In her Tony-winning ticket to fame and fortune, Kristin Chenoweth stepped into a role specially written for her, straight out of the funny papers and into the 1999 Broadway revival of Clark Gesner's "Peanuts" musical, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
She went out for Patty, but something she did in her audition prompted director Michael Mayer to write out Patty and write in Charlie's kid sister — Sally Brown — a four-year-old will-o'-the-wisp-with-Attitude. Composer Andrew Lippa seconded this with "My New Philosophy," in which sassy Sally stumbled onto a new credo-to-live-by every 16 bars.
Kristo-chango. That set the tone for the career to come. Nowadays she's at Studio 54 — till March 11, barring hold-overs — very much the quixotic chameleon, representing Everywoman from Eve on, in an age-old battle-of-the-sexes romp devised and musicalized by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.
Truth to tell, The Apple Tree is a third about Eve — She Who Knew Her Apples, meeting the first/last man on earth and determining who'll be the boss of Eden. It is a playful piece taken from "The Diary of Adam and Eve," which was originally recorded by Mark Twain. Act II finds her as a happy hedonist at court in a toga saga that asks Frank R. Stockton's classic question, "The Lady or the Tiger?" and, lastly, as a Chaplinesque chimney sweep who turns into a Monroe-like icon in Jules Feiffer's broad-stroked fable, "Passionella." A pretty heavy, eclectic load for a 4-foot-11 star to tote — more so if you consider the source. Barbara Harrises don't grow in bunches like bananas. Her Broadway career was totally contained within the '60s; in five shows, she won one Tony, three nominations and two of the decade's most delicious roles — her Tony-winning trio in The Apple Tree and the hypnotically suggestible, time-traveling Daisy Gamble in Lerner and Lane's On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Chenoweth plucked both plums — if only for five performances each in the Encores! series at City Center — but that was enough for critics to cartwheel. "No performer in musicals today has her range," wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times, "and she may be the best argument for cloning that the theatre has to offer."
Chenoweth, one year old at the end of Harris's Broadway reign, admits, "I only know her from films and television. I don't see a physical likeness, but our humor is on the same wavelength. I'd love the chance to meet her and tell her how much I admire her."
Another whose humor she's in sync and simpatico with was Madeline Kahn, "the only person I ever sent a fan letter to," Chenoweth confesses. "She'd make me laugh faster than anyone. She and Barbara Harris were original, unpredictable, funny ladies."
Her next Broadway role may well be one Kahn did in films - the shrill fiancée of Young Frankenstein. She has workshopped it with her Apple Tree co-star, Brian d'Arcy James.
If she should have no trouble hitting her climactic (!) high C in that show, that's because she shares a certain affinity and role-history with a third Broadway star — Barbara Cook, whom she followed as Cunegonde in an Avery Fisher Hall resurrection of Candide and as Marian (the librarian) Paroo in a TV reprise of "The Music Man" with Matthew Broderick.
Chenoweth comes complete with a classically trained coloratura soprano with a four-octave range — which would, by definition and design, seem to combat comedy — but, having been raised a Southern Baptist, she doesn't believe in burying any of her talents. She began singing in church when called on at the age of seven, and this subsequently spiraled into a master's degrees in opera performance from Oklahoma City College, partially financed by beauty contest booty as runner-up in the Miss Oklahoma pageant.
When she was 22, the beautiful blonde from Broken Arrow, OK, won a Metropolitan Opera audition and was two weeks away from entering the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia when a friend asked for her help relocating to New York. While in NYC, she thought she'd sample the auditioning process and accidentally landed the role of Arabella in The Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers at Paper Mill Playhouse.
The comedy had begun. Before she knew it, she was making a splash in New York supporting Bill Irwin's Scapin, winning a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut in Steel Pier and a Tony for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, starring on Broadway in Epic Proportions and on television in her own series. Alas, all of the above were short-lived. Her career really took off when she landed again on Broadway in a mechanical bubble as Glinda the Good Witch and chirped, "It's good to see me, isn't it?" It was, and she stayed a spell.
Just as Leonard Bernstein wrote "Glitter and Be Gay" for Barbara Cook's voice, John Corigliano is retailoring the role of Samira in The Ghosts of Versailles to accommodate Chenoweth's beautiful lyric soprano voice for her to do at the Met in March 2010. Her Met debut is closer at hand - Jan. 19 - musically directed by Andrew Lippa.
She's forever making a muse of herself with writers. Aaron Sorkin is the latest. Harriet Hayes, the character Sarah Paulson plays on his new series, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," is the Chenoweth he dated during her two-year residency in his "West Wing" as White House PR spinner Annabeth Schott.
"Some of our arguments he used verbatim," she says, a bit bemused. "It's nice to have a person of faith represented on prime-time TV, but she's not all me. I'm not anti-gay rights. [Indeed, she has a love scene with Annette Bening in "Running With Scissors" and will film a biography of Dusty Springfield.]
"Most of my 'West Wing' work was done with John Spencer. Such a dear man. I miss him so much. He saw me do The Apple Tree, and loved it and told me if it ever came up again I should pounce. And I did. Somehow, I suspect he had something to do with this."
(Harry Haun pens Playbill.com's On Opening Night columns.)