AUTHOR: Garrett Bithell
She’s short, tiny and has a speaking voice that sounds like Betty Boop fused with Marilyn Monroe. But Kristin Chenoweth has become one of the most revered musical theatre performers of her generation, even crossing the line into a hugely successful television career with her sheer talent and popularity. By Garrett Bithell.
Eight times a week, for nine months, Kristin Chenoweth would float into Broadway’s George Gershwin Theatre on a bubble as Glinda in Wicked, and utter the first line of the musical: “The Wicked Witch of the West is dead.” But one evening, after giving herself two herniated discs from the famous Glinda hair-flip, her doctor gave her a whole Vicodin pill to take before the show. At 97 pounds and just 4 feet 11 inches tall, the little pill knocked Chenoweth out of the park.
“I came in on a bubble alright,” she says. “Literally and metaphorically! I saw the three thousand people in the audience and I was just so happy! Then I tried to get my first line out... I apparently finished the show, but I don’t remember it at all. Some people said it was my best performance ever, which is mildly concerning!”
Although Chenoweth had already cultivated a successful musical theatre career, including a Tony Award for playing Sally in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, it was the Wickedjuggernaut that well and truly catapulted her into the zeitgeist. The shiny world of TV soon beckoned and she left Wicked in 2004 to join the cast of The West Wing as media consultant Annabeth Schott. For her performance, she was nominated twice, along with the cast, for a Screen Actors Guild Award. She appeared in the final two seasons of the program until 2009. Chenoweth also played Olive Snook in the television series Pushing Daisies, which garnered her an Emmy Award in 2009.
Above: Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda, with Idina Menzel in Wicked in 2003.
Later that year, Chenoweth guest starred as April Rhodes in Glee, a role she continues to reprise. She has been lavished with praise for her role, and nominated for a further two Emmys. But it’s because the show explores characters that echo her own personal experience at school as a bullied glee kid that her success in the role means so much.
“But in a way, I think anyone who says they weren’t bullied, and that even goes for the bully as well, isn’t being honest,” Chenoweth says. “Everybody has felt it – even as an adult, it’s just a case of what kind of bully you have.
“Obviously I don’t ever want people to be bullied – but did some of those experiences shape who I am today? Yeah. I made me tougher. We have a big campaign in the United States called ‘It Gets Better’, and it really does. It’s the nerds who run the world, and I was a big one in school. I had a unique speaking voice, I’m 4’11’’ – there are a lot of things to bully! It just goes to show: don’t peak in high school!”
Above: Kristin Chenoweth as April Rhodes, with Matthew Morrison in Glee in 2009.
Chenoweth was confronted with a different form of bullying only recently when she accepted a role on Good Christian Bitches in 2011. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Kim Gatlin, the series centres on a recently widowed woman who moves her family back to the upscale Dallas, Texas neighbourhood where she grew up. As a former high school bully, she hopes to win over her old classmates only to discover she is the centre of malicious gossip in the Christian community. Chenoweth, who is Christian herself, was lampooned by her conservative religious fan base for taking the piss out of the Bible belt.
“I grew up in that very area,” she says. “I know those women exist, and I would never ever do something that made fun of God, because I am a God person. I think there’s a difference between having fun with a world and making fun of a world. But it is a world that exists – I grew up in the Bible belt and that’s how it is!”
Another common source of conflict for Chenoweth’s religious fan base is her outspoken support of GLBT rights, same-sex marriage and deep connection to the gay community. But she is not one to be beaten into submission any more. “One of the things I’ve come to understand is that I don’t have to reconcile my Christian faith with my gay rights advocacy, others do,” she states. “And whether they can or not is not up to me.”
Above: Kristin Chenoweth as Annabeth Schott in The West Wing in 2004.
Chenoweth is touring Australia for the first time throughout June. Supported by a cast of singers, dancers and actors, the concert will showcase her wide-ranging skills from musical theatre and opera, to country music and her self-penned material.
Indeed this versatility, and Chenoweth’s achievements in the entertainment industry generally, are even more impressive considering she suffers badly from Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that affects hearing and balance. It is characterised by episodes of vertigo, low-pitched tinnitus, and hearing loss.
“It is the most awkward, horrifying thing to have in my industry,” she says. “There have been times on stage when my co-stars have basically held me up to keep me from falling down, or even going into the orchestra pit. My peripheral vision is completely off and I hear a tone that switches ears – and let me tell you, trying to maintain perfect pitch when you hear a C# is not easy. I also can’t really dance any more because I can’t turn.
“I don’t mean to be ‘woe is me’ because everybody has their Achilles’ heel, but this is mine. I’d like to kick Ménière’s disease’s arse. If I could chop off my little finger – and I play the piano and the guitar – to not have it any more, I would. That’s how much I hate it! But you know what? Life is pretty wonderful and I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can, regardless.”