CABARET’S BROADWAY BELLE
Kristin Chenoweth tells Stephen Matchett audiences can expect a bit of just about everything on her coming tour
KRISTIN Chenoweth is a triple threat performer plus. Most certainly she can sing; undoubtedly she can act; and definitely she dances — if only a bit. And she adds to it all by charming as only a southern belle can.
She sure charmed Review, talking about her coming concert tour — Chenoweth headlines the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June before playing Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.
Speaking from New York at the end of a long day, Chenoweth was generous with her time and if the courtesy was professional her enthusiasm for everything about her work was obvious and appealing. Including coming to the other end of the earth.
‘‘ I’ve had a couple of invitations to Australia in the past when my schedule held me back. But Hugh [Jackman] and Nicole [Kidman] are dear friends and I have always wanted to go — I can’t wait,’’ she says sounding like a young woman looking forward to a family holiday. Which is what it will be. ‘‘ My parents are coming. It’s their 50th wedding anniversary and this will be a family event.’’
But there is no doubting that she will be here to work, because work is what Chenoweth does. ‘‘ I’m a lifer. Maybe it is why I haven’t married and had a family; I was born to do this. I knew my purpose was music at a very young age.’’
What sort of music? It seems Australian audiences will see a bit of just about everything, if who she admires is any indication. ‘‘ I listen to all sorts of music, from Eminem to Adele — there are great voices but only one [of] her, she is what Dusty Springfield was.
‘‘ The show will have everything from country to gospel through disco to opera — I am definitely going to entertain.’’
The Broadway star has the repertoire to do it. When Review asks how many songs she knows, Chenoweth seems surprised. ‘‘ Nobody’s ever asked me that before — a lot. I don’t know a lot of anything else than songs.’’ Which come from all over. ‘‘ I grew up in the south singing Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. It wasn’t until I met my mentor at university [voice instructor Florence Birdwell] that I opened up to a whole new repertoire.’’
Chenoweth’s one-time signature tune is the operatic overkill of Glitter and be Gay from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. She is equally comfortable in country and western, beloved for belting out a hymn to monogamy, WWDD (‘‘What would Dolly do?’’) at Nashville’s Grand Old Opry: ‘‘ take your truck and shove it, I know how much you love it’’ she assures an errant spouse. And she loves the American songbook, especially its early authors, writers from an age when popular music was synonymous with sophistication.
‘‘ I was born in the wrong time,’’ she says. ‘‘ Kern and Berlin, Rodgers and Hart — I sing all of the greats.’’
At 44, (and Review rarely gets to write this) the small but perfectly performed blonde bomblet is definitely not grizzled but is definitely a veteran on the triple front threat.
Chenoweth grew up in Broken Arrow, a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the adopted daughter of two chemical engineers, ‘‘ who drove [me] to many, many hours of ballet and dance classes’’, as she often says. After singing in church choirs, she studied music and ballet at university and seemed set for a classical career — before breaking on to Broadway.
She first appeared in 1997 in the John
I KNEW MY PURPOSE WAS MUSIC AT A VERY YOUNG AGE
Kander and Fred Ebb musical Steel Pier, before stepping up to something short of stardom when she won a Tony for playing Sally in the 1999 remake of the Peanuts musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. (While she was a hit, the charming show inexplicably wasn’t.)
It was a consummate Chenoweth performance. Despite blonde curls, a pink sack for a costume and the requirement to project as a small (in age, as well as stature) girl who just happens to have a huge voice, she was all energy and enthusiasm, doing her best with what the writers gave her.
She went on to be bigger on Broadway in 2003-04, playing Glinda, the good witch of the north, in the Wizard of Oz- based musical, Wicked.
Most recently, she starred in the 2010 version of the Neil Simon (book)-Hal David and Burt Bacharach (music and lyrics) musical Promises, Promises, in which she played a woman done wrong by one man and adored by another, played by Sean Hayes (Jack from Will & Grace).
The critics were not kind, either to the musical or Chenoweth: ‘‘ the singing sparkplug’’, The New York Times called her. And many considered Katie Finneran stole the show with her duet with Hayes, A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing. The audience certainly thought so the night Review witnessed the performance. The price of the soundtrack is worth it for her gorgeous rumble of a lustful laugh.
‘‘ That show stretched me, nobody wanted to see me do Promises,’’ Chenoweth says.
Perhaps, but what she does not say is that while Hayes was hilarious in a straight version of his Will & Grace role, the show was built around her. Two Bacharach-David songs not in the original score, I Say a Little Prayer and A House is Not a Home, were added for her. And she stayed with the show for its entire eightmonth run, because that’s the sort of girl she is.
Chenoweth knows what she likes and loves to perform it.
She demonstrated a commitment as determined as it is discerning in February with her tribute to Broadway divas at New York’s Lincoln Centre. It was not a show for anybody who thinks musical theatre is all arena spectaculars about bands from the 1980s.
Instead, the song list ran from the applauded to the obscure, including Edelweiss from the The Sound of Music to that favourite of Stephen Sondheim stalwarts, Green Finch and Linnet Bird from Sweeney Todd.
And he was one of the better-known composers whose work Chenoweth chose. Her selection included shows ranging from the now obscure— Rodgers and Hart’s Jumbo, for example — to the unknown: quick, who wrote The Most Happy Fella? (All right, it was Frank Loesser.)
It demonstrated just how important this one of the two uniquely American musical art forms is to Chenoweth. (The other is jazz, which she says she ‘‘ loves to sing’’, just not very often, as far as Review can tell.)
‘‘ People make fun of musical theatre and I will not have it,’’ she says. ‘‘ I sang Maybe This Time on [television series] Glee and so many of my Twitter followers asked what it was from. They had never heard of Cabaret! I want
young people to understand who these composers are.’’
Chenoweth is equally insistent about acting, working across all styles of shows. She has had a go at comedy, with decidedly mixed results. In 2001 she starred in a six-episode flop called Kristin about, what a surprise, a girl from Oklahoma living in New York while trying to break into show business.
A decade on, another show she appeared in was the unlikely GCB (for Good Christian Bitches, until it was changed to Belles), a sort of desperate housewives in Houston, only with thicker accents, bigger hair and more malice.
For a practising Christian, it was a brave effort for Chenoweth and while the critics liked it, audiences, especially in the God-fearing south, didn’t.
In contrast, she won an Emmy in 2009 costarring as Olive Snook in Pushing Daisies, a series about a pie cook who performs miracles, but not with pastry.
It’s the same with her work on film: she picks roles she enjoys, sometimes apparently regardless of whether anybody else does.
Her sense of fun made 2005 a big year: she played Nicole Kidman’s sidekick in the brilliant Norah Ephron extension of the classic sitcom Bewitched. However, a small role in Steve Martin’s best-forgotten The Pink Panther followed the next year. Extending the triple threat to a taste for the bizarre, she has also voiced a cartoon fairy for Walt Disney and a computer-generated monkey in Space Chimps.
It gave Review the impression Chenoweth is not a woman with an inflated sense of her own importance. She told a country concert audience when she came out to sing WWDD, ‘‘ many of you don’t know who I am’’, but it did not bother her one bit.
And once she appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s show as an operatic fairy godmother, giving her host a singing lesson in a song called Breathe from your Hoo-Hoo. Yes it was a new euphemism for Review as well. It seems Chenoweth will take whatever work is going, as long as it looks like fun.
All this will come as a complete surprise to The West Wing tragics, the sort of people who make fun of musical theatre and think the 24-hour news channels are all the entertainment any one could ever need. For them, Jed Bartlet is a president of the US and Chenoweth is a political minder called Annabeth Schott.
She came to The West Wing late, starting in the sixth series in what did not look a natural role for her. Whether her one-time relationship with series creator Aaron Sorkin helped her in the part seems unlikely. The sometime cocaine consumer and political sophisticate Sorkin seems a strange match for the good-natured, God-fearing Chenoweth. Although when you look at the brilliant, bashful character Maggie in Sorkin’s recent show, Newsroom, elements of Annabeth are on show.
Still, the potential problem was that Chenoweth’s The West Wing character was just too damn nice for a show where the goodies lived to eat their political enemies alive and the baddies were Republicans.
And yet Chenoweth’s character worked and she adapted to the series’ signature of walking very fast through the White House while talking very quickly about policy.
If the craft of acting is convincing us to suspend belief, Chenoweth should have won another award, to match her Emmy and Tony. Convincingly playing a political strategist in the White House and a presidential campaign is not something a one-trick singing sparkplug pony could ever do.
Could she have failed in a very demanding role? Too right. Did she care? Not at all. Chenoweth tells Review: ‘‘ I am willing to try anything and sometimes failure comes with this. I am willing to fail because I want to succeed.’’
Perhaps it is this game-to-have-a-go attitude that is so appealing — that, and the work ethic Chenoweth says comes from her father. Plus the way she indulged Review’s affection for Sondheim.
Whatever the source of her courage, it provides her with a path and many challenges she says she is still to meet. One is a possible opera album: ‘‘ You don’t always do what sells most,’’ she says.
Others involve roles she wants to play as she grows older: ‘‘ Hello Dolly is in my future and I want to play Desiree from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.’’
And about time too, Review says, asking why she took so long to come to the composer and writer who has done most to put the theatre into the modern American musical. ‘‘ I sang him in college and struggled. I had to age to understand what a genius he is,’’ is the correct reply.
So is Sondheim in the Australian shows? Just what are we going to hear beyond ‘‘ a bit of everything’’?
Chenoweth still isn’t giving anything away, other than to tell Review what we will not get, which is songs she is sick of.
Like another of her sometime signatures, The Girl in 14G. ‘‘ I need to break from it,’’ she says, perhaps because a song about a single girl living in a noisy New York apartment reminds her of Kristin, the TV series, or Kristin, the life.
But she pauses: ‘‘ Maybe I will ask the audience what they want to hear at the end.’’ (Review reckons they will want to hear Girl, plus, if she has not already sung it, Taylor, the Latte Boy (‘‘bring me java bring me joy’’).
It says it all about Chenoweth and explains why she appeals to Australians.
Sure she will stand out here — thin and tiny, immaculately made-up, but dressed in a way that belongs in Oklahoma not Adelaide — she will not exactly fit in physically. But Chenoweth has Australian attitude in spades. She knows she has enormous talent, but does not take herself too seriously.
Once she gets serious about Sondheim she will be the perfect triple threat performer.
Clockwise from left, Kristin Chenoweth performs in New York; in her publicist’s office; and on stage again in New York