Q&A: Kristin Chenoweth on the Lessons Learned Along the Way
It was just over a year ago I had the opportunity to interview Kristin Chenoweth in advance of her concert at Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina. Like many journalists, I record all of my interviews to listen back to, transcribe, and even archive for my own records. And this one was no different. The only difference here was that Chenoweth was the biggest celebrity I had interviewed to date, and I was really nervous. I quite literally was shaking as I sat at my kitchen table awaiting her call, feverishly reviewing my notes, and praying the interview would happen, which I wasn’t convinced it would. I hoped that I didn’t sound too stupid or fangirl over her too much and that I could maintain some iota of professionalism. But when she got on the phone, all my worries melted away. I found her to be charming, humble, and so down to earth, and this interview became one of my most memorable. Here is the entire transcript of our conversation.
RDU on Stage: I kind of want to know how does a girl raised by two mechanical engineers in Oklahoma make the journey from Oklahoma to Broadway to Hollywood? How does that happen?
Kristin Chenoweth: You know I’m a big believer in God and I think that’s the only way that could happen for me and on paper, Lauren, there’s no way it should have happened. How I got there, I have no idea. I only ever wanted to be in the chorus of a Broadway show, and when I got to New York I came to understand that I’m never probably getting in the chorus usually because of my height and I was just devastated. You know, I thought I’m never going to make it. But what happened is they put me in a little separate grouping of actors that speak and it just … it kind of started that way, and I followed my heart. I was going to be an opera singer and go do that. It just changed, and I listened to my gut. So, I think that, in combination with parents that support you and love you, which must have scared the crap out of them, right? Here they have this child who doesn’t seem to be like us in any way. They said, ‘We want you to follow your heart.’ And I’d gotten a music degree and music theater degree and opera masters, and they just said, ‘Go for it, if it’s what you want to do, go for it, give yourself a plan and don’t be afraid to do any other job.’ And those were my parents. So, I had a leg up. I had parents who very much believed in me and so that makes it a little different and a little bit easier for a kid to follow their path. If I would have had parents that said ‘no’ or ‘that’s not wise’ or ‘you should be a teacher,’ I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t know. I’ve had kids that come to my camp [K.C. Broadway Bootcamp] and say, ‘My mom and dad don’t even want me to be here.’ That always obviously breaks my heart. I was lucky. So, the combo of working hard at it, honing and perfecting my craft, which I still do, and my parents saying we support you. I think that’s how it happened.
RDU on Stage: I’m so happy to hear that about your parents. I think … you know I have two kids and I think it’s really important to support their dreams even if their dreams seem a little out there or crazy or foreign I think it’s important.
Kristin Chenoweth: Absolutely!
RDU on Stage: One of the things that impressed me on your website and about the K.C. Boot Camp is you are constantly giving back. You definitely seem like a giver. Does that come from your faith? Why is it so important for you to give back?
Kristin Chenoweth: I don’t know. Stephen Sondheim wrote this song ‘You Have to be Carefully Taught’. It goes back to again my folks and how I was raised. It was always like, ‘if you get something, you give something in return right away.’ And it was even taught to me, which was confusing to me sometimes when I was young, ‘if you have nothing, give.’ And I was like, but how? What? And really what they were teaching me is you’ll find out what a blessing it is. So, my favorite thing is to continue a full circle of giving.
RDU on Stage: Do you have a favorite role and then conversely is there a role you haven’t played that you’re just dying to play?
Kristin Chenoweth: Hmmm … you know I get asked these, what are my favorite roles and it’s impossible for me. Impossible. Every one of them has taught me something. I really also look at the roles I’ve played in television and movies the same as I have on Broadway because to me they’re all characters. I don’t really break it down. I mean, I love ‘Candide’ so much, I think mainly because I love Leonard Bernstein. He’s my favorite composer. I also love what he did in his life, which was to continue to give back, as well, starting with the Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. So, he was kind of the example to a lot of us. My biggest regret is I never got to meet him. As far as the role I’m most looking forward to, of course there’s the ‘Mames’ and ‘Hello Dollys’ of the world and even ‘Gypsy,’ but I think my part that I will do next has not been written yet, and I don’t even know what I mean. I have my hands in a couple of pies for creating some new work, and I’m probably most excited about that. There’s the story about Tammy Faye Bakker that I’m excited to tell. Also, there’s a movie from the 80s that starred Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, it’s called ‘Death Becomes Her,’ and I’m attached to that as well, so these are two that are kind of where I’m headed, I think. Not that I don’t want to play ‘Dolly’ and ‘Mame’ and ‘Gypsy.’ I want to play those, but I’m looking at ‘A Little Night Music’ and the role of Desiree in a way that I haven’t before, so that might be more exciting to me than ‘Hello Dolly,’ even though ‘Hello Dolly’ is a right of passage. You know I’m going to do it one day somewhere. But I just think, I don’t know, I don’t even know what I’m saying, I just know, Lauren, I don’t think I’ve done my best thing yet maybe and I think it’s being written now.
RDU on Stage: Well that gives me goosebumps because I think you’re pretty fabulous, so I can’t wait to see what’s in store. So, you mentioned television, you mentioned the movies, do you have a favorite medium? I know you’re doing ‘Trial a& Error.’ Do you have a favorite medium?
Kristin Chenoweth: Well I do really enjoy the concert work because I get to sing what I want to sing and I have my reasons as to why. I enjoy taking the audience on a ride. The reason I love shows like ‘Trial & Error.’ They are a very unique voice. It’s in Mel Brook’s territory. So, of course, I’m going to understand that planet. So, I feel like it’s an honor that I got to do such a, oh there’s all kinds of words attached to it, zany, odd ball, quirky, this is real tough stuff you do in this world for television because it’s dialed up, but it’s dialed down and I do enjoy walking that line on TV it, you know, finding that balance. That’s a very big challenge. Now of course I’m always going to like live – my theater, my DNA. So, I didn’t really answer the question, did I?
RDU on Stage: No, but I love it because it’s kind of, you know, it sounds like it’s all challenging and it’s all work you love which is fantastic. Let’s talk about the concerts. These are kind of billed as an intimate evening with Kristen Chenoweth. What can audiences expect? What genre music are you going to sing? Hopefully we’re going to hear some of our favorites.
Kristin Chenoweth: Well, one of the things I love to do on concert tours, I never give one town the same. The show is never the same. There’s always something new I’ve put in it and live with it for a second to see if it’s going to fit. That’s really fun to me as an artist to get to do that. I’m really living in the world of Don Henley lately and of course Dolly Parton, that’s my favorite. So, there will be some Don Henley and Dolly Parton, new stuff, not stuff I’ve done before. You’ll hear ‘Popular,’ but maybe not in the way you think. I always look for new ways to sing it. As artists we should be so lucky in our lifetime to have a song that’s attached to us, and I have a couple of them, so I’m going to sing ‘Popular.’ I’m going to give people what they want to hear. I’m always going to do that, and I’m saying I’m grateful for it, so thank you Stephen Schwart,z and I will continue to do it until the day I draw my last breath, but it just might not be as Glinda. It might be about somebody or maybe in a different language. I’ve done them all. I’ve constantly playing with ‘Popular,’ it’s so fun. I love, love, love to sometimes invite a local singer to come and sing with me that I never have met. It’s a selfish thing. It makes me happy. So, I think people can expect a little bit of everything which with my taste that seems about right.
RDU on Stage: That kind of leads me to my next question. You sing every genre of music. I’ve heard country from you, I’ve heard gospel, I’ve heard the American Song Book, I’ve heard, obviously, Broadway. Is there a favorite or do you just love it all?
Kristin Chenoweth: It’s interesting. What comes most naturally to me is operetta soprano, but what is my heart is country music. Isn’t that interesting? What comes most naturally to me when I open my mouth and sing is that, you know, soprano, operatic training that I had when I was a little kid. I didn’t have training, but I had this voice and my parents didn’t know how to help me. They didn’t know what to do with it. They took me to the university where I took piano and they let my piano teacher hear me sing, and she was like, ‘Uh, I need to get the voice staff in here.’ So, I come back another day and they – I was young, I want to say 12 – and I sang some like art song that I had heard off of a record that nobody new, I mean they all knew it. So, they call my parents up, I have this prodigy voice, and that I should start with a good teacher. One lady, I wish I could remember who it was, and my parents and I talked about it, and said, ‘No, I don’t think she should start voice lessons, I think she should develop naturally so she doesn’t develop bad habits that then when we get her we have to undo.’ And as a 12-year-old that rang true for me. I wanted lessons bad, but when she said that I was like hmm, I think she might be right, and I didn’t do it. I just sang in my choir, did drama, was a cheerleader, you know, student council, the normal kid stuff, and then when I went to OCU, I did audition for one school because of one teacher that I had became aware of, then my life changed. My voice opened up, and there was a lot less of bad technique. You want I’m saying?
RDU on Stage: So, you weren’t really a musical theater kid per se? You just were in the choir?
Kristin Chenoweth: I was in choir, and well when I say choir, I should say madrigal. They didn’t have enough kids to have a choir in Broken Arrow. I did vocal contests, I did piano lessons. I loved, loved going to piano. I loved honing that skill, and I think it helps my ear a lot. But yeah, I was not a musical theater kid. I auditioned for whatever play or musical, but I sang in church and I loved all kinds of music. There’s a little bit of me in all my songs. I’m sure you can tell.
RDU on Stage: Well, I’m a huge fan, and what made me even a bigger fan of yours is, two years ago you were flying from Washington, D.C. to North Carolina to do a concert, and my daughter who was 13 at the time, who loves you, we were on that flight. And my daughter said to me, ‘Can I go up to her? Can I talk to her?’ And I said, ‘You know I think she’s kind of in the zone. She seems kind of busy, just leave her alone. Sometimes people just don’t want to be harassed or bothered.’ So as we were getting on the plane, my daughter leaned over to you and said, ‘We love you,’ and you were so sweet to her, and I thought, ‘Okay, now Kristen, I love you even more.’
Kristin Chenoweth: Oh, thank you for telling me that story! I love it! If I can be of any inspiration at all to the younger generation and after that and after that and after that, then I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. So you tell her I said thank you.
RDU on Stage: I will tell her. I know Stephen Schwartz didn’t set out to write Wicked and say, ‘I’m going to read to all the young people in the world who feel like an outcast,’ but that’s certainly what it turned into. At least for my children, they could identify with so much of the play because there have been so many times they felt like outcasts, so you must get that from a lot of young people, that they just really connect to you, not just because of Wicked because obviously since then you’ve done so much, but I feel like that role cemented your place in all young people’s hearts.
Kristin Chenoweth: Oh God that’s … I wanted it, I prayed for it. Remember, I had won a Tony for a show that closed the next day, so I wanted a show that people would have heard of. I actually specifically prayed for it, and then ‘Wicked’ happened. And there is a misconception here about me that I was just Miss Popular, and everything was beautiful and flowers and rainbows and unicorns for me growing up. That I was Glinda, there’s that misconception. I was actually more, believe it or not, like Elphaba. And I think that’s why I was able to play Glinda and give her an arc of growth because sometimes people start out not so good and then change, and that was what I became very interested in bringing out with her. And the fact that generations everywhere … I mean ‘Wicked’ is still such a juggernaut, and I didn’t know, but I kind of knew. I thought, ‘This is it,’ and it became it. Oh, I’m so appreciative of your words. There was a time I couldn’t even enjoy the moment because I was so in it and busy and in it. Now I will tell your daughter, and all the kids, that no matter what they choose to do with their life, enjoy the moment, if they can, try to be in the moment. That’s a lesson that I have learned, and I’m really enjoying moments as they come now.
Chenoweth’s seventh album, For the Girls, is scheduled for release September 27th. For more information on Chenoweth, her upcoming concerts, and the album, visit: https://www.officialkristinchenoweth.com/. Click here to listen to my podcast interview with Chenoweth featuring three tracks from the upcoming album.