And God Created Woman:
Tony-Winning Chenoweth Testifies with As I Am
by Tony Phillips
One hears the rumors, but they’re almost impossible to believe. Kristen Chenoweth is a Broadway star. She’s the little girl with the big voice from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, by way of New York. Not Hollywood. What is all this Hollywood business? She lowers the boom. “Actually, I’m in my car,” she giggles in her trademark, high-pitched, Mid-Western drawl. You’ve got a car? “Well, yeah,” she replies, innocently enough, “I just left a meeting and I have about a 20-minute drive home, so I thought I’d give you a call.” Where the hell are you, one wants to scream. Or, more correctly, where have they taken you? The thought of Kristen Chenoweth doing this interview while winding her way through the Hollywood Hills sits about as well as her conducting it in Mandarin. And what do you mean, home? What happened to the de riguer crappy walk-up, but at least it’s in the theater district? After a little thought, it all becomes too clear. She’s where everything is 20-minutes away from everything else — over the rainbow — Los Angeles. It’s suddenly very easy to understand all those ancient New Yorkers who get so maudlin about the Dodgers packing up and leaving town. “Yeah, I’m out in LA,” she continues blissfully unaware, “I just wrapped The West Wing and I’m shooting a movie with Annette Benning.” You don’t wrap television shows! Maybe you wrap little opening night gifts for your dance captains, but not television shows! “I’ve got another one coming up with Emma Thompson,” she trundles on of her burgeoning film career, “and then this summer I’m doing another one with Robin Williams, so it’s crazy.” Crazy? You’re turning my world upside down, lady! But she’s become so animated one silently hopes the driving has been left to someone else. “It’s all good stuff,” she finishes in a flush.
Okay, one agrees, albeit with some skepticism, it is all good. It’s a phrase she’ll repeat with Martha Stewart-like conviction many times over the course of our interview. But the time she’s done, it’s impossible not to believe her. Come on, how can you not take the same person who, at twelve-years-old, rose before the entire Southern Baptist Convention and belted out “I’m Four Foot Eleven and I’m Going to Heaven” at face value? When she’s through, it’s easy to believe that not only is Chenoweth going to heaven, but she’ll be able to get some of her friends in free too. A more concrete discussion of the divine comes relatively late for someone on the eve of releasing an album’s worth of spiritual material with covers of the likes of Amy Grant, Faith Hill and Trisha Yearwood. That’s right, traditional hymns and gospel favorites. As Chenoweth explains, “This is so exciting because on my first record, I gave people what they wanted from me, but this record is just me in my natural voice, how I grew up singing. I wanted to make this record so that no matter what faith you are, you could be inspired by it. I think there’s a couple of Jesus songs on there, but for the most part, I just wanted a record that people could put on in their car and enjoy.” Okay, okay, Jesus songs fine, who hasn’t bopped around the living room to little Anna May Bullock’s “This Little Light of Mine” rendition? But what’s with the cars already? Some of us drive iPods!
Picking up on the psychic strife, Chenoweth tries to ally all fears, assuming, perhaps, that it’s the narrow focus of her upcoming Women of Faith events that will put her album in front of up to 20,000 women at a time. “Don’t worry, honey,” she purrs of the tour that will take her from Houston to Sacramento and Denver to Dallas before landing her in Oklahoma City on November 4th, “they’ll be men there too. One of the things I like about Women of Faith, and it’s very important for me to make this statement right now, I am a person of faith. I am a Christian, but I have no judgment towards people who don’t believe like I do. There are many faiths in this world. What I happen to believe is about Jesus, I mean, I believe that. And sometimes when I hear myself say, ‘When The Rapture come and Jesus takes all people…’ Listen, I hear myself say that and think I’m definitely a Looney-Toon, but it’s all about faith and that’s what these conferences are about, but when they asked me to do it, I said, ‘I need you to know that my best friend is gay. I almost married someone out of my faith. We didn’t break up because of our differences in faith either. I’ve not been perfect, but I am a Christian and I don’t want there to be any confusion about what I believe or who I am because I don’t want them saying, ‘Go eat two lunches, one for each faith.’ I am who I am. I don’t believe gay people are going to hell. I believe we’re all made in god’s image. I believe that judgment is left to the one upstairs and I believe Jesus is all about love. If I can live my life even just a smidgen the way God made his son for us as an example, I’m happy. I do not judge other people for what they believe, but for me, this is what works.”
Right on, sister Kristen. It’s one of the many statements she’s made during our call that’s made me want to put the phone down and cheer. But for those to whom it’s still getting a little too joyful, joyful up in here, relax! Kristen comes correct with a brand-new Diane Warren power ballad on the record called “Borrowed Angels” that seems prime for snatching by the latest “it“ DJ for the peak-hour, Sunday morning “I saw God” dance floor experience. She’s even willing to follow-up a tip from Christina Aguilera and gamely gossip, albeit diplomatically, about Warren. “You know what?” Chenoweth asks about Aguilera’s story of Warren swearing like a sailor in the recording studio, “I am around so many different kinds of people that it doesn’t even phase me anymore. It’s the funniest thing. I hear it and just don’t even think about it. I do think about it when there are kids around, but it’s not just Diane, oh please, there are so many potty mouths out there. She is a girl’s girl. She can get down and have a beer and a cigarette, but she is one of these people who, if she’s not writing songs, feels like she’s not living. That’s respectable and I’m honored that she trusted me with a song.” As to her own “it” factor, Chenoweth can’t even recall her photographer’s name, let alone a phone number. “Oh my God, I knew you were going to ask me that,” she frets about who shot the gorgeous new album cover, “I can’t remember his name.” She sighs deeply, but plunges ahead, ”I really wanted it to be angelic, so to speak, very little makeup, fresh, just who I am. That’s basically why the title is what it is.” So she doesn’t have it like that. A little more digging on the “it” factor only reveals, “I don’t really notice it, I hardly know it’s going on. Even the other night, my boyfriend and I were out to dinner and he said to me, ‘Do you realize people stare at you? They just stare at you! And you’re pretty and all, but you just have this thing.’ But I don’t really notice it and that’s probably a good thing. If I were to ever become aware of it, it could become really egomaniacal and gross. And it would probably just stop. So you know what, let’s not talk about it anymore.”
Fine. Then how about maybe one more put the phone down and cheer story, a parting tip and perhaps a sidelong glance at the competition? Chenowith, who has an Alice in Wonderland opera in development for the LA Philharmonic and a May return to the New York stage for the City Center Encores! series presentation of Hammick & Bock’s follow-up to Fiddler called The Apple Tree that will cast her in the lead of each of its three one-act musicals, is game. However, with roles in this summer’s blockbusters Bewitched and The Pink Panther, she wants to talk movies. “I have had to turn down roles because of nudity,” she begins, “again, don’t judge people. Halle Berry is one of my favorite actresses. I happen to know she’s a Christian. She did nudity. Good for her — don’t judge her — I just can’t do it. I don’t want anything out there that my niece and nephew can’t go see. I am doing a movie with Annette Benning right now,” Chenoweth explains of Ryan Murphy’s big-screen adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ tres gay memoir Running With Scissors, “I play her lesbian lover and there’s a big scene in there. Before I even met them about the movie, I said, ‘I can’t even go in because I’m not going to be able to do that’ and the director said, ‘just come in anyway and let’s talk about it.’ So I went in and said, ‘lookit, I understand it’s part of the storytelling.’ He goes, ‘Would you be willing to kiss her?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I could kiss her, but I’m not going to be nude. I can’t do it.’ And so thank goodness Annette felt the same way, so I’m in the movie. She reflects for a moment, and then says, “There’s going to be Christian people who feel that I shouldn’t be doing a movie like that, but they don’t know the sacrifice I already made. They also don’t know the stance that I took, but you can’t please everyone all the time.” And the competition? After we breeze through a “Super Tuesday” release list that includes Faith Evans, Crystal Method, Fischerspooner, Lisa Marie Presley and Corrosion of Conformity, Chenowith admits, “I’ve heard of practically no one on the list except for Lisa Marie Presley and Faith Evans.” She continues, “I can only view it was competing with myself. Their records are going to be really cool, but mine is different because of the subject matter. I’m sure the record label wants me to say I want to sell a lot of records, and of course I want that, but what I really want is people to be blessed by it. That’s all I want.” And her parting advice for up-and-coming singers? “Coca-Cola. I always take a couple swigs of Coke before I go on-stage. I find it clears whatever is on your pipes right off.”