan area on WNBC Channel 4 from 9-10 PM ET; check local listings. Greene will portray the mother of Sylar, the character played by actor Zachary Quinto. The upcoming episode is titled "The Hard Part" and is described by TVGuide.com as such: "Hiro and Ando are even more determined to save the world after seeing the grim future; Nathan takes steps to win the election. Thompson (Eric Roberts) brings someone new into the organization; and Sylar visit his mom (Ellen Greene)." For more information visit www.nbc.com.

Melissa Errico, last on Broadway in Dracula, will return to Birdland May 21 and 28. Errico's 7 PM concerts will feature a mix of jazz standards, theatre classics, original songs and lullabies, and she will be accompanied by Andy Ezrin on piano and Tim Lefebvre on bass. Audiences can expect to hear such tunes as "I Remember," "Once Upon a Summertime," "Speak Low," "The Summer Knows" and "Another Life." Errico will also perform tunes from her upcoming CD, including "Gartans Lullabye" and the Beatles' "Goodnight." Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $30 cover charge and a $10 food/drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations.

Saycon Sengbloh, who recently completed a two-year stint as the Elphaba standby in the Broadway production of Wicked, will go it solo in June. The singing actress will perform in concert at the BookHouse @ Eastern Monroe Public Library June 22. The 7:30 PM concert will feature tunes from the worlds of Broadway, jazz, R&B and soul. The BookHouse @ Eastern Monroe Public Library is located at 1002 North 9th Street in Stroudsburg, PA. For further information, call (570) 421-0800, ext. 30 or visit www.monroepl.org/bookhouse.html.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(l.-r.) <i>Stairway to Paradise</i> co-stars Ruthie Henshall, Kevin Chamberlin, Kristin Chenoweth, Christopher Fitzgerald and Capathia Jenkins.
(l.-r.) Stairway to Paradise co-stars Ruthie Henshall, Kevin Chamberlin, Kristin Chenoweth, Christopher Fitzgerald and Capathia Jenkins. Photo by Joan Marcus