These days, Kristin Chenoweth is everywhere — on film and TV, in concert and on the Broadway stage for eight shows a week as the Tony-nominated romantic lead Lily Garland/Mildred Plotka in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “On the Twentieth Century.”
“This is a commitment, what I’m doing and (what) all of my fellow Broadway artists (are doing),” says the petite Oklahoman (she’s all of 4 feet, 11 inches tall) of her role as the ugly duckling piano accompanist who transforms into a swan movie star. “It’s a marathon, like being an Olympic athlete. It’s also a gift.”
And Chenoweth’s fans know it. The second she appears onstage, the audience thunderously applauds. And then comes that unmistakable voice: bigger than she is — perfect in pitch, tone and breath — from ballad to belt.
“Kristin is enormously bright and kind,” says Matthew Broderick, who starred opposite Chenoweth in the 2003 TV version of “The Music Man.” “She is also completely hilarious — part Madeline Kahn, part Carole Lombard — and with that beautiful, beautiful voice that breaks your heart. Everyone lucky enough to work with her falls for her. I basically spent the whole time laughing and grinning, the gorgeous girl next door with twinkly, slightly mischievous eyes.”
Like Kahn, who originated the role of Lily Garland on Broadway in 1978, Chenoweth, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on July 24, is one of those rare commodities possessing both sharp comic skills and prodigious musical chops.
In “On the Twentieth Century” the multi-talented thesp juggles acrobatic dance moves (complete with high kicks in the air) with physical comedy and, most notably, that unsinkable likability and firecracker sex appeal.
“Kristin Chenoweth is a rare and unique talent from Broadway to Hollywood,” says Jennifer Lopez, with whom Chenoweth co-starred in the dramatic thriller “The Boy Next Door.” “Kristin is my kind of girl: she sings, she dances, she acts.”
But the classically trained coloratura soprano with a three-octave range never saw Lily Garland coming. Enrolled to study opera at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, Chenoweth was making a quick pit stop in New York to help a friend unpack when a chance audition led to her first role in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Animal Crackers.”
Since then, Chenoweth has wooed audiences on the smallscreen with memorable, quirky roles on “The West Wing,” “Glee” and “Pushing Daisies,” for which she earned an Emmy Award in the supporting actress category. She won a Tony for playing Charlie’s sister Sally in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and was enthusiastically touted for her signature turn as Glinda the Good Witch in “Wicked,” where she was nominated for a lead actress Tony. She also broadcast her musical abilities beyond Manhattan in the 1999 smallscreen version of “Annie,” opposite Alan Cumming, and in “Leonard Bernstein’s Candide” on PBS’ “Great Performances.” (A YouTube clip of Chenoweth performing the number “Glitter and Be Gay” from “Candide” has fielded over 1.5 million views.)
“The second I met Kristin Chenoweth I knew she was a star. But not just a star performer— a star person,” Cumming says. The two hosted this year’s Tony Awards during which they performed a rousing musical parody of “The King and I.” “She is the kindest, funniest, most beautiful little spitfire and I love her to the moon and back.”
Consistently seeking roles that “combine head and heart,” Chenoweth will next play Maleficent in the Kenny Ortega-helmed Disney Channel movie, “Descendants,” which bows July 31 and chronicles the adventures of Disney’s cartoon villain offspring (such as Cruella De Vil’s progeny, Carlos). She’s also embarking on a national concert tour with dates planned in her hometown of Broken Arrow, Okla., and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. While she hasn’t quite crossed over to bigscreen stardom — like so many talented actresses, she’s found meatier roles onstage and on TV than in film — Chenoweth is more concerned with what part she is playing, rather than in what medium.
“I have loved the movies I’m in, (but) I think less about being a movie star and more about a great role,” says Chenoweth. “I do think that there’s something out there for me that I haven’t yet done on film. I love Amy Schumer and Amy Poehler. They combine old school and new school. I’m a hybrid looking for a role that melds old and new, Carol Burnett and Amy Poehler. Anything that’s funny and has heart I’m in.”
With her bubbly personality and mounds of contagious charm — not to mention that enviably petite frame and powerhouse voice — Chenoweth has garnered a widespread reputation for having led a charmed life, which she assures is absolutely not true. Looking back, it hasn’t always been Twinkies and Hershey’s Kisses.
“If you would have told me when I was growing up I would have laughed and said ‘no way,’” she says of the notion that she would someday become famous. “There’s a misconception about me that my life is perfect, but I have to work at it because I am what I came with. I’m not a robot. I’m from Broken Arrow, Okla. I’ve made sacrifices, the cost of the things we give up to be an artist, and also the gift of it, every holiday, weddings, funerals, I’ve been on stage. But I don’t know how to do anything else, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else if I could.”