Kristin Chenoweth(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Kristin Chenoweth
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Few musical theater stars shine as brightly as Kristin Chenoweth. With her dazzling blonde hair and radiant skin, the diminutive Chenoweth glows on a purely visual level. Add a killer smile, an adorably chirpy speaking voice, and a winning personality on top of all that, then stir in great acting talent and amazing singing chops, and it's no wonder that Kristin has delighted countless theatergoers since her Tony Award-winning breakthrough performance as Sally Brown in the 1999 Broadway production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Her many subsequent credits include the City Center Encores! production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, her own one-woman show "Let Yourself Go" (which she performed for Lincoln Center's American Songbook series and elsewhere), and TV movie versions of The Music Man (as Marian the Librarian) and Annie (as Lily St. Regis). She also had a recurring role on Frasier a couple of seasons ago; and she even starred in own short-lived sitcom, which won't be discussed here.

Kristin's current project is consuming all of her time and affection: She plays Glinda the Good in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, a stage musical based on the best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire that created a back story for L. Frank Baum's immortal books about the land of Oz (and also for The Wizard of Oz, the classic M-G-M movie based on the first book of the series). Co-starring in the show as Elphaba -- Maguire's name for the young woman who eventually becomes the Wicked Witch of the West -- is Idina Menzel of Rent fame. Following a pre-Broadway run in San Francisco, Wicked opens at the Gershwin Theatre on October 30. I spoke with Kristin the day after the first New York preview.

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THEATERMANIA: Wicked sounds like such a creative, fascinating project. Tell me about it.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: Well, first of all, I'm so glad to be playing this role because of the arc that's there. Glinda is not all that people think she is. She's beautiful and popular on the surface but she's very insecure, which is something that she has in common with the green one, Elphaba -- my beautiful, wonderful Idina. What I love playing is that, like so many people we know, Glinda is very complicated. She has issues!

TM: In a nutshell, she's someone who appears to have it all together but that's not necessarily true, whereas Elphaba may give the opposite impression...

KRISTIN: ...and she's the one with real talent. She has the sorcery abilities that Glinda wants. But Glinda looks good, you know? It's a prime example of people wanting what they don't have.

TM: Have you read the Gregory Maguire book?

KRISTIN: Yes, I read it before we went to San Francisco. I've been involved with this project for three years, but I really didn't want to read the book before I had a handle on how I wanted to play the part; I didn't want to have the book so much in my head that I couldn't have an original thought. There's actually one sentence in the book that summed it up for me, and I thought, "Oh, I'm on the right track here." The line is something like: "Glinda positions herself perfectly in front of the window so the sunlight can hit her curls for all to see." I thought, "There you go!" We don't follow the book exactly because we can't have a three-day show. We've kept the fantasy that Gregory Maguire wrote so beautifully and we've kept the story between the two women prominent, which is what people seem to be responding to.

Wicked women: Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, and cast(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Wicked women: Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, and cast
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
TM: I understand that Glinda and Elphaba meet as college roommates.

KRISTIN: Yes. They're prickly with each other when they first meet but then an event happens -- I can't say what -- and they become friends. Which is exactly what happened to me in college: I got a roommate and we were total opposites, but we ended up becoming very close. So I had a lot to draw on from that experience.

TM: Can you give me a brief rundown on the changes that have been made to the show since San Francisco?

KRISTIN: We have a new song for Fiyero, Norbert Leo Butz's character. By the way, I'm in love with Norbert; I'd never worked with him before, but he's so talented. There are slight changes in the opening that no one would notice. Mainly, it's the new song and a couple of new scenes. We still have some work to do as far as tightening the pace, but all the elements are there.

TM: Word is that people in San Francisco really enjoyed it.

KRISTIN: They went nuts! I mean, they leapt to their feet so fast at the end of the show. Last night was our first preview in New York, and the same thing happened. It makes me feel like we're where we should be.

TM: You mentioned Idina Menzel earlier. Maybe you could talk about her a little more.

KRISTIN: Again, we're very different, but just getting on stage with her and going through this journey every night is a joy. She is so much fun to be with and people really seem to be responding to our chemistry.

TM: Did you two know each other prior to this show?

KRISTIN: Not really. I had met her once, I think, but I didn't know her well at all. We did the first reading of Wicked together about a year and a half ago, and here we are!

TM: Well, we can't wait to see it. It sounds so exciting.

KRISTIN: It's good, I think. I'm knocking on wood here. It's a wonderful thing to be able to come back to Broadway in a show like this.

TM: You're still set to do Candide with the New York Philharmonic in the spring?

KRISTIN: Yes. I can't wait!

TM: Cunegonde is such a great part for you. You've sung "Glitter and Be Gay" many times in concert but it will be great to hear you do the entire role.

KRISTIN: I'm so excited. I actually did it in college [at Oklahoma City University] and it's probably the thing I'm most proud of in my career. One of my biggest regrets in life is that I didn't get to meet Leonard Bernstein. "Glitter and Be Gay" is hard -- and, of course, I'm the idiot who did it at the end of my concerts after two hours of singing! But you're in such good vocal shape when you do concert work. The thing about Wicked is that I'm all over the map vocally -- coloratura soprano, belting, pop.

TM: People are assuming that you'll take a week or so off from the show in order to do Candide.

KRISTIN: Yes, that's right. And the following spring, after I'm done with Wicked, I'm going to do a new opera with Placido Domingo. It's based on Alice in Wonderland, it's being written for me to do with the L.A. Opera, and [Domingo] will be playing the Mad Hatter. I don't want to limit myself. I want to do musical theater and I want to do opera. I want to do it all! But Wicked is so special because of the message. There are some great, funny moments but it's a very dramatic piece for me. It wipes me out. I'm probably not going to have much of a life during the run, which I don't anyway. I'm pretty much a loser. I don't do anything.

TM: Oh, come now.

KRISTIN: I'm serious! I don't go out. I'm so not fun.

If you knew Glinda: Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked(Photo © Joan Marcus)
If you knew Glinda: Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
TM: Are you single at the moment?

KRISTIN: I'm dating someone. I'm just taking it one day at a time. Emotionally, this show is gonna be a real killer every night. But I love it.

TM: Do you prefer doing new shows to revivals?

KRISTIN: Not necesarily. As you can tell from résumé, I've done mainly new things because it's fun and unique and you get to create a role. There are rumors of [a stage musical version of] Young Frankenstein, which I've been approached about. But I'd love to do My Fair Lady because I'd really like to do a new take on Eliza. I've seen her played with just a smudge on her face at the beginning and then, all of a sudden she's beautiful. I'd really like to play her with bad teeth and all that.

TM: Maybe you could get Sam Mendes to direct it.

KRISTIN: Yes, that would make me happy! It's a great part.

TM: Well, I hope someone casts you in it.

KRISTIN: They'd better hurry up. I don't want to get too old!

TM: It's interesting: When you first made a splash, I thought that you might be somewhat limited in the roles you could play because of your size, your speaking voice, and so on. But your name continually comes up for so many projects. Even if we just look at this season's musicals, I could see you as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors or Eileen in Wonderful Town. Just an observation.

KRISTIN: That's a wonderful observation, and I appreciate it. I think it's great to not be typecast. That's one of the reasons why I really wanted to do Marian in The Music Man, On a Clear Day for Encores! and some concert work. All of it was very different. In the case of Wicked, I took the job for the acting. I don't really sing all that much in the show, believe it or not.

TM: But the story sounds so wonderful. Would you say that it's appropriate for kids?

KRISTIN: Not if they've very young. Older children might get a little scared, but as long as they're with their parents, they should be fine. And the message of the show is very appropriate for kids: "Don't judge a book by its cover."