Blonde Ambition

Kristin Chenoweth is always up for a challenge. This stems in part from what she calls her Friday Night Lights experience at a sports-centered high school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Performing arts like choir and drama barely existed there, so what did the consummate entertainer do? She joined the drill team to be able to perform at halftime. “I loved band but I wanted to dance,” she said, “and, you know, wear cute outfits.”

Chenoweth went on to study musical theater and opera before moving to New York to pursue her Broadway dreams, eventually fulfilled in tandem with her film and television career. The 4’11” powerhouse with the Betty Boop voice won a Tony Award in 1999 for her portrayal of Sally in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and was nominated for another in 2004 for the tailor-made role of Glinda the Good Witch in the original cast of Wicked.

Her most notable TV roles include media consultant Annabeth Schott on The West Wing, lovelorn waitress Olive Snook on the surreal dramedy Pushing Daisies (for which Chenoweth won an Emmy) and former glee club member and recovering alcoholic April Rhodes, who will return for Glee’s star-studded 100th episode in March.

Chenoweth’s laugh-out-loud memoir A Little Bit Wicked spent some time on The New York Times Best Sellers List and her four records cover everything from American Songbook standards to country, Christian and holiday songs—but the lyric coloratura soprano would like her next record to have a classical bent.

In the summer of 2012, Chenoweth was badly injured on the Brooklyn set of The Good Wife when a piece of lighting equipment knocked her to the ground. She was forced to take time off to recover but the 45-year-old is now working more than ever. She played Kirstie Alley’s overly ambitious understudy Brittany in the new TV Land series Kirstie, has four films in post-production (the indie film Hard Sell was filmed on Long Island) and is bringing her solo tour to Tilles Center this month. In between tour dates, the animated Chenoweth discussed her favorite roles, the show she’s bringing to Long Island, her distinct voice and how Jennifer Lopez encouraged her to cut her hair.

Pulse: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Kristin Chenoweth:
I love Dolly Parton, [opera singer] Renée Fleming, Barbra Streisand, [singer/comedian] Madeline Kahn and Julie Andrews. I’d have to say those are probably my top five—you can see it’s all over the map. There’s an opera singer, a country music singer, Broadway… But I love good music and if it speaks to people, people will listen to it whether it’s country, opera or rap.

Pulse: What’s been your favorite role in a Broadway production?
I love that my role as Glinda in Wicked means so much to so many people. But, by far, it’s the lead in a musical I did in 2006 called The Apple Tree. It was a limited run on Broadway with the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company and it was great because the person in this role has to play four different parts, which is a challenge for any leading lady. The composer came up to me and said, “We haven’t cast someone in 40 years to do it and now it’s you, so you’ve got to do this before you die.” I love to be challenged and I love the process of rehearsal, so it was really a special part for me.

Pulse: You were nominated for a People’s Choice Award for Favorite TV Guest Star on Glee, but which was your favorite TV character to play?
I’m going to say Pushing Daisies’ Olive Snook. It was just a two-year show but I loved her because she was sort of the underdog. Olive fell in love with a man who didn’t love her back. He loved her but he wasn’t in love with her and he loved somebody else. And I don’t know of a woman or a guy who hasn’t had that happen.

Pulse: Are you fully recovered from your accident on the set of The Good Wife?
To be honest with you, I’m still recovering. It was pretty serious [skull fracture, bruised ribs, neck and hip injuries, cracked nose and teeth]. I got hit pretty hard. I laid in bed for three months and my folks had to come in from Oklahoma to help me. That time laying in bed gave me the opportunity to really think about my life and if I was just spinning my wheels being so busy and a little bit of that answer is, “yes.” So I haven’t slowed down but I’ve been a little more specific about spending time on what I’m really passionate about.

Pulse: You’re the voice of Gabi the frog in the animated Rio 2. How did you get into voice-overs?
I didn’t really even think about it and then people were offering me jobs. That’s how people usually recognize me is when I start speaking—and that’s probably a good thing. Some say I sound like a kid, others say Marilyn Monroe or Jessica Rabbit. I got an offer to do Tinker Bell movies and then it led to different things and now I’m doing Rio 2, which comes out in April.

Pulse: And you’re working on a film with Jennifer Lopez called The Boy Next Door?
Yes. I play Jennifer’s best friend and boss, actually. It’s a thriller and I’m just so excited to be working with her because I’ve admired her as a woman who has done it all. She comes from a dance background into music, film and producing and she does it all while having a family.

Pulse: How did it feel to see your pixie haircut trending on Twitter?
That was a really scary moment. I was like, “Um, what am I doing?” When I was shooting the movie with Jennifer we started talking about my hair and she said, “You know what cut would look so cute on you?” She encouraged me… and I thought, “you only live once, hair does grow back,” and it’s great for the part that I’m doing. So I chopped it.

Pulse: What can we expect at the Tilles Center when you make your debut?
I’ll be bringing my 12-piece band to perform material from all four of my records. It’s sort of like a “something for everyone” show. I do a lot of singing and dancing with three background dancer-singer-actors. It’s not a show where I just stand there and sing. It’s a combination of everything I can do from opera, musical theater and country to originals and disco and hopefully people will be entertained.

Pulse: Will there be humor mixed in?
There better be or I’m not doing my job. I do try to have fun because if I’m having fun the audience will have fun. And I try to do songs that mean something to me. There are certain songs that I do that people want me to do from Wicked and Glee. But I also include Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein and a Donna Summer/Barbra Streisand duet. And there’ll be a couple of new songs I haven’t done yet that I’m excited to try out.

Pulse: With everything going on how do you keep connected to your roots?
I have a new charity partnership with the Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center Foundation and they dedicated a theater to me in 2012… [The program is] for kids in my town that could never afford to go to music camp or arts camp or afford to get an instrument that they wanted to play. I’m really excited about this arts program.

Pulse: Is there anything you haven’t done that you aspire to do on stage, screen or TV?
Maybe I’ll be Betty White’s age when it happens, but I’ve always wanted to host Saturday Night Live. I’d love to do it someday. It’s one of the things on my bucket list.

See Kristin Chenoweth
Tilles Center for the Performing Arts
February 7th

lisa heffernan

Lisa Heffernan received a master’s in Communications from Emerson College before moving to New York. She has worked for publications such as: Details, Nylon, Rolling Stone, Time Out, Newport Mercury, American Songwriter and W magazine.