Over 20 Years of Popular: Kristin Chenoweth on Stage and Screen

News   Over 20 Years of Popular: Kristin Chenoweth on Stage and Screen
 
Kristin Chenoweth is preparing to return to Broadway as Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century, but she's been keeping audiences in stitches for over 20 years. Take a look at Kristin Chenoweth's incredible career with this retrospective.

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Kristin Chenoweth is one of Broadway's brightest stars and one of the few modern stage actresses who has been able to successfully bridge the gap between Broadway, film and television. With her distinctive voice, comedic abilities and height (or lack thereof), Chenoweth has never truly been out of the spotlight since first achieving Broadway success. As we prepare for her next Broadway performance in On the Twentieth Century (which begins preview performances Feb. 12), let's take a look back at Kristin Chenoweth's extensive career.

Kristin Chenoweth was born July 24, 1968. Five days later, she was adopted by Junie and Jerry Chenoweth and given the name Kristi Dawn Chenoweth. She grew up in Broken Arrow, OK, a suburb of Tulsa, and began performing at a young age, singing with local churches and the Southern Baptist Convention.

She studied musical theatre and opera performance at Oklahoma City University under the vocal training of the legendary Florence Birdwell, who was also to become her mentor. Speaking to Birdwell's influence, Chenoweth told ChicagoPride.com that "[Florence] not only taught me to sing technically, but taught me to sing from the soul about what a song actually means. Don't sing it if ya can't mean it!" Birdwell has trained many Broadway performers during their training at OCU, perhaps most prominently working with Kelli O'Hara and Lara Teeter in addition to Kristin.

Chenoweth found early performing success while still training. On the OCU stage, she portrayed Ado Annie in Oklahoma! and Cunegonde in Candide, a role she would go on to play professionally as well. She also began working at regional theatres during her summers away from school, playing Dainty June in Gypsy, Tuptim in The King and I, Liesel in The Sound of Music and Fran in Promises, Promises, a role she reprised on Broadway in 2010. Chenoweth also competed on the beauty pageant scene during her college days. She won the title of "Miss OCU" in 1991 and was the second runner-up in the Miss Oklahoma pageant that same year. It was through these pageants that she put herself through graduate school.

In 1992, Chenoweth was named the "most promising up-and-coming singer" in the New York Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. The prize for this honor was a full scholarship to the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. A few weeks before she was to begin her training in Philadelphia, however, she decided to join a friend at an audition in New York for a revival of the 1928 Marx Brothers musical Animal Crackers being produced by Paper Mill Playhouse. Though at the time she was not a member of the union and had to wait over five hours to be able to be seen, she ended up being cast as Arabella Rittenhouse, the leading female role. She decided to take the role, decline the Philadelphia scholarship and begin her professional musical theatre career in New York, re-christening herself Kristin Chenoweth.

Chenoweth continued working regionally. She appeared in a Detroit production of Little Me in a cast that also included Charles Busch and Michael Gruber. She performed in Babes in Arms at the prestigious Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and as Christine Daae in Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's Phantom at North Shore Music Theatre. She later reprised the role on a European tour as well.

In 1994, Chenoweth made the jump to Off-Broadway, appearing as Luisa in The Fantasticks and Kristy in Box Office of the Damned. In 1997, she portrayed Hyacinth in Roundabout Theatre Company's Off-Broadway production of Moliere's Scapin opposite Bill Irwin. Ben Brantley described her as "delightful" in his review of the production for the New York Times, Chenoweth's inaugural review in the paper.

Just a few short months later in 1997, Chenoweth made her Broadway debut in John Kander and Fred Ebb's Steel Pier, portraying the dance marathon contestant Precious McGuire. Though the production only had a brief run on Broadway, her performance was well-received, earning her a 1997 Theatre World Award.

Joining Chenoweth in the company of Steel Pier were many prominent actors and several who began in the ensemble and have since moved on to impressive careers. The show starred Karen Ziemba and Debra Monk. In the chorus was Andy Blankenbuehler (now a choreographer), Casey Nicholaw (director of Aladdin and The Book of Mormon), and Cady Huffman (a 2001 Tony Award-winner for her performance as Ulla in The Producers). The production was choreographed by Susan Stroman and directed by Scott Ellis, who is reuniting with Chenoweth this season to direct her in On the Twentieth Century.

Kristin moved on to an Encores! concert production of George and Ira Gershwin's Strike Up the Band, which played the New York City Center in February of 1998. Chenoweth appeared as Anne Draper, the secondary and comedic leading female role. Alongside David Elder, she got to perform "Hangin' Around With You," an athletic dance number. Also in the cast was Jason Danieley, Judy Kuhn and Lynn Redgrave. The ensemble included Jennifer Laura Thompson, who would go on to replace Chenoweth in Wicked, and Linda Mugleston, who is appearing alongside Chenoweth in this season's On the Twentieth Century. The production was directed by John Rando (currently represented on Broadway with his production of On the Town) and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, who went on to direct recent Broadway productions of Jekyll & Hyde and Newsies.

Chenoweth next appeared as the waitress and Nancy D. the nurse in the Lincoln Center Off-Broadway production of William Finn and James Lapine's A New Brain. Though she was playing a smaller role, the ensemble nature of the show offered several comedic showcases for her unique sense of humor, such as her portrayal of the oddly loquacious cafe waitress offering zizi "with a sauce that's meaty" in the opening number.

Chenoweth made the major splash of her career in 1999 when she returned to Broadway in a revival of Clark Gesner's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, creating the role of Sally Brown, Charlie Brown's sister. She is actually the first actress to portray Sally on Broadway. Previous productions used the lesser-known character of Patty in this spot.

Her diminutive stature and high-pitched voice made her a natural fit to play a child. The role also offered a major opportunity for Chenoweth to show her excellent comedic abilities. Her character received one of the three new songs written for this revival by Andrew Lippa, "My New Philosophy," which became a highlight of the production. Chenoweth sang it on the 1999 Tony Awards telecast and won a Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Musical later that same evening. She won Drama Desk, Clarence Derwent and Outer Critics Circle Awards for this performance as well.

Fresh off her Tony Award-winning success in Charlie Brown, Chenoweth was cast in the 1999 ABC TV-Movie version of Annie. Appearing opposite Alan Cumming and Kathy Bates, Chenoweth once again made a comedic splash as the ditzy Lily St. Regis, a role portrayed by Bernadette Peters in the 1982 film edition.

Back on Broadway, Chenoweth appeared in the starring role of Louise Goldman in Epic Proportions, by Larry Coen and David Crane, of "Friends" fame. The production was not well received, but a month after its closing, Chenoweth was back at Encores! starring as Daisy in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

See videos of Chenoweth in performance, on stage and screen, here. Brantley opened his Times review of Clear Day with a description of Chenoweth's talents that speaks well to her place in the industry at that time. "Certain performers, an elect group particularly noticeable in that endangered genre known as the musical comedy, seem to carry their own personal spotlights. Their built-in glow is so intense that it can match whatever electric wattage is thrown upon them. And no matter where one of them is actually standing on any given stage, it is de facto dead center, the place where an audience's eyes are destined to gravitate."

Chenoweth began to split her career between stage, television and film. In 2001, NBC starred her in a semi-autobiographical sitcom entitled "Kristin." She portrayed "Kristin Yancey," an Oklahoma woman working as a secretary in New York City while pursuing a career in show business. Unfortunately, the show was not able to find an audience. A total of 13 episodes were produced, but less than half actually aired on television. The sixth episode (and the final to be aired) was directed by Jerry Zaks, the veteran Broadway director who previously had directed Chenoweth in Epic Proportions.

2001 also saw the release of Chenoweth's first solo album, "Let Yourself Go." The album featured a mix of classic showtunes as well as newly-written cabaret songs. "The Girl in 14-G," written by Jeanine Tesori for Chenoweth's specific talents, casts her as a single girl in the city who lives on top of a noisy opera singer and below a noisy jazz singer. In replicating the noises she can hear from her apartment, Chenoweth got to show off her opera chops as well as her jazzy belt. As she began to receive more concert bookings, the song became a regular part of her set list.

In 2003, Chenoweth returned to the world of made-for-TV musicals with ABC's production of The Music Man, in which she portrayed Marian Paroo opposite Matthew Broderick's Harold Hill. The broadcast had high ratings, ranking second for the evening. Chenoweth's performance was praised as well. Writing in the New York Times, critic Michele Willens said, "In 'The Music Man,' Ms. Chenoweth finally gets a television part worthy of her talent."

Chenoweth made her most famous Broadway appearance in 2003, starring alongside Idina Menzel in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked. She created and developed the role of Glinda, the good witch of the South, from Wicked's earliest readings, dating back to 2000, and continued with the role to open it on Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre in 2003. As a result, the role was tailored to Chenoweth's talents. The score makes use of her operatic soprano range as well as her Broadway belt voice. It also gave ample stage time to her quirky sense of humor, most keenly seen in the Act I comedy number "Popular." Chenoweth went on to become nominated for a 2004 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, though the honor went to her co-star Menzel.

Wicked, of course, became one of Broadway's biggest hits; it's still running today. Combined with the continued success of the original cast album, Wicked's success helped make Kristin Chenoweth a household name nationwide in a way she never had been before.

Read Playbill's interview with Chenoweth and Menzel looking back at Wicked 10 years after it opened on Broadway. In 2004, Chenoweth got to return to a role she had played at Oklahoma City University when she was cast as Cunegonde in Lonny Price's New York Philharmonic concert of Candide. Playing opposite Patti LuPone as the Old Lady, Chenoweth's performance was a hit with audiences and critics alike. The production was filmed and later released on DVD, and Cunegonde's major aria, "Glitter and be Gay," has become part of Chenoweth's standard repertoire.

Chenoweth next decided to focus her attentions on her film and television career. In 2004, she joined the highly-successful television drama "The West Wing" as media consultant Annabeth Schott, continuing the role through the series' completion in 2006. She was nominated, along with the entire cast, for two Screen Actor's Guild Awards for her performance.

She made a triumphant return to Broadway in a revival of The Apple Tree, which opened December 2006 playing Eve, a role created by Barbara Harris, who also created the role of Daisy in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Chenoweth appeared alongside Brian d'Arcy James and Marc Kudisch, her former fiancé. She won a Drama League award for her performance, and was nominated for a Drama Desk as well.

In 2007, Chenoweth joined the cast of a new television comedy-drama "Pushing Daisies." She played the role of Olive Snook, a waitress at a pie restaurant who is hopelessly (and unrequitedly) in love with her boss. She appeared alongside Broadway vets Ellen Greene, Swoosie Kurtz, Lee Pace and Anna Friel. Her performance was loved by fans and critics alike; she received Emmy Award nominations for both seasons, and won in 2009.

Unfortunately, "Pushing Daisies" proved to be short-lived. It was canceled in 2009, but Chenoweth quickly moved on to Fox's "Glee." She portrayed the recurring character of April Rhodes, a high-school dropout and former glee club member. The musical-themed show provided many opportunities for Chenoweth's singing abilities, including performances of "Maybe This Time" and "Home," as well as many more. She received a Satellite award for outstanding guest star.

In 2011, Chenoweth was cast in a new ABC comedy-drama, "Good Christian B*tches," or "GCB" as it came to be known. Appearing alongside Annie Potts, Chenoweth portrayed the villainous Carlene Cockburn, the leader of the show's clique of women and primary antagonist to main character Amanda Vaughn. This show also found several opportunities for Chenoweth to sing, allowing her to tap more into her southern church-music roots. She sang "This Little Light of Mine," "Prayer of St. Francis," "and "Jesus is Just Alright with Me" on the show. "GCB" unfortunately never found wide appeal and was canceled after just one season.

She was cast the following year in a recurring role as a political reporter in "The Good Wife," joining a long list of Broadway performers featured in the cast that includes Alan Cumming, Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski. While filming the show, she suffered a major injury on set, sustaining a skull fracture, broken nose and ribs and spinal injuries. As a result, she was forced to leave the show prematurely.

Chenoweth also appeared in several major motion pictures during her career. In 2005, she appeared as Nicole Kidman's neighbor Maria in "Bewitched." In 2006, she played supporting roles in "The Pink Panther," "Running with Scissors," "Stranger Than Fiction," "Deck the Halls" and "RV." She played Reese Witherspoon's sister in the 2008 romantic comedy "Four Christmases." She has also worked as a voice actress, voicing the garden fairy Rosetta in 2008's "Tinker Bell" and "Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure," and Gabi the poisonous frog in 2014's "Rio 2." She came back to Broadway in 2010 for a revival of Burt Bacharach and Neil Simon's Promises, Promises. Chenoweth portrayed Fran Kubelik, a role she played regionally at Oklahoma's Lyric Theatre early in her career. She starred opposite Sean Hayes. This revival production added two well-loved Bacharach songs not originally featured in the score, "I Say a Little Prayer" and "A House Is Not a Home," both of which were sung by Chenoweth.

Promises, Promises was Chenoweth's last Broadway performance, but luckily we don't have to wait long for her next. She begins preview performances next week for a new Roundabout revival of On the Twentieth Century, a production that has been in the works for several years. She will be playing the role of Lily Garland, which was created in the 1978 original production by Madeline Kahn, Kristin's idol (Chenoweth's dog is named after the late comedic actress). She will be sharing the stage with a cast full of Broadway luminaries, including Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl, Mark Linn-Baker, Michael McGrath and Mary Louise Wilson. The production is currently slated to play a limited run through July 5.

Fortunately, if the rest of her career is any indication, Kristin Chenoweth will never truly be out of the spotlight!

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