She's Riding High: An Interview with Kristin Chenoweth

By David Horiuchi

Kristin Chenoweth is a classic. A mainstay of New York's Encores concert series celebrating neglected musicals, the sparkplug soprano has chosen a similar path for her solo debut, Let Yourself Go, a charming collection of old and new songs that capture the flavor of the golden age of American popular music. But her big voice and comedic timing have also earned her key parts in new musicals, as well as straight comedy. Shortly after earning a master's degree in opera performance, the Oklahoma native won a part in an off-Broadway show and never looked back. Early roles in Kander and Ebb's dance-marathon musical Steel Pier and William Finn's A New Brain were followed by her Tony-winning role as Sally Brown in the 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and the nonmusical comedy Epic Proportions. TV audiences met her as the memorably ditzy Lily St. Regis in Disney's 1999 production of Annie, and she even became the centerpiece of the NBC sitcom Kristin!, which debuted in June 2001. Shortly before the first episode aired, she discussed her ever-busier career with's David Horiuchi. Congratulations on the recording; it's really delightful.

Kristin Chenoweth: Thank you. I had such a good time recording that kind of music. A lot of the stuff I chose wasn't exactly run-of-the-mill standards that you hear all the time, so it was interesting and fun to do something from another time. It has a real old-fashioned feel to it, but I understand some of the songs are new.

Kristin Chenoweth: Yes, I asked some of the composers that are pretty prominent here on Broadway to write songs for me in the genre so they would fit on the album. I think it is really important as an artist to promote our young talent in the composing field. So I was glad that, for example, Dick [Scanlan] and Jeanine [Tesori] wrote "The Girl in 14G" for me, which enabled me to use a lot of my different voices.

And then Ricky Ian Gordon wrote "Ordinary Guy," and then a guy who's not really on the Broadway scene, but he writes in the genre and is very well known for it out in Minneapolis, Richard Dworsky, wrote "Going to the Dance with You." Isn't it kind of a pattern in your career that you've done some classic stuff--revivals and the Encores series--but also newer works, like A New Brain and Steel Pier?

Kristin Chenoweth: Right! And even, in a way, Charlie Brown; although it was a revival, the character of Sally was not in the original production. They added that when they cast me in the show. So I feel very lucky because as an actor and as a singer, it's lovely to be able to do different things. It's great to be able to do things that have been done before and put your stamp on them, but it's also a challenge to do original work.

Steel Pier was a delight because it was John [Kander] and Fred [Ebb], and I keep telling them they've spoiled me, they've ruined it for me because it was in the beginning of my career, and they wrote an incredible operatic song for me in that show. And then A New Brain --we love Bill Finn, so it was a wonderful experience to be part of. And Charlie Brown . That composer was Andrew Lippa. Of the "other" Wild Party.

Kristin Chenoweth: That's right, exactly! And you recently did a recording of a Cole Porter show, You Never Know?

Kristin Chenoweth:

Yes, I did. About 10 years ago there was a production of it at the Pasadena Playhouse. And for 10 years those guys out there have been trying to record this album and never got it done, never got it done, never got it done. And actually, the character that I sang was originally done by Megan Mullaly from Will & Grace . And they came to me and asked me to do the album, and it was really great, because it's all the old songs that we know and love, you know--"Ridin' High" … I got to sing a really great song on there. It was a great album to be a part of. And again, it's in the same period as my album.

I seem to do a lot of work in that period, which is probably one of the aspects in my decision to make this album--Strike Up the Band , Babes in Arms , Steel Pier even. I feel like I was born in the wrong time. Did your parents play a lot of that kind of music?

Kristin Chenoweth: You know how some people just innately know things? I didn't necessarily have parents who played that kind of music, but what I did have were supportive parents who, once I heard something on the radio or heard something at someone's house and I liked it, they'd go out and get it for me.

When I was little--I'm talking 7 and 8 years old--I loved to watch reruns of The George and Gracie Show. I loved Lucille Ball. I listened to Judy Garland until you couldn't stand it anymore. Barbara Streisand's early work. And I was just really into anything Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart. I just was drawn to it! Even at a young age. And you've done some opera, too, and you teased that into your album in "The Girl in 14G."

Kristin Chenoweth: Yes! When I was in college, I got my master's degree in opera performance and was actually headed to Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia to continue postgraduate work in opera. I actually was going to be an opera singer. And then two weeks before I went to start my training at AVA, I went to New York and auditioned for a show, got one of the leads, and never really looked back. I always knew that's what I wanted to be. I'm a dancer, I'm a singer, and I'm an actor. And although I'm so appreciative of the classical training that I've had because it's allowed me to sing whatever I need or want to sing, I'm really supposed to be onstage and really performing in that venue, which is Broadway. So I think I made the right decision, I'm really happy doing what I do, and I still train operatically because I think it's important to keep that up. And I'd love to do an opera, in fact-- Die Fledermaus or even lighter opera like Candide. That's still in my repertoire and I miss it. But it's not something I want to dedicate 24 hours, seven days a week to. So you're not going to run off and become a TV star and abandon the stage?

Kristin Chenoweth: Well, I can guarantee you that I'll never, ever abandon the stage. But the TV opportunity that's come--I just felt like this was an opportunity that I should experience. We did 13 episodes, I had a great experience doing it, and if we go back into production, I will continue to miss the stage, but I will get back. I'll do Encore series, I'll do concerts. I can never be too far away from the stage or I start getting real homesick. So I'll always come back to the stage, and to New York, especially. If they'll have me. The sitcom is about an Oklahoma girl who moves to New York to be a Broadway star.

Kristin Chenoweth: Yes. And she doesn't have the luck that Kristin Chenoweth had; she has to take a real job. She's not a goody two-shoes, definitely not that, but she tries to be a good person and make the right decisions. But there's a lot of singing and dancing in the show. I'm really proud of it. About luck and your career--did winning a Tony change your life?

Kristin Chenoweth:

I'll tell you … Yeah, it did. I mean, certainly once Charlie Brown opened on Broadway, my life changed. And then the Tony just kind of pushed it over the edge. I even got the television offers because a lot of people in Hollywood had seen me accept my Tony Award, and they became interested from just that. So it was really funny to me when I went out and met with a lot of the TV people out there and producers and film people and they said, "We saw you on the Tonys." And I said, "Have you seen me onstage?" And a lot of them were like, "No, we haven't." And I was like, "Well, get your butts to Broadway!" [laughing] But how it all unfolded is pretty amazing. I know now, looking back, how lucky I was. And you were also part of the dream cast of Annie.

Kristin Chenoweth: Yes! That was such a fun shoot and to be working with Alan [Cumming], who is such a theater guy. And Kathy [Bates], too. She comes from the theater. We were just bad news, the three of us together--we didn't have a serious moment between us! We had so much fun.

I'm really proud to be a part of that production. I think that Rob Marshall and the guy who produced Annie [Craig Zadan], who are doing more and more of the musicals, are doing wonderfully at translating the musical to the TV screen. That's a hard thing to do. And you know, growing up in Oklahoma, I didn't get to come to Broadway shows. How nice it would have been to have seen those kinds of things come on TV. So it's good that we have them. How did you like working with Jason Alexander on your album?

Kristin Chenoweth: Loved it. We had met when I was on Broadway in a play called Epic Proportions . He had come to the opening and he said, "Look, I've got to work with you sometime. You're wonderful and funny, and we have a very, very similar sense of comedy."

People forget that he's from Broadway. He has a Tony Award for a musical, and he can sing and dance--he's a song and dance man! And when they said, "Who do you want on your album?" there was really no other decision or option for me; I knew that I wanted Jason. We just love each other. It's another thing where you feel like you've known someone for a long time. He made it fun in the studio. He had so many fun ideas, musically, and also for the dialogue at the top of the song. He's brilliant. I remember listening to Merrily We Roll Along a number of years ago, and I said, "Wait! This sounds like Jason Alexander."

Kristin Chenoweth: That was him! He talked about that CD, and about that show a lot, and how much fun he had. I think he misses Broadway a lot. I keep telling him, "When are you going to come to Broadway with me? Let's do something." I think we'd be great together onstage, so who knows what will happen?