For Kristin Chenoweth, Fairy Tales Do Come True

UPDATED: November 7, 2011
PUBLISHED: November 7, 2011

Playing The Good Witch may not have been a real stretch for Kristin Chenoweth. Best known for the role of Glinda in the Broadway play Wicked, Chenoweth still has the demeanor of a very good small-town girl. There is no diva attitude here, no jaded sense of irony or entitlement. She wins awards, but she’s always surprised when she does. She worries about being too trusting. She is fiercely loyal to her friends and family. She is unfailingly polite. In fact, the tiny powerhouse from Broken Arrow, Okla., doesn’t think of herself as a star, but as somebody who is simply doing what she was “born to do.”

Raised on gospel music, she performed solo at the Southern Baptist Convention when she was 12, singing “I’m only 4-foot-11, but I’m going to Heaven.” Although her height didn’t increase much, if any, Chenoweth’s career would take off—in ways she could not have imagined back then.

Musical theater was not something a child from rural Oklahoma would ordinarily aspire to do. It wasn’t important in Broken Arrow, Chenoweth says—not in the way that football was important, for instance. “But I had a teacher who told me I could try out for this choir group.… This teacher really changed my life by having the courage to say ‘I want to shepherd you.’ ”

The notion of “shepherds” and mentors comes up frequently in our conversation and in Chenoweth’s 2009 New York Times best-seller, A Little Bit Wicked . She talks about people who believed in her, coached her and gave her the tools to succeed, starting with her parents who adopted her when she was 5 days old. “I was born with a love of music and my parents recognized it and encouraged me to go for it. They gave me self-esteem and confidence.” And then there was church, school and that first choir, which provided all sorts of new experiences, exposing her to the music of Madonna—and Broadway.

After high school graduation, Chenoweth went to Oklahoma City University where she earned her BFA degree in musical theater, and then a master’s degree in opera under acclaimed voice instructor Florence Birdwell, another mentor Chenoweth considers critical to her later success.

‘You Have to Do It’

Chenoweth’s professional career took her to the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, as well as regional theater and off-Broadway productions. A role in Moliere’s Scapin earned her her first New York Times review (she was deemed “delightful”), followed by other roles, including starring as Sally in the 1999 Broadway revival You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. That role brought Chenoweth a Tony Award, and put her career on a dizzying track that included the Broadway hit Wicked, as well as television (West Wing, Glee, Pushing Daisies), movies (You Again, Deck the Halls, Bewitched, Running with Scissors, and many more), albums, concerts and more stage work, including Promises, Promises, in which she starred with Sean Hayes.

And she does not find her ability to translate her considerable talent from stage to television to film and back again particularly remarkable. “I look at it all as the same. I’m an artist,” she says.

“There are some people who are flat out born to do it,” she says. “If you can’t see yourself doing anything else, then you have to do it. There is also a star quality that people are born with. I’ve known so many incredibly trained perfection-to-the-hilt singers sitting in Oklahoma because they just don’t have that thing—that ‘it’ factor—that makes people want to watch. That being said, self-esteem is the biggest gift you can give your child, in my opinion. My folks gave me that gift. And I give my godchildren and my niece and nephew that gift. No matter what they undertake, they need to move forward with confidence—and not arrogance—but confidence in what they believe they can do.”

Beyond her parents, Chenoweth can’t say enough about her other mentors. “I don’t come from a musical family, so the fact that I had some talent and I had people in my life saying, ‘I’m going to help you, I’m going to shepherd you, I’m going to mentor you,’ was huge. And now, it’s become something for me to do.”

Restoring the Music

Chenoweth, now 43, gives back through her own charity and as an ambassador to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation. The VH1 organization is dedicated to restoring musical education to schools by donating instruments and raising awareness of the need for music programming. “That is really important,” she says. “Because in Broken Arrow where I grew up, band was a pretty big deal but choir certainly wasn’t, and musicals certainly weren’t. I was probably the only one who tried out for the lead… it wasn’t important then and that was in 1986! I see it now becoming an after-school thing—I see it disappearing. VH1 is putting more instruments in classes, introducing more music and different types of music to choirs and presenting music in such a way that it makes kids interested. Getting kids interested in it is a goal of mine because what a gift music is—it is the international language. I say in my book and I mean it: ‘You sing because you can’t speak it.’ ” 

Giving has been part of Chenoweth’s mindset all of her life; she doesn’t have a pat reason for doing it. “Everybody has their reasons,” she says. “Most people I know are doing it because they had an opportunity that others did not have… my mom is a breast cancer survivor so obviously that is important to me. So is adoption. I was adopted and at every concert, I make sure a family with adopted children who can’t afford to come to a concert gets to come. It is just as much a blessing to give as it is to receive. I’d be a liar if I didn’t say it made me feel good—that’s one of the reasons I do it; I do it because it makes me happy. I do it because I want to help others. One of the privileges we have in this life is to help others. It is something I believe. It’s certainly not meant to be a pat on the back or to make me look good—it’s why we’re here.”

Challenges Along the Way

Despite her strong convictions and depth of talent, Chenoweth has had her share of challenges along the way. One she rarely discusses is Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that can cause vertigo, headaches and nausea. During bouts with Ménière’s, she has said she has to lean on cast members to maintain her balance The only proven treatment is surgery that often results in hearing loss—not an option for a singer with perfect pitch.

Another unsettling part of her successful career is the toll it may have taken on her personal life. “I have sacrificed in that area for sure,” she says. “If the right person came along I might be a little more compromising. This is very hard to do—I was born to do this and I need the person to accept and understand and celebrate that. But I am looking forward to finding that person. In my 20s, I wasn’t there; I was a runaway bride twice. In my 30s—I don’t know where those went, they are gone—I blinked and they were over. Now, I do find myself ready for my mate, my partner, my equal.”

There’s another conflict she’s dealt with related to her work. “I care a lot about what people think of me and I want to make people happy; I’m a people-pleaser. I’ve had to let that go a little bit and remember the people whose opinions matter most are those closest to me. And then if other people come along, that’s just great—but that’s been a challenge for me being in this business. I want to be loved. I’m getting better at kind of not giving a damn but I’d be a liar if I said there are things that still don’t upset me. So I find myself not reading too much about myself. I don’t go on the Internet—I stay away from negatives, not to live in a bubble but to protect myself. I am sensitive and I know a lot of celebrities who are.”

Coming up for Chenoweth is a new CD, Some Lessons Learned, and a role in ABC’s new series, Good Christian Belles. She continually looks forward to the journey, while enjoying the moment. “I concentrate on whatever it is while I’m doing that one thing. I’m excited for my future, too, because really none of us knows what it holds.”