DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony and Emmy Winner Kristin Chenoweth
By Andrew Gans
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony and Emmy winner Kristin Chenoweth is comin' to town. And, she has gift bags (but more about those later)!
The gifted singing actress, who possesses the largest vocal range this side of the Met, will perform in concert June 2 at the famed New York City Center. Her brand-new concert tour, which launched May 9 in Seattle and is currently scheduled to continue through June 24, boasts direction by Richard Jay-Alexander and musical direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell.
"I really wanted to challenge myself and do some different material, and I knew of Richard Jay," Chenoweth told me earlier this week. "We talked one night, and he said, 'I want to work for you. I think I can help you with this,' and he did. He kind of changed my life. It sounds very dramatic, but what he did was he freed me from not just a lot of material that I needed to put to bed for a while, but to say what I wanted to say in this concert tour and that it didn't need to just be about the latest album. It needed to be me, and that's what the show is. It sounds funny to say, 'It's all about me!' But meaning it's all about things I want to say, and as artists, when we perform in concert...that's what we get the opportunity to do, and he helped me put together this show with the message that I want to say. The main one is, 'How do you want to leave your mark on this world?' and 'What is your legacy?' I have been doing a lot of different types of music, and in this show, [they are all] well represented, and I'm very proud of it, the thing I'm probably most proud of so far in my career. I have to give him and Mary-Mitchell Campbell, my music director, credit because we did it together. We did it together."
Although the Broadway favorite didn't want to give away too many of the concert's titles, she did explain, "People would be disappointed if I didn't do 'Popular,' but it's done in a different way, which I'm really proud of. Obviously, some more legit-operatic things will be represented. Disco is there as well, and country music, which was a big part of my upbringing and my past, and gospel. It's everything that I do, so I'm going to do it! It's also the hardest thing I've ever done. It's like running a marathon. And, my background — I don't even want to call them vocalists — they're actors, singers and dancers. They're all Broadway people for a reason because what's required of them is what's required of me, and you have to be able to do all of it. And, there's a lovely tribute to another hit Broadway show that I'm very proud of. I can't give too much away, but it's not just me standing there singing."
And, how have audiences been reacting to her new program? Chenoweth pauses and says, "How do you say this? You want to be careful, [but the] first night there were eight standing ovations, and so it's been sort of shocking even to me because I wasn't sure about some of the music.... I knew I wanted to sing certain songs, and any doubt I had has just been reinforced by the audience. And, I'm such a creature of the theatre, [and] I've realized I have to be in front of a crowd. I just have to… I'm born to do this, and I'm so happy I get to. Not everybody gets to do it, and I get to do it, and I get paid for it, and I love it! ... And, I'm getting to grow as an artist. I've been freed. I just think people have to see this show to know what I mean when I say that."
Those who catch the show in Manhattan also have the chance to purchase tickets to an after-party that will be held in the Grand Tier Lobby to benefit Chenoweth's charity, Maddie's Corner. "A lot of people that know me know that I have a dog, Madeline Kahn Chenoweth, and a few years ago," Chenoweth explains, "I wanted to start a charity, and basically our slogan is, 'Animals helping people helping animals.' For example, when I played in Dallas, we had two dogs from the local shelter there that needed to be adopted in our lobby beforehand, and the money that we raised through Maddie's Corner will go to different charities all over the country, and basically it helps animals be adopted. I'm adopted myself, so it's something I understand, but I love animals so much. I grew up with tons of them, and I grew up with relatives who were farmers, so I know a lot about the peacefulness and the wonderful things that an animal can bring to your life. For example, when Katrina happened, we were able to help displaced pets be replaced into new homes." And, those who attend the after-party will receive a special gift. "I'm most proud of the gift bags," Chenoweth says with a big laugh. "We have a lot of great, cool items to give. Mainly, I'm just glad that we're able to bring more awareness about Maddie's Corner."
The former star of Wicked, The Apple Tree and, most recently, Promises, Promises, says fellow Tony winner and animal champion Bernadette Peters has been a big influence. "She has been such an influence on me as a person — an entertainer, an actor and singer — and she's giving back in a huge way with Broadway Barks. I, too, am such an animal lover, and Maddie's Corner gives to Broadway Barks as well."
Although she got her start on New York stages, winning a Tony for her delightfully comedic performance in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Chenoweth has developed an equally strong and devoted television following through her Emmy-winning work on "Pushing Daisies," "Glee" and the recently canceled ABC series "GCB." About the latter Chenoweth admits, "It was a real heartbreaker. I [was surprised by the cancellation] because our ratings were very good, especially once we would get the DVR numbers in. And, there's been all kinds of people signing petitions to save the show. Bottom line is this — now I understand the part of the business so much better than I did 12 years ago. Television is a lot about advertising, and we had a lot of major advertisers that pulled out because of the controversy of the show. And, it really hurt. It really bothered me, especially because I am a person of faith, and I wouldn't do anything that made fun of it, but when Kraft and Motorola and people like that are pulling out, that's how ABC makes their money. ... It was disappointing, but you move forward because you have to, and life is short. I've mourned it. I'm still sad about it. ['GCB' character] Carlene Cockburn probably makes an appearance at my concert — she's not dead yet. She's still there!"
Without her TV obligation, Chenoweth is free to pursue several stage projects, including a Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century, the stylish 1978 musical comedy set on the 20th Century Ltd., the luxury-liner train that used to travel between Chicago and New York City. Chenoweth will play Lily Garland, the role created by one of her inspirations, the late Madeline Kahn. "Yes. Yes! Yes, yes, yes. That's what this frees me up to do," Chenoweth exclaims, "and I'm very excited about it. I think that it will probably happen in the spring because I know that the tour may be extended to London and Australia and some more dates here in New York."
Chenoweth is also attached to the new Tammy Faye Bakker musical Rise, which is now being shepherded by her former Wicked producer, Marc Platt. "We'll probably do another reading — several more readings — to fine-tune it. The music is incredible, I have to say. I don't even like to say things like that about things I'm in, but Henry Krieger...It's his best, I think," Chenoweth says, adding, "The character I understand. I understand the whole Christian network television deal, and I think she was ahead of her time in a lot of ways. She was so accepting and loving of all kinds of people. She really was the epitome of what we're supposed to be as Christians. She had a tough life. Some people would call it denial. I call it… She had hope. She believed in her husband and family, and she was enjoying success, and that's the story of the show...I would really love to play that character, and I will make sure that it is done correctly... We're just going to make it as good as we can before we bring it in."
But, for now, the award-winning artist is focusing on her concert career. "I'm just thrilled [about this tour], and that's what you have to do... when something bad happens, move on and move forward, like 'GCB' being canceled. It actually took me by surprise. I found out when I was in Berkeley at my sound check. I burst into tears. I surprised myself. I was like, 'I've been to this barbecue [before]. Why am I…?' 'Pushing Daisies' was cancelled — that broke my heart. I think it's because you invest so much in characters you play and things you do, and it's always a little bit of an 'Uhh!' I think when that goes away, I should retire because I don't ever want to lose that. As far as TV goes, I would definitely consider it, but right now I'm so focused on my music, and I'm so happy to be doing that. It makes me very fulfilled, and to be honest with you, for the first time in 12 years, I'm doing just one thing. I'm doing just this, and I like it."
Chenoweth's tour is currently scheduled to conclude June 24 in Broken Arrow, OK. "We have a new performing arts center there, and they're renaming the auditorium after me," Chenoweth relates, "and that's kind of something that you say, 'No. No, no, no. I'm not dead yet. I'm not ready for that.' But my mom said to me the other day, 'Just embrace it. Kristin, embrace it. Life is short.'"
[Tickets for the concert are available through nycitycenter.org, CityTix at (212) 581-1212 or the City Center Box Office (131 W. 55th St. between 6th and 7th). Tickets for the after-party benefiting Maddie's Corner are priced $350 each or two for $600; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (516) 672-4288.]
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