Kristin Chenoweth Defies Expectations
Is there a Broadway performer who delivers both spark and substance with the potent wattage of Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth? A quick tour of YouTube uncovers her impressive range. For frivolity there is the wide-eyed bafflement that infuses her Ado Annie as the “Oklahoma” character in “I Cain’t Say No.” Her high-camp, costumed take on Maleficent – demonic derangement meets vamping vaudevillian – inhabits the self-defining song “Evil Like Me” from Disney’s “Descendants.”
A click away, she channels Kander and Ebb at their bleakest with “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret,” but Chenoweth transforms the song’s vulnerability and loneliness into a battle cry in the search for fulfillment. She just as easily embraces the straightforward lyricism about familial ties in the plaintive ballad “Fathers and Daughters,” elevating the sentimental to the sublime through unadorned, yet emotionally realized singing.
During a 20-minute chat leading into her upcoming appearance with a five-piece orchestra at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, her range as a person is on display. The virtues of Sonic Drive-In easily morph into advice for Broadway newcomers and then onto heartfelt ruminations about forgiveness.
Coast: Of all the questions your fans would want me to ask, I am going to annoy them by first asking you about your plastic cup.
KC: My cup?
Coast: Onstage in concert you usually have this huge plastic cup on the piano to sip from. There you are, all dressed up, with all the musicians and this cup that looks like it cost 99 cents.
KC: Yes! My Sonic Drive-In cup. When I do a concert, the hall is supposed to have a drinking cup for me, but if they don’t, I bring this along as a backup. It has been traveling around with me for at least the last year.
Coast: Why Sonic?
KC: Because I love eating there, their tater tots are great! I have a gift card for Sonic from my aunt who gave it to me for Christmas, so I am covered.
Coast: When you are in OC I know one about 15 minutes from the hall, south on the 405 freeway.
KC: That’s reassuring. A lot of states don’t have Sonic.
Coast: Speaking of you coming here, coincidentally, a touring production of “Wicked” will just have come through town. What is your best tip to actresses cast as Glinda?
KC: They have to be true to themselves, not try to imitate me or whoever else. And that is a big statement because it applies to almost any Broadway role: You have to perform as yourself, not trying to be somebody else, some other vision of it in your head. If you don’t be yourself, it never rings true, and audiences can feel that. I was lucky because when they were going to do “Wicked,” Glinda was written with me in the room, so I would sing the songs or try the scenes out for the first time, and ideas would come forward. But it doesn’t mean the role is about me – someone who sings that needs to find the character in them.
Coast: Do you have a next Broadway show lined up?
KC: Nothing to talk about now. I am touring concerts into June.
Coast: If you could play any role on Broadway right now, what would you want to do?
KC: I would love to do “Hamilton.”
Coast: Which one of the women would you be?
KC: No, I mean Hamilton, Alexander himself. I think I would look good in those pants.
Coast: Kristin Chenoweth as the lead in a history-based hip-hop musical … who would have guessed? Beyond the pants, why?
KC: It’s the show, it’s the rapping, it’s the character, it’s everything! I learned so much about American history for one thing. I didn’t know much about Aaron Burr, but I certainly learned from that show. Same thing with Thomas Jefferson. You know the names, but to see them developed in this context, it just thrilled me to see our American history in this form. If I couldn’t be Hamilton, maybe I could play the king (George III).
Coast: Jonathan Groff is really good right now as King George. No offense, King George is really tall, too.
KC: Yeah. But I think Lin-Manuel Miranda (the show’s creator who plays Alexander Hamilton) is such a genius in putting this together, and with all the diversity in the casting, it could work.
Coast: Your audience can anticipate you singing your standards, like the fun snark of “Popular” (spoiler alert: recently, she has been dedicating it to Donald Trump) or Dolly Parton’s heartfelt “Little Sparrow.” But tell us about one of the less well-known songs we might hear in Orange County, and why you choose to sing it.
KC: There’s one by Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter.” It is so important to me because it is about forgiveness. Three years ago, I was in rehearsal with my music director (Mary-Mitchell Campbell) when the Sandy Hook shootings took place. And I didn’t feel much like singing, the horror of what happened. We were talking about what America was going through, the poor little kids, and I said “I don’t think I will be able to ever forgive the person who did this.” And she said, “I know, but that is really what we are called to do, aren’t we? Forgive.” What was strange, just that morning we were considering this song, would it be right for me. It is all about forgiveness. So that’s why I sing it, to remind myself and everyone that there is salvation in forgiving.
Coast: This is a complicated issue.
KC: I am not trying to tell the world answers about gun violence. Being from Oklahoma, I hold a lot of conservative beliefs. I also have liberal ones. So, yeah, complicated. But what she said was profound to me, personally: We have to find forgiveness, no matter what we face, either something larger than ourselves or in our personal lives, when we are hurt by a stranger or someone we know. We may have to reach deep, deep, deep into ourselves to do that. But holding hatred in our hearts is not right.
March 12, 7:30 p.m. at Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 714.556.2787 :: scfta.org