NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth.
She may have to introduce her character's name on stage, but Kristin Chenoweth needs no introduction on Broadway. She's in constant demand, has won a Tony award, and is currently playing to packed houses as Glinda the Good in the musical “Wicked.”
A big talent in a small package, a small town kid who's made it in the big city.
“It still kind of mystifies me, this city, but I feel like a New Yorker,” she says. “This is my home. I still have a lot of family in Oklahoma and Texas, so when I go home is when I really realize that things have changed for me. I'll be on line at McDonald's and hear, ÎHow you doin'? What would you like? And I'm like, ÎFor you to hurry and get my hamburger.’ Then I remember that I’m not in New York, I’m in Oklahoma.”
It's the age-old New York story: out of towner comes here to pursue a dream. They've come from all over America and the world, but not many have made the journey from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
“It was hard for me when I first moved here,” Chenoweth says. “I come from a town where everyone says hello to everyone on the street. I walk down the street in New York and say, ÎHi, how are you today? Good to meet you.’ And everybody was like, ÎFreak.’ I remember on 72nd Street and Broadway going into a bakery and saying, ÎI would like a nish’. And they're like, ÎJoe come here...say it again.’ I would be like, ÎA nish.’ You have to understand, I grew up in the Bible Belt - Oklahoma, small town - and it was a huge transition for me."
She made the transition beautifully, culminating in the ultimate symbol of Broadway success, a Tony, for her role as Sally in "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown."
“I think what the award means to me is that what I've set out to do, somebody acknowledged, ÎWe got what it is she was trying to do here,’” she says. “But it's not why I am in the business. Unfortunately, sometimes actors get a little sidetracked into thinking it's got to be about a review or reward. I'm proud to have it."
Chenoweth's resume includes Broadway shows, television movies, a short lived sitcom, CD's and concerts around the country. But there's an inherent pull between her small town values and the necessities of the business.
“Finally I realized it's OK to have help, it’s OK to have people in your life who you pay to help you run your life,” she says. “I had to wrestle with that, because I said, ÎI can do it myself. I'm not that hoity toity. I'm not that big of a deal - I can do my own work.’ What happens is you say yes to everything, and then you can't do anything."
One thing that has not changed in the journey from Oklahoma to New York? Her faith.
“I pray every night before I go on stage just to kind of keep that channel open between me and God, because I feel like he's guided my life so far,” she says. “It hasn't always been easy. It's been rough a lot of times. That is the one thing I have that I rely on, and it’s just a part of who I am.”
Chenoweth doesn't sing much when she doesn't have to, understandably, though she does take a weekly voice lesson. You will find her at her beloved piano, and she's a reader. Biographies, Shakespeare, poetry, and an interesting fascination with forensics, DNA, and why people murder? Really?
“I know, it's a bizarre thing,” she says. “I would love to be an FBI person if I were not a performer. [Can I work that into a musical theater form?] ÎCSI: The Musical.’ Who needs Marge Helgenberger?”
But mostly there's work, and plenty of it - not something to complain about in the acting world. But with success comes sacrifice.
“There have been times when family members were sick, and I was performing at the Kennedy Center,” she says. “There's been holidays when it would have been great for me to be home with a new baby or somebody who is not going to be with me next year, but I’ve had a show.”
Chenoweth is living the Broadway life right now. The girl from Oklahoma grew up loving music, even though her parents - an engineer and a nurse - couldn't carry a tune.
“They found out pretty quickly that I had relative pitch, close to perfect pitch,” she says. “I would lay in bed at night and sing myself to sleep and they would say, ÎIs it us, or is she good? How do we help this kid?’"
They were there to help her right from the start. Chenoweth's parents adopted her at birth.
“The thing that I am most happy about is that they never hid it from me,” she says. “I have always known about being adopted and what it meant, which was, I was chosen. They always said, ÎWe chose you to be our daughter.’”
As a child, Chenoweth was already performing for thousands at Baptist conventions.
“I think when you're 12 and you get up in front of 12,000 people, and it's just you, you learn real quick how to use the mike and how to listen to the music,” she says. “Because it's just you. If you mess up, it's just you. So I learned quickly how to handle the pressure of being a singer.”
Chenoweth went to Oklahoma State University, earning a bachelor's degree in musical theater and a master's degree in opera performance.
Two weeks before she was scheduled to start at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, she came to New York to help a friend move, and decided to go to an audition.
“They said, ÎIf there's time, we'll see you.’ Well, they forgot and at the end of the day, the monitor guy walked out and said, ÎOh no, you're still here?’ I said, ’I'm still here,’” she says. “I had my little dress from Oklahoma on, and ready to go."
She sang two songs, danced and read a bit. The director offered her the part on the spot, and some advice.
“[He said], ÎYou're so different and special and fresh that I think you need to seriously consider what you're doing with your career,’” she says. “Of course, my jaw dropped. He said, ÎWe're going to be calling your dad. Are you a member of equity?’ And I said, ÎNo, [I’m] not a member of the union.’”
So she began her New York odyssey in 1994 with a job, and the obligatory small apartment with numerous roommates.
“I paid $$300 a month to live with five people,” she says. “It wasn't fun, and yet it was fun. It was some of the best memories."
Ten years have passed, and the Oklahoma girl is now a woman of New York. Cosmopolitan magazine recently gave Chenoweth a 2004 Fun Fearless Female award, and called her a
Is she indeed a Broadway Babe?
“I don't know. What do you think?” she asked me.
There's no good answer here. That answer leads to all sorts of trouble.
The ties to her native Oklahoma were particularly strong after September 11th, because Chenoweth was in Oklahoma City during the federal building bombing in 1995.
“It was just a reminder of what we as a state had been through in Oklahoma on a much larger scale,” she says. “It brought back a lot of memories.”
After 9/11, Chenoweth was quoted as saying that the tragedy made her want to be not just a better person, but also a better artist.
“So many people in our business after 9/11 were like, ÎWhy are we in this? What's it all for? We're just entertaining people.’ Exactly. That's exactly right,” she says. “I can’t do brain surgery, but I can do that, and there are a lot of people who appreciate what I do. I almost took it like, ÎI'm up to the task. I'm ready to go. I want to do another play, something on stage,’ because that is healing for me and hopefully healing for the people watching.”
Today, as her star continues to rise, Kristin Chenoweth is preparing not only for her role in “Wicked,” but for upcoming films, television and concerts. But she will likely always come back to the Broadway stage.
“There is nothing like live theater,” she says. “It’s definitely where I feel most at home. It feels like getting in an old robe, for me - just comfortable and most at home.”
- Budd Mishkin