Kristin Chenoweth tells Stephen Match­ett au­di­ences can ex­pect a bit of just about ev­ery­thing on her com­ing tour

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Kristin Chenoweth head­lines the open­ing week­end of the Ade­laide Cabaret Fes­ti­val on June 8-9, and then plays Melbourne, Bris­bane and Syd­ney.

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



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

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