Worth The Risk Kristin Chenoweth On Weighty Decisions, Adoption, Community and Contagious Enthusiasm
Think of somebody that you would use the word dynamo to describe. Yes — a go-getter, livewire, extrovert, friendly and social. Kristin Chenoweth is all that and more. She’s also an actress, singer and dancer winning a Tony Award for her performance as Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown on Broadway. In 2003, she received wide notice for originating the role of Glinda in the musical Wicked, including a nomination for another Tony. She’s appeared in numerous television shows and movies, and while she might stand at only four feet, eleven inches, she’s accomplished some big goals. This November she will be part of the incredible ensemble voice cast to bring Sony Pictures Animation’s The Star to theatres. The film about the first Christmas is told through the perspective of the donkey and his animal friends who become accidental heroes in the greatest story ever told. Risen caught up with the multi-talented Chenoweth to talk about her career, upbringing, faith and the annual Broadway Bootcamp she started that gives students the chance to learn directly from legendary performers.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You grew up in Oklahoma doing school plays and singing. When did you recognize that you were gifted with an incredible voice and a talent to perform?
Kristin Chenoweth: I’m not sure I’ve actually realized that yet. For sure, my first experience was at church. I was actually selected to sing a solo. I went to try out for a solo (at eight years old) with the adult choir, which says a lot about me. I just wanted the opportunity to sing and see what happened. I got a solo and I sang in front of the church. I still remember the song. It was called, I’m Only Four Foot Eleven, but I’m Going to Heaven. I sang it and I remember seeing the reaction of the audience [when they heard my voice], but more important, as I sang the song, I remember feeling that I was so grateful to sing about my faith. I thought, “It’s a good thing I believe what I’m singing.” It made me feel so good and like I was doing the right thing. That began my love affair with, not just performing and singing, but singing about what I believe in.
RM: So, you were in church singing about what you believed in, but how did your foundation for faith develop? How did it grow?
KC: Growing up in Oklahoma, my mom and dad were regular church goers and I was Southern Baptist. I’m really grateful for that background though I would consider myself more of liberal Christian now. There’s not any doubt about that. I’m glad for the foundation faith helped give me. When I say that, what I really mean is a sense of community with people who would do anything for each other. That really goes a long way with me. I think it really stuck with me my whole life because [it is] how you want to be to others or what kind of an artist you want to be. We should really be there for fellow performers. If you’re the leader of the concert, or the leader of the band, how are you going to lead? How are you going to be a voice member? How are you going to be a background actor? How are you going to behave and what do you want to show; how do you want to be their model? These are things that have been ingrained in me since I can remember. I never thought about being famous. I just wanted to be really, really good at what I did. In fact, that’s still my dream.
When I say that, what I really mean is a sense of community with people who would do anything for each other.
RM: Speaking of your family, I love that you’ve been open about being adopted. As a baby, you were just days old when you became part of the Chenoweth family. At what stage of your life were you made aware of this, and how did that knowledge affect you?
KC: I guess a lot of parents decide differently on how they’re going to handle the subject of adoption. For my family, what they did, was they always told me, so I always knew. They said, “You were chosen. Another lady had you in her belly but she couldn’t take care of you and she wanted to give us a gift and we got you.” That’s what I always remember and how it was taught to me. It’s what I firmly believe to this day, that adoption is such a great option for somebody who can’t take care of her child. We have many children in our own country, not even to mention in the world; they need love. Anyone can make a baby, but to be a parent is a different deal. I am so very lucky that my birth mother decided to give me a chance when she didn’t think she could do it herself. Then I got the best parents in the world, or I should say the right parents for me. The idea of being chosen was a good way to understand it at a young age.
RM: Even now reflecting on it, do you ever think that God hand-picked those parents to raise you, with your family that surrounds you, because He knew who you were going to become and you needed that exact upbringing to be able to handle the spotlight and the gifts that you’ve been given?
KC: Well now that you brought it up. [Laughter] Yes, one hundred percent. I think that we live in a very cynical world and not everybody can accept that there’s something bigger than us. Of course for me, it’s the Lord and Jesus. To other people it’s other things. I definitely believe that God had His hand on who actually birthed me, and then who raised me. That’s a miracle in and of itself. It’s a miracle and I’m grateful for it. I think that’s probably why I easily believe in miracles anyway because I’ve seen it in my own life. Very prevalent, very strongly. It’s really what I believe and it’s what I’ve seen to be true in other people’s lives too.
RM: I read that in 1993 you had a scholarship to Philadelphia’s Academy of Arts, but you went to New York City “on a whim” and got cast in the first show you auditioned for. What went into the decision to accept the role at the time and not take the scholarship? Did you understand the weight that decision would carry?
KC: I speak directly to my younger fans who are reading this, you don’t know what you don’t know. Though I knew it was weighty, I didn’t really know what a big decision it was at the time. But I knew in my heart it was one that carried a lot of weight. I think we’re all born with an inner voice, but who is that inner voice? For me, I believe it’s the Lord. That’s God talking. I believe that we’ve got to hone our listening skills and I was really listening at that point. I thought, “Do you want to be an opera singer?” Then no ifs, ands, or buts, take this incredible opportunity that lays before you that nobody from my home state had ever been given. Or, “Do you want to take a risk and get $400 a week, your equity card, have four roommates, and have it be for a three-month run. What do you want to do?” Every time I thought about it, what I couldn’t get rid of was this show – it was a Marx Brothers musical called Animal Crackers and I kept [getting a] feeling. Every time I heard the name of the show, bells and rainbows, and everything went off in my head. I thought, I have to listen to that.
I had been trained operatically and was very successful while at OCU [Oklahoma City University] and won vocal competitions and all that stuff but, first and foremost, I was always an actor. It began as a young child with learning everything I could. That really helped me decide. I just knew that there would be a place for me in theater in a bigger way. So, I listened to that inner voice, God, and I went with it. Nobody told me, “You made the right decision.” In fact, I think behind my back, people were scared for me and they thought I was making the wrong decision. I was willing to risk it all. When you’re young, the good news about being young is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You have less fear.
I had done a couple of readings, workshop versions of Wicked, and I didn’t know if it would be a hit, but I knew it was worth the risk.
RM: Fortunately for you, only a handful of years later in 1999, you ended up with your first Tony Award for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I’m sure fans have different roles at which they were first introduced to you, but I’ve got to believe that Glinda (the Good Witch) in Wicked has got to top the list. The musical was so original and fun, and of course you and Idina Menzel as Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) were just flawless. Going back to hearing that inner voice, did you know it would be a hit when you were reading the script or did the success kind of take you by surprise?
KC: I think for me, it seems to be in my career and in life, it feels like I always have big decisions that happen at once. I remember I had been offered a role in The West Wing at the same time. I had done a couple of readings, workshop versions of Wicked, and I didn’t know if it would be a hit, but I knew it was worth the risk.
I will say that when Wicked happened, I knew it was a weighty decision. I also knew that I had won a Tony for Charlie Brown and the show was closing the next day. I wanted that; I wanted that Phantom of the Opera; I wanted to be in a show that people had heard of… I thought Wicked could be it. I wasn’t sure. Then, I said yes. We went to San Francisco and I remember telling Idina that it wasn’t going to matter what the critics said about our show, the people would speak. They spoke loudly then, and they spoke loudly when we opened on Broadway. Wicked runs today, almost 14 years later. That was a good decision. I can say that it was a good decision.
RM: Your career is much more than just theater. You’ve done TV, movies, you have albums, you’ve written a book, you have a Barbie doll, and this November you’ll lend your voice to The Star. What can you share about this animated film about the first Christmas?
KC: I have done some really cool projects over the past twenty years that I’m very proud to have lent my name to. The reason I wanted to do it was because it’s not very often that I get to lend my name to, my faith, if you will. Let’s just be honest, American Gods is very different from the animated movie we’re talking about. I think for me to get to be in something that talks about Christmas in the way in which I believe, which is the birth of Christ, told through the viewpoint of the animals that were there and present, it’s something that you don’t really think about. You think about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem on that donkey, but no one ever talks about the donkey. I love animals and it just seemed like, “wow this is me.” It didn’t take me long to say yes.
RM: I love the fresh take on a favorite story. Why do you feel it is important to share biblical stories in a way that both kids and adults can not only understand them, but also enjoy?
KC: It’s important because there are very few things that people today can sit down and watch, and enjoy, together as a family or as a community. That’s not saying this is just for people of Christian faith. This is for people who have any faith. It’s a story of a community. I keep saying that word in this interview. I think a sense of community is a disappearing act in today’s world because we’re on our phones, devices, and computers and you don’t need a group for that [it’s largely individual]. You need yourself. Even if you need a group, you never see their face. You don’t interact really. I think that community, that sense of family, sense of being there for each other, that sense of experiencing something together, is a message that I like. That it’s amazing when we band together, what we can achieve. That to me is the biggest message. It’s one of, love thy neighbor, which is what Jesus’ big message was, and is, today. Treat others as you want to be treated. Be there for each other. This is one that I hope will inspire people of all faiths.
RM: What is one of your favorite Christmas traditions? How does holiday time look for your family?
KC: One thing that has changed for me as an adult is that I usually work over the holidays. Think about an artist – Christmas concerts, New Year’s Eve concerts, Easter concerts – it’s a sacrifice that’s been worth it, but a sacrifice, nonetheless. So it means oftentimes that my family has to come to me. Something that’s really hasn’t changed very much over the years is that either Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day, we find ourselves at a church at some point. When I was a young child, my mom had a ceramic Christmas Tree that she made and each twig of the tree was a candle. On Christmas Eve, we would read the story of Jesus’ birth out of the Bible and then we would light a candle. We would go around in our family and we would light a candle and say the thing that we were most thankful for. That probably remains my favorite tradition because even the men in the family always would get a little emotional. I don’t come from a family of criers, except for me. I’m the emotional one, but the men certainly don’t. That’s a tradition that brings everyone a little tear. It’s amazing how humbling it is to say what you’re thankful for, we should actually do this every day.
I was willing torisk it all. When you’re young, the good news about being young is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You have less fear.
RM: It seems like your priorities are definitely in check. The idea of service and giving back is nothing new to you. I’d love it if you’d talk a little bit about your arts and education foundation that you have with Broken Arrow and the vision for how you’re hoping to impact lives.
KC: Thank you for asking. That’s probably the biggest, most important question for me personally that I can answer. A few years ago, we finally opened a performing arts center in my town, which isn’t very big. They named the theater aspect of it the Chenoweth Theater. At first, I was just horrified cause I thought, I can’t have anything named after me. I’m not old enough. Apparently I am. [Laughter] Then when you see your name on something and you see your dad’s name, and your grandpa’s name on a building, no matter the size of the town, you wonder how you’re going to leave your mark. I thought, “Well, I could just come there and sing once or twice a year but I wanted to make a larger impact.” I’ve watched other artists through the years and how they changed the world for the better and I thought, that’s what I want to do. I want to influence young people who were like me growing up in Broken Arrow.
Three years ago we started looking at a Kristin Chenoweth Broadway Bootcamp. This will be our third summer. The first time you are taking in what you can of the experience. The second time you’re learning how you want to improve it. This year is going to be off the hook. A lot of kids come and audition for it. Everybody gets in. Don’t tell them that. We have a week of immersive singing, acting, and dancing with artists like John Tartaglia, Faith Prince, Lara Teeter and myself. Musicians like, Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Michael Orland come in to teach. There are lots of different ways that I hope to help teach them [students] and make them aware as artists and singers, but also as people. We will [focus on things] like, “How do we talk to each other? When you’re upset or you have a different process than another actor, how do you talk to them and how do you receive what they say to you?” Classes like that. It’s not just about standing up and singing a song. It’s maybe standing up and singing a song that you didn’t know when you got there that week. That’s how we’re looking at it.
I go twice a year. I do the Broadway Bootcamp and then I do Master Class for five high school students and five college students and it’s open to the public. All proceeds go to the camp. It’s like full circle all the time. My goal and my wish is that I can inspire the next Kristin Chenoweth, Kelly O’Hare, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, or Vince Gill, all of the incredible actors and artists that have come out of my home state, but have also influenced the world. That’s what I’m hoping for and that’s what my goal is. That’s how I want to be remembered.
RM: The weighty decisions you made throughout your career has provided you with a lot of influence in several different sectors of the arts and in your own life. What wisdom can you impart about the importance of using your influence, or platform, in a positive way?
KC: I would love a day where it doesn’t matter how many Twitter followers or Instagram followers you have. If you have one, if you have two, all it takes is one positive action to show somebody else what can be done. To share a moment with somebody. As I walk along the street today, I saw a couple of people and I just shared a smile with somebody. You have no idea what that can do to somebody. You can now, of course, send virtual smiles, which is the blessing of being online; sending positive, good wishes to other people that you can never meet. I would say, don’t sweat the small stuff. Be the best that you can be. Don’t compete with other people. If I thought about how much competition there was in this business, I don’t know that I’d ever done it. I don’t know that I could’ve had the courage. I think that we have to listen to our inner voices. Go forth with enthusiasm.
I will say this one thing that I think is important to point out, there’s a way that people look at me and sometimes they think that everything is perfect and that my life is great. My life is great but it’s not perfect. Life’s been good, but it’s also been filled with hardship. Each time I have failed, I’ve picked myself back up and I thought, have a little enthusiasm with these failures. It might sometimes take me a day or two, but the truth is, all the things that we battle in today’s time, [can be better] if we can try to go forward with a little bit of enthusiasm. Even if it’s just a grain, I swear it’s contagious. There’s been times where people have said to me, in some of my darkest times, that I was an encouragement to them. That has gone a long way with me and I thought, I wonder if fans at certain times have known that when they said that to me, it helps me. It just keeps people paying it forward. It’s a very polyanna-esque attitude, but it’s truth. The older I get, I’m now 48, I’m going to be 49 in July, the more I realize that you just keep moving forward, you keep going. I’ve had lots of injury and pain, but you just keep going forward. I hope fans who are reading this article can understand that no matter what’s put in front of you, you just keep going.
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