"I was pretty new to New York when Steel Pier happened," she explained. She had been cast in Roundabout Theatre Company's Scapin, starring Bill Irwin at the Laura Pels Theatre, but had set her sights on something else.
"I was doing that when I auditioned for the musical of Steel Pier, which I really wanted," she said. "And, I remember thinking, 'If I don't get this part, I'm quitting,' which would have been silly because lots of times we don't get parts, but I knew this was my part. I went in, and I sang my face off for [Scott Ellis], and I laid it out on the floor, as we say, and he was like, 'Thank you… Thank you.' I didn't want to hear, 'Thank you'; I wanted to hear, 'It's yours.'"
On the other end of the table, however, director Ellis and Steel Pier's legendary composing team, John Kander and Fred Ebb, knew the part was hers. "[We] didn't know who the hell she was!" admitted Ellis. "She just walked in, and [we thought], 'What… What is that?!' That little girl with this voice… Are you kidding? I remember Kander and Ebb, when she walked away, we were all like, 'What just happened? Who was that?' Yeah, we cast her."
But, after booking the Steel Pier workshop, Chenoweth thought to herself, "This is the beginning of your audition, Kristin — for the workshop of Steel Pier. You actually have to now really deliver because this guy, [Scott Ellis], is not a joke."
"I wanted to impress him," she simply explained. "And, we did the workshop, and Kander and Ebb started writing a song for me. I got over the shock of that and moved to Broadway, and opening night of Steel Pier was a memory I'll have… It will never be that way again. It was a special night. My parents came from Oklahoma. Madeline Kahn was there, who I had longtime loved from the Mel Brooks movies because my dad loved Mel Brooks. I thought, 'That woman — I understand what she's doing.' I wanted to meet her, and my mom said, 'Go over there and meet her,' and I said, 'No. I'm too embarrassed. I don't want to bother her' — I still have that weird thing about me. I don't want to bother people…
"We were passing each other somehow, and she grabbed my arm. She said, 'You're good, kid!' That was my single and only encounter with Madeline Kahn. And, I think she got sick not long after and passed, but the fact that I'm sitting here in her shoes — and Judy Kaye's [who succeeded Kahn not long into the show's run] shoes as well — it's an honor. I want to do it right. I want them to be proud."
Chenoweth regretted not officially meeting Kahn, but — if she did take her mother's advice on opening night — what would she have said?
"I probably would have made an idiot of myself," Chenoweth admitted. "I probably would have said, I loved you when you, 'Ah, sweet mystery…!' [or] something dumb that she'd heard a thousand times, so maybe it was the right thing. And, of course, I didn't speak when she said, 'You're good, kid.' I couldn't speak. I couldn't speak. I had that one other time with Julie Andrews. I mean, I actually got to know her, though. I do think that it maybe happened the right way, you know. And, my dog is named after her…"
Chenoweth often talks about her Maltese, Madeline Kahn Chenoweth, who inspired the charity organization Maddie's Corner.
"Madeline Kahn Chenoweth has a bad heart, but she's hanging in! I'm enjoying each day with her because, you know, life's short, and this is my furry baby. I love her to death."
See All the Glamour, All the Drama in These First Pics of Kristin Chenoweth in On the Twentieth Century!
Life imitated art for Chenoweth and On the Twentieth Century. After Ellis discovered the actress — who would go on to win a Tony Award for her work in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and achieve mega success by originating Glinda in the hit musical Wicked as well as tackling the worlds of film and TV — he wanted her back.
In Twentieth Century, producer Oscar Jaffe (Peter Gallagher) discovers "Mildred Plotka" before she rises to fame as renowned actress Lily Garland. And, now he attempts to lure her back to the stage to headline his next show. Honestly, Ellis said, "It was never anybody but [Kristin]. And, I even said, 'If she doesn't do it, I'm not interested.' I was only going to do it with her, and that was truthful. I don't even know if there is a 'list' … I really wanted to do it with her. I thought she brings everything that I felt the role needed, including the voice and the comedy and being an actress and just all of that. That was what I wanted."
And, this show is what Chenoweth has longed for.
"I want the people who work with me to be proud of me, too. I'm proud of them," she said. "I'm taking care of myself — eating properly. No more Coca-Cola and chocolate, at least when I'm doing this show. That's been the hardest thing, actually — the diet. I admittedly eat very white trash, and I love chain restaurants. There's the Applebee's next to the theatre, which I have to avoid! But, I'm eating properly. I'm getting proper sleep. I'm in physical condition. I've worked hard. I have to sing high and long and fast and slow… There are a lot of demands that haven't been required of me for a long time, plus it's comedy, and that's very physical for me. I'm a very physical comedian, much like Madeline Kahn was, so I'm just trying to take care of myself.
"I want this to be the best Twentieth Century for 2015. It's never been revived, and a lot of people have never seen it, and I want us to do it justice. That's what I want, so that requires me, Peter [Gallagher] and Andy [Karl] and everybody to take care of themselves, so I'll be living like a nun. It was nice talking to you. I won't be speaking again."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)