Kristin Chenoweth: No Rest For The Wicked

Oct 11, 2019
Originally published on October 11, 2019 11:55 am

You might know Kristin Chenoweth as popular girl Glinda the Good Witch in the original cast of Wicked, the long-running musical retelling of The Wizard of Oz. You may know her from one of her numerous TV roles. Maybe you've sung along to one of her seven albums. In a conversation with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at the Cullen Performance Hall in Houston, Texas, Kristin Chenoweth shares how her operatic plans turned into an award-winning career in musical theater and television.

The classically-trained singer's road to the big stage began in 1993, when she followed a friend to New York City to try out for Animal Crackers, a musical originally starring the Marx Brothers. Despite her choice to sing a tonally-incongruous opera piece in her audition, Chenoweth landed the role. That production jump-started a career in show business going on nearly 30 years. In 1999, Chenoweth won a Tony Award for her role as Sally Brown in the 1999 Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and was nominated in 2004 for Wicked, along with her co-star, Idina Menzel. In-between her work on stage, Chenoweth appeared on The West Wing, Glee, and Pushing Daisies, where she won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Olive Snook.

Chenoweth's latest and seventh album, For The Girls, is an ode to women — the singers and songwriters that inspired her across popular music, including Barbara Streisand, Linda Rondstadt, and Dinah Washington. "Women are having such a revolution renaissance," she told Eisenberg on stage. "Though, I feel like we've always been strong — but that's another story." The album features duets with singers like Jennifer Hudson and Reba McEntire. Chenoweth described the album's origin to be somewhat accidental; she wrote down roughly 200 songs she wanted to put her own take on and realized, "a lot of them were female driven... This wasn't even on purpose, but maybe it's the universe talking."

For her Ask Me Another challenge, Kristin Chenoweth played a game called "We're Gonna Make You Sing Now," where she sang the titles of hit Broadway shows.

Interview Highlights

On getting cast in Animal Crackers:

In one of Chenoweth's first auditions in New York City, she waited outside for 8 hours, watching actors come and go. Finally, at 5 p.m., she got her chance.

"I went in, and auditioned. I sang an opera piece. Which is inappropriate for a show called Animal Crackers, about the Marx brothers. Welcome to my brain!"

The person running the audition asked her to demonstrate some more relevant skills:

"[He] said, 'Do you have something belty and up-tempo?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Can you dance?' I said, 'yes.' He said, 'Can you act?' I said, 'I don't know. Maybe. You give me the scene and we'll find out.' I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't know that was probably un-cool to say. I did the scene, and got the part. [And then] he said, 'Who's your agent?' I said, 'My dad... I don't have one.'"

On getting stuck in the Bubble while rehearsing for Broadway's Wicked:

As Glinda The Good Witch, Chenoweth entered each show from the top of the theater in a giant bubble. Chenoweth recalls a time during tech-week when she was forgotten about inside the bubble, and had to use a show-stopping technique to get someone's attention.

"One day during the rehearsal, they forgot about me. And I thought, 'They're still rehearsing... hello?' And no one heard. So I went, [sings] 'Hellooooooo?' And then I remember one of our ensemble members... kinda looked around, and then looked up and goes, 'Oh my gosh...Kristin!' And then, slowly, the bubble came down. In fact, I'm still in the bubble, I'm pretty sure."

On singing "I Will Always Love You" with Dolly Parton on Chenoweth's new album, For The Girls:

Chenoweth originally asked Dolly Parton to sing "Here You Come Again," famously performed by Parton and written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Parton had another idea for the duet.

"She said, 'If I'm gonna do it with you, I'm gonna do a song I wrote.' Smaaart. Still learning, right? She said, 'Why don't we do 'I Will Always Love You'? And I did the ugly cry, my hair extensions fell out... and then we did it. Isn't that cool? I grew up loving her, and even still, she's it."

Heard on Kristin Chenoweth: No Rest For The Wicked.

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JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia coming to you from Houston, Texas. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She's a Tony and Emmy Award-winning singer and actor. You may know her from her roles in ABC's "Pushing Daisies" and "Wicked" on Broadway. Please welcome Kristin Chenoweth.



EISENBERG: I am just so thrilled to have you on the stage, Kristin Chenoweth. I can't believe it.


CHENOWETH: I'm so honored to be here.

EISENBERG: So I read that your parents discovered that you had talent as a singer when they overheard you singing along to "Wizard of Oz." Is that true?

CHENOWETH: Can you believe it?

EISENBERG: I mean, that's like an unbelievable coincidence in so many ways.

CHENOWETH: Oz has been good to me.


EISENBERG: I just imagine as a kid, you were singing all the time to stuff.

CHENOWETH: Yes, I was. And, I mean, I come from a family of chemical engineers.


CHENOWETH: I have no idea what that even means.


CHENOWETH: But I'm sure that I was their alien child, too. And I did put on - a record is a round thing for you young audience members...


CHENOWETH: ...That we put on. And I would listen to "Wizard of Oz," and I would sing. And they were like, is it us or is she good?


EISENBERG: Yeah. You attend Oklahoma City University. You graduate with an undergrad and a master's degree in opera.

CHENOWETH: Yeah (laughter)...

EISENBERG: Yeah, it's the real deal.


CHENOWETH: ...As one does.

EISENBERG: As one does, of course - simple, simple. You go to New York with a pal...


EISENBERG: ...To an audition that you don't even have an appointment for.


EISENBERG: OK. That's all I want to say. So what happens?

CHENOWETH: First of all, I love you for knowing this.


CHENOWETH: I really do, Ophira. Yeah. My friend, Denny (ph), moved to New York, and I signed up for an audition. And I remember I waited outside for eight hours. I remember there was a McDonald's downstairs, and I went and I had a Happy Meal.


CHENOWETH: It's all I could afford, you know? And I just waited, and I watched the actors come and go out of the equity room. And he came out - the deputy - and he came out and said, we have time for you. It was 5:30. And I went in and auditioned, and I sang an opera piece, which is inappropriate for a show called "Animal Crackers" about the Marx Brothers.

EISENBERG: Marx Brothers.


CHENOWETH: Welcome to my brain. Anyway, he said, do you have something belty (ph) and up-tempo? And I said, yes. He said, can you dance? And I said, yes. He said, can you act? I said, I don't know. Maybe you give me the scene and we'll find out, you know?


CHENOWETH: I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't know that probably was uncool to say, but I did. And I did the scene and got the part. And he said, who's your agent? I said, my dad. I don't have one, you know? I gave him my number, which actually - can you believe it? - they did live, at this time, in Houston, in the woodlands.


EISENBERG: You gave him a landline? You're like, here's...

CHENOWETH: Yeah, I gave him a landline. Yeah, what does that say, again, about me? Interesting.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) I know, it's hilarious. Right. So, right, you get this role - "Animal Crackers," 1993.


EISENBERG: Now, were you like, oh, I'm going to do this musical theater comedy and then I'm going to return to opera?

CHENOWETH: Yeah. I didn't really - wasn't really sure, and I just thought, I'm a big believer in following your gut.


CHENOWETH: And my gut was saying, just go do "Animal Crackers." But I never stopped training in classical music. And I still train that way because I want to be able to do eight shows a week - Barber or whatever it is I'm going to work on - Puccini or Linda Ronstadt - just depends on my mood.



EISENBERG: It's nice that your talent allows your mood to dictate what you can do.


EISENBERG: So I moved to New York in the early 2000s, and I went to see "Wicked" in previews.


EISENBERG: I mean, I had no idea what I was doing - right? - because I was new and I was like, oh, you know, I'm going to go see "Wicked" in previews, you know? And there, it's you and Idina Menzel, and I - you know, watching this. But I will tell you because it was previews, the set broke.


EISENBERG: And it was amazing because you and Idina were just like, well, the bed's not moving there, and that's not happening.

CHENOWETH: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: And you both just were like, all right, we're going to keep going. But I read that "Wicked" had quite a few...


EISENBERG: ...Production snafus.

CHENOWETH: (Laughter) I call them snafus, yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Was there an incident where you were in the air on guy-wires?


CHENOWETH: I love you so much right now.


CHENOWETH: This - it's going down memory lane. So yeah, we were in tech...


CHENOWETH: ...Which means we were in rehearsal - 24/7 in the rehearsal, and then we would do the show at night. And we were working on the show during the day. And they said, Kristin, get in the bubble 'cause my character entered from the very top of the - in the back of the house, at that very, very top. So I would go up and say hello to the stage guys up in the rafters. I'd be like, hi, Jim. Hi, Bob. And I would continue up. And then one day during rehearsal, they forgot about me.


CHENOWETH: And I thought - I - they're still rehearsing. I was like, hello, hello, and no one heard. So I went, (singing) hello.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).


CHENOWETH: It's true. And I remember one of our ensemble members who was one of my good friends, Kathy Deitch, goes - she kind of looked around and then she looked up - she goes, oh, my gosh, Kristin. And then slowly, the bubble came down.


CHENOWETH: In fact, I'm still in the bubble, I'm pretty sure.


EISENBERG: How many years were you in "Wicked" before?

CHENOWETH: It was nine months. And I was going to stay longer, but other opportunities...


CHENOWETH: ...Came, and I knew I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities. I loved "Wicked." I was there from beginning.


CHENOWETH: And I loved the evolution of the piece. And though I was nominated and didn't win...



CHENOWETH: I'm really glad that it went the way it did because it was the right thing. And the green girl and the pink girl stood together with hands together as we still do today.


CHENOWETH: So it's good.


CHENOWETH: I love you, Idina. Wherever you are, girl, I love you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Should've been a tie.


CHENOWETH: What'd he you say? What'd you say?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It should've been a tie.

CHENOWETH: Oh (laughter).

EISENBERG: It should've been a tie.

CHENOWETH: In my mind, it was a tie, sir.


EISENBERG: And you've recorded several albums. Your most recent one - this is your sixth album, right?


EISENBERG: This new one - I guess I'm just wondering, how do you choose what collection you're doing? Or do you have, like, a list? You're like, this is what I want to do because I'm actually good at everything.


CHENOWETH: By accident, you know, women are having such a...


CHENOWETH: ...Revolution, renaissance. Though, I feel like we've always been strong, but that's another subject. I feel like - I had released a Christian album, which I loved, Christmas album, which I loved. My first record was '30s and '40s music. What do you want to do, Kristin? And sometimes when - all the loudness and you can't hear, you got to get quiet. And then all of a sudden, there was, like, an inner peace. Write down the music you want to do. And I wrote down about 200 songs.


EISENBERG: Two hundred.

CHENOWETH: I know, it's a lot. And I didn't release all those songs, did I? Thank God.


CHENOWETH: But a lot of them were female-driven. And this was not even on purpose, like what the world needs or what - but maybe it's the universe talking. And I said, I'm going to do a tribute to, like, Dolly Parton and Linda and all these singers - Lesley Gore and Doris Day and Diana Washington and all these singers that I loved. And I said, this should be called For The Women. And my record producer, Steve Tyrell, the great Steve Tyrell, said it should be called "For The Girls," by the girls, to the girls and by the men that love them. And I thought that's kind of cool, too.



CHENOWETH: So it just evolved naturally. I'm so thankful.

EISENBERG: And one of the songs - you just mentioned Dolly Parton. You got a chance...

CHENOWETH: To sing with her.

EISENBERG: ...To sing with Dolly Parton.

CHENOWETH: She said yes. She's on my record "For The Girls." And I reached out to her and I said, would you do, like, "Here You Come Again"? You know, remember that song? (Singing) Here you come again.

And I just thought, oh, I just love that, and it would be cool to do it with her. And she's like, (imitating Dolly Parton) if I'm going to do it with you, I'm going to sing a song I wrote.


CHENOWETH: Smart - still learning, right?



CHENOWETH: So I said, no, she's not going to give me that song. And she said, why don't we do "I Will Always Love You"? And I thought - I did the ugly cry.


CHENOWETH: My hair extensions fell out, and then we did it. Isn't that cool? I grew up loving her. And still, I just - she's it. Thank you.

EISENBERG: Yeah, I am pretty psyched about that.

CHENOWETH: (Laughter) Thank you.

EISENBERG: All right. Kristin, are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?





CHENOWETH: I'm nervous. I'm not going to lie.

EISENBERG: No, don't be nervous. Let's bring out Jonathan Coulton, everybody.


CHENOWETH: Hi, Jonathan.

COULTON: Hello, Kristin.

CHENOWETH: Hey (laughter).

EISENBERG: Kristin, you, Broadway - essentially one and the same.


CHENOWETH: Thank you.

EISENBERG: So your game is called We're Going To Make You Sing Now. Musicals...


EISENBERG: So musicals often have at least one song that mentions the title of the show in the lyrics. Jonathan and I are going to read the lyrics from one of those songs but stop just before the title, and all you have to do is identify the musical.

CHENOWETH: OK. I just want to say that remember my master's degrees in opera. OK, go.


EISENBERG: If you do well enough, Tim Rogers (ph) from Cedar Park, Texas, will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.


CHENOWETH: No pressure.


CHENOWETH: Tim, I'm sorry.


EISENBERG: Well, let's see how you do.


EISENBERG: Here's your first one. Let us rejoicify (ph) that goodness could subdue the...

CHENOWETH: (Singing) Let us rejoicify that goodness could subdue the wicked workings of you know who.

EISENBERG: Yes, of course.


CHENOWETH: I believe that was me.

EISENBERG: That was you.


CHENOWETH: Oh, I thought I didn't know that for sure.


CHENOWETH: (Vocalizing). There's the right key.


CHENOWETH: (Singing) Let us be grand. Let us be grateful.



COULTON: Here's your next one. All I need is one more try, got to get that kite to fly. And I'm not that kind of guy who gives up easily. Wonder why they stopped to say...

CHENOWETH: It's Charlie Brown, I know that. It's the kite, the song with the kite.

COULTON: All we need is the name of the musical, "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown." You got it.

CHENOWETH: But what's that - how does it go afterward?

COULTON: Oh, I have no idea.


COULTON: I don't really care for music.

CHENOWETH: Me too. (Singing) Memories.

I don't have one.


COULTON: What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a - yeah, that's right.

CHENOWETH: (Singing) What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.


COULTON: That's correct.


CHENOWETH: Thank you, Liza.


EISENBERG: All right. This is your last clue. Plenty of room to swing a rope. Plenty of heart and plenty of...

CHENOWETH: (Singing) Plenty of...

Sorry, Texans. (Singing) Plenty of room to swing a rope. Plenty of heart and plenty of hope. Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).


CHENOWETH: Thank you for that.

EISENBERG: Congratulations, Kristin.


EISENBERG: I feel like congratulations, us. But anyway...


EISENBERG: Congratulations, Kristin. You and listener Tim...

CHENOWETH: What did I win?

EISENBERG: You won an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube, and so did Tim Rogers.


EISENBERG: Tim Rogers won an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.


EISENBERG: Kristin will be back to play another game later in the show. Kristin Chenoweth, everybody.


EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.