Houston’s Brilliant Lecture Series returns for its first event since Hurricane Harvey with a tornado of talent: Kristin Chenoweth, who performs at 7:30 pm on Friday, September 14. Don't worry, A Conversation with Kristin Chenoweth will include an array of her favorite songs.
If only every "lecture" were like this.
The Broken Arrow, Oklahoma native is one of the most versatile, passionate personalities ever to hit the American entertainment scene. She has a big voice, and she uses it to dazzle and inspire.
Already owning an Emmy Award for Pushing Daisies and a Tony for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Chenoweth continues her constant presence in movies, television, the Broadway stage, and recordings. It’s been a remarkable career, still in high gear with her NBC hit comedy Trial & Error.
While Chenoweth was waiting for a plane connection a few days ago, I put 10 Questions to her.
Ken Hoffman: Chenoweth is not the most show-bizzy name. Do people say Chenoworth? Were you ever urged to change it to something easier to say or spell or remember? Why did you say no?
Kristin Chenoweth: I was definitely urged to change my name from Chenoweth to something easier. But it's my father's name and my grandfather's name and I was never going to change it. I figure if Arnold Schwarzenegger could keep his name so can Kristin Chenoweth. I've been called everything from Kerstin Chenowitz to Christina Chenoworth. I prefer Cheno-work. Ricky Whittle of American Gods called me Cheno-worth-it. That’s been a highlight for me.
KH: You've won a Tony Award for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and an Emmy Award for Pushing Daisies. Where do you keep the awards, and which one is heavier? How often do you polish them?
KC: I keep my awards at my theater in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma — the Kristin Chenoweth Performing Arts Center. They’re on display with some other memorabilia from over the years. People should, next time they’re in Broken Arrow, come by and take a look. I don't polish the awards because I kind of like them to age over time. The Emmy is definitely heavier. It's a lot sharper, too. That thing is a weapon.
KH: You've described yourself as a "non-judgmental liberal Christian." In today's divided political landscape, is that even possible? When you spoke out in support of gay rights, you caught some hell from fellow Christians, and got uninvited from a Women of Faith Conference in 2005. How did you react to that: surprise, disappointment, anger, disgust or what? Did you ever imagine that you'd be caught in a political controversy?
KC: I felt sad, because my own kind has judged me so harshly. But at the same time there's been a lot of love, too. All I can do is do my best and follow the path that God has put in front of me. If I feel that I'm pleasing Him, that's all that matters. Never once did I feel I’d be part of a political controversy. I'm still this girl from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. But I always knew that I'd stand up for others when they couldn't stand up for themselves or it seemed difficult.
KH: Your latest album is called The Art of Elegance. What does that title mean to you? We sort of live in in-elegant times today.
KC: I think there's a time and era that we miss, the golden age of Broadway and even the ’30s and ’40s. A lot of the lyrics were very real and right on the cusp of heartbreak. I feel the music of today is the same, just in a different way. There's an elegance to sheer heartbreak that I wanted to get on the album.
KH: Your NBC comedy is called Trial & Error. Have you ever been in a real-life courtroom as a plaintiff, defendant, witness, juror, or heckler? Of all the famous trials that have been on TV, which one hooked you the most?
KC: No, I've never been in a courtroom and I don’t plan to start now. I guess the O.J. trial. When I first got to New York, that's all we had on TV. It completely changed the face of daytime TV, and really hurt the soap opera. Yet we were stuck — we couldn’t stop watching. We consumed like it was a good ol' piece of steak. And we’re still talking about it today.
KH: On your Twitter page, you write, "We sing because we can't speak anymore." What does that mean?
KC: Sometimes the words are so powerful that we can't speak them. We must sing them. I tell my young students, you can’t speak it, so sing it. That's why song and music is born and, of course, dance is an extension of that.
KH: You have a Broadway Boot Camp for young people in Oklahoma. Is Broadway still the goal for young people today? Isn't "rock star" more lucrative and more alluring?
KC: Both are wanted and beloved, it depends on the child. I think the most important thing is training. If you have good training, you can have a long and luscious career as a pop or rock star. Or you can go to Broadway and have a long luscious career. If you don't know how to use your instrument, you will burn out and it's going to be short.
KH: When you sing the national anthem for the Yankees, do you get any players' autographs?
KC: I always get autographs because I love baseball. I used to date a baseball player in college. I have such respect for the sport. I love sports in general, but I love baseball and basketball especially.
KH: When was the first time you got paid for singing or acting? How much and what did you do with the money?
KC: I prefer not to say how much because it was at a church and I was a little bitty girl. They gave me an honorarium. I remember my dad helped me open a bank account and put that money in it. I also gave back 10 percent to the church for giving me the opportunity to sing. It was a good teaching tool and a lesson for me.
KH: Are you the most famous person ever from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma? Do you go to your high school reunions? How many things are named after you back home?
KC: I don't know if I'm the most famous person. I know that Ralph Blane is also from Broken Arrow. He's way more famous than me. I don't get to go back for my reunions because of scheduling but I'd love to and catch up with my friends. I graduated with over a thousand people, but there's a handful that I've stayed in touch with. I don't have anything named for me except the performing arts center, that’s good enough for me.
(Note to Kristin Chenoweth: You’re the most famous person from Broken Arrow. I had to look up Ralph Blane — thank you, Wikipedia. He wrote "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," but you have him beat.)
Kristin Chenoweth showcases her big talent at A Conversation with Kristin Chenoweth on Friday, September 14 at the University of Houston Cullen Performance Hall. All tickets are $40. 7:30 pm.