After a four-year absence from the Great White Way, Tony and Emmy Award winner Kristin Chenoweth heads back to the Main Stem this month in a revival of the 1978 Comden and Green musical On the Twentieth Century. The actress stars as Hollywood starlet Lily Garland opposite Peter Gallagher's Oscar Jaffee. Chenoweth's return to Broadway not only marks a long-awaited homecoming for the star; she's also paying homage to one of her idols, the late Madeline Kahn.
F: Welcome back to Broadway, Kristin! Why come back with On the Twentieth Century?
K:I have always wanted to do this part. When I made my first album, I worked with Betty Comden and Adolph Green and I sang a song that they wrote from a show called Two on the Aisle called "If." I invited them to come to the recording studio, and they said, "There's a part we wrote for Madeline Kahn, and you have to do it." This was in 2000, and I said, "Oh, what is it?" They told me, On the Twentieth Century, and I said I'd never seen it, but my voice teacher told me one day that I would do it. Many years later director Scott Ellis and Todd Haimes [artistic director for the Roundabout Theatre Company] contacted me and said we want to do this for you. We did a reading about three years ago, and I knew this was a show that I needed to do sooner rather than later because the demands of it are for a coloratura. Also I think I may be dancing a lot more in this than Madeline Kahn did in the original.
F: And you're home.
K: I'm home with my people. It makes me happy. I get really emotional about it. I've had some wonderful experiences in films and on television, and we have our own version of a family there. But when you do eight shows a week, [when] you see someone every day for a long time — I can't describe it, you know?
F: You mentioned Madeline Kahn as one of your idols. Not only did she originate the role of Lily Garland in the original Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century, you even named your dog after her?
K: Eleven years ago, right after Wicked, I got my dog Madeline Kahn. Madeline was an original. I get compared to her a lot and I used to not understand why, because she's so wacky, yet she had her own sense of humor. Now I actually understand. I'm my own way and style. I think that's why I create a lot of roles. I know that I'll be putting my stamp on this part. F: Looking at your musical theatre repertoire, you've done Kander and Ebb, Stephen Schwartz, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, among others. If you had to pick a composer/lyricist to score the story of your life, who would you pick and why?
K: That's a good question. I would have to go with Leonard Bernstein, because I think he and I would have been together. He obviously passed away before I ever thought about moving to New York, but I've done several of his pieces — including the Mass, Trouble in Tahiti and Candide — [and] there's a way about him that I feel, "Oh, that's me." In fact, when I did Candide, his son came and said, "There was Barbara Cook, and now there's you." It's one of those things where you stop in time and go, "Good." It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks. If the Bernstein family is happy, I'm happy, because they knew their dad.
F: You were recently honored in your hometown of Broken Arrow, OK. The folks behind The Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center unveiled the Kristin Chenoweth Theatre in 2012. What was that experience like for you?
K: What do you think I did? I bawled like a baby. I was like, are you sure? Am I old enough? I was 42 at the time I found out; I'm 45 now. And I just couldn't believe it. I thought, "This theatre is in my hometown where I grew up, with my name on it. OK, Kristin, what are you going to do with it? Now you have a responsibility." That's how I look at it, and so here we are.
F: Speaking of which, what are your plans?
K: We're starting a summer arts program for kids who wouldn't normally be able to go to camp at the Chenoweth Theatre. I'll also be out there in August to do a master class we're starting this summer. We have a lot of great people on board, including Mary Mitchell Campbell [Broadway music director], Kenny Ortega… and Scott Ellis, Bernadette Peters, and Kelli O'Hara, even though they don't know it yet. They're going to come in and teach for the kids. You know, if I don't do anything else in my life, I did this. This is just the beginning, and I'm so proud of it.
F: You're part of a very select and special group of Broadway women. Many group you with the likes of Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster — ladies who have a major followings and are successful in all entertainment mediums, not just on Broadway, but television and film, too. What's your take on that?
K: I guess it's because I love what I do, and I'm overdriven by it. I wouldn't have it any other way. I have five movies coming out this year, and I still can't believe it. What's really been bringing me the most pleasure is the concert work I've been doing, because I get to do material that I pick for a purpose and I get to tell my story. I stand in my Christian conservative hometown and talk about gay marriage as a Christian. How I believe in it, what I think of it, and I know not everyone is going to agree with me there, but that's OK.
F: Have you ever received any backlash for what you believe in?
K: Some people won't come to the show because they disagree with me and they don't think that's right. But the right people come to the show, the ones sitting in those seats. I know there have been a couple people who've called and said, "Are you really going to have this theatre named after someone who believes in gay marriage?" And I thought, how sad. I wasn't mad, I was sad because that's the antithesis of what Jesus taught.
F: As you come back to Broadway Idina Menzel departs. Both of you created two of the most iconic Broadway roles in recent Broadway history: Glinda and Elphaba in Wicked. What's your current relationship like with Ms. Menzel?
K: We do keep in touch a little bit here and there. She has an insanely busy life with her baby. I'm happy for the success of "Frozen." I think she deserves it. One of the things that happened with Wicked is that we both knew we were in something special, and only she and I know what that was. We were in it together, you know? There isn't a day that goes by when I'm not thankful for that show, and I know she feels the same. F: Finally now that you're back on Broadway, let's make it that you're here to stay for a while. What can you tell me about the rumored Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! and the new Tammy Faye Bakker musical? I hear you're up for doing both?
K: Yes, both are parts I want to play. I think Dolly is a part I can play for a while; I want to do it really badly. As for the Tammy Faye Bakker musical, Henry Krieger has written the most beautiful score for the life of Tammy Faye. I think playing her part is one of those things in life that I'm born to do. I also love who she was. She was one of the first women who had a man who had HIV/AIDS on her show in the '80s and said we should only love him. I love her, and I love her still. Gypsy, Dolly, Mame — there are always going to be those roles. But I'm looking to create roles. Why can't there be Tammy Faye now?
Frank DiLella is the theatre reporter for NY1 News in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @fdilella.