A Chat with Chenoweth
Life is good for Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth: a soaring stage career, a continued engagement, and a shot at TV stardom.
Following excellent work Off-Broadway in The Fantasticks, Dames at Sea and Scapin, Chenoweth charmed Broadway critics and audiences as the appropriately named Precious in Kander & Ebb's short-lived Steel Pier (even though, according to rumor, her part was heavily cut before the show's opening in deference to other cast members). A star turn in the Encores! production of Strike Up the Band led to her breakthrough role of Sally in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, which garnered her the kind of reviews most performers can only dream of--not to mention a Tony Award.
More recently, Chenoweth had a personal triumph in the flop Broadway comedy Epic Proportions and lit up the small screen as Lily St. Regis in Disney's TV version of Annie. Now, she's relocating to the Left Coast to co-star in her own sitcom for NBC. During a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles, she spoke with me about various aspects of her burgeoning career.
THEATERMANIA: How's your life, Kristin?
KRISTIN CHENOWETH: Busy!
TM: It's a good thing you're young and healthy.
KC: I'm exhausted. I did the Letterman show with Nathan Lane [on March 2], and I found out when I was home that night watching it that I had to fly to L.A. the next morning at 7:00. I was like, "This is not funny!" Anyway, I'm here. How's New York? I miss it.
TM: You've only been gone a few days...
KC: It feels like it's been a year! I'll be back as soon as we get this part cast.
TM: You're talking about the male lead?
KC: Yes. We've seen a lot of well-known actors. You know, you've got to get the right person. And, just like in theater, it takes awhile.
TM: The show still doesn't have a title?
KC: No. They're kicking around a couple of them, but they haven't made a decision yet.
TM: So, the concept is that you play the personal assistant to a Donald Trump-like character.
KC: Yes, only he's cute and charming. Whoops! You know what I'm saying.
TM: How did the series come about?
KC: When I signed a holding deal with Paramount, they got a writer for me. His name is John Marcus, and the show was his idea. He's amazing; he has Emmys for The Cosby Show and The Gary Shandling Show. Of course, the writing is the key. They set me up with someone who's taken the time to get to know me, so he's really writing for me. Once John brought the idea to Paramount, they loved it so much that they shopped it around before we even did a pilot, and NBC bought it for 13 episodes.
TM: Isn't that very unusual.
KC: Yes. Nathan Lane actually had the same deal, but I think it's a rare thing. I'm very grateful, because not many people get an opportunity like this. I take it very seriously. It's a big crap shoot, and I'm going to give it my all.
TM: You were so amazing in On a Clear Day.... During the show, a friend sitting next to me whispered, "Barbara who?" I'm not sure if he meant Harris or Streisand...or both.
KC: That is so sweet! I have to tell you, at first I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?" Encores! is like boot camp, because you only rehearse for a week and a half. But it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences I've had in the theater. I'd love to play Daisy Gamble in a full production of the show, if someone would get a hold of the book and fix it. It was important for me to do it at Encores! because I knew it would be a while before I got to be on stage in New York again.
TM: It must be quite a disappointment that Thoroughly Modern Millie is going forward without you.
KC: Yes. I don't know if they've cast anybody yet. The show will be done in La Jolla first, and then on Broadway. That is a hard one to swallow.
TM: So many people love your work and have lots of ideas about future vehicles for you. But in his negative review of Epic Proportions in The New York Times, Ben Brantley--who's one of your biggest fans--wrote something to the effect that the Broadway theater of today can't come up with enough high-quality shows for rising stars like you to build on their successes.
KC: I don't altogether disagree. But Epic Proportions was a new show, at least. It was sketch comedy, it was fluff, but I wish the critics could have accepted it for what it was instead of lambasting it. Still, my view on reviews is: That's their opinion and they're allowed to have it. Some people get so wound up about reviews, which cracks me up, because I'm like: "Look, they're just being paid to say what they think." That's why I don't really listen to reviews, good or bad. I just go on how I feel about my work, and what my peers say. Otherwise, you'd go nuts.
TM: You do think there should be room on Broadway for shows like Epic Proportions?
KC: I think there should be room on Broadway for everything. But I don't harbor any resentment about that show; I had a great time and I worked with some of the best comedians in New York, in my opinion.
TM: After a fallow period, the situation has improved recently in terms of new Broadway musicals. I was wondering about your perspective on that.
KC: I think it's great that there are two versions of The Wild Party to sort of tinker with our minds. I love that Contact and Swing are out there, and Kiss Me, Kate. I do wish there were even more new musicals--but what is there is wonderful. Composers like Adam Guettel and Jeanine Tesori have given us great pieces, and I can't wait to see what they come up with next.
TM: You were in the TV version of Annie, which was a huge ratings success. Did that surprise you?
KC: Not really. I think there should be more and more musicals on television, because people in Indiana and Oklahoma and Texas don't always get to come to Broadway. This is a great way to bring the shows to them, if they're done well. Rob Marshall--another theater person--did a brilliant job with Annie.
TM: How do you feel about the death of big-screen movie musicals?
KC: People have shied away from them ever since Hello, Dolly! put Fox in the hole all those years ago. The fact that there are so many theater tours also has something to do with it, but producers are basically scared of movie musicals. They think, "Will anybody go to see this? It's not Independence Day, it's not Armageddon." That's an honest fear. Still, musicals are a part of our American heritage, and movie versions are another chance for people to see things that started on Broadway. I think the success of Annie on TV is proof that musicals on film can be accepted.
TM: It was great to see your name in the credits of a screen musical, even if it was the small screen. By the way, someone asked me about the derivation of your last name, and I said I didn't have a clue.
KC: Lots of people think it must be Native American, because I'm from Oklahoma. But it's Welsh.
TM: This is a somewhat awkward question: Are you and Marc Kudisch still engaged?
KC: We are, but we have no idea when the wedding is going to be. We've been engaged for two years--my folks call us the Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell of the family. Goldie and Kurt never did get married, but I won't do that. I promise! Marc and I are both insane right now. He's busy with [the Broadway version of] The Wild Party, and I've been back and forth to L.A., so I never see him.
TM: Too bad they didn't let you do your TV series in New York.
KC: I begged, I pleaded! But it just wasn't going to happen.
TM: A lot of theater buffs are ambivalent about your TV series. They wish you the best, but they're afraid you might give up the stage if the show is a hit.