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Interview with celebrated Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth
Broadway belle Kristin Chenoweth is one of musical theatre's most popular stars, having performed in musicals as diverse as Wicked, Promises, Promises, On The Twentieth Century and You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Her credits on screen have taken in a multitude of genres, from 'Glee' to 'The West Wing' and the upcoming 'Hairspray Live!' on NBC.
As one of musical theatre's most popular and recognizable stars her albums have delighted fans around the world and have enabled her to display her diverse vocal talents across a wide range of musical genres. From the coloratura soprano of roles such as Glinda in Wicked and Lily Garland in Cy Coleman's ambitious On The Twentieth Century to the work in pop music on TV, her effervescent charm and remarkable vocal skills continue to attract new listeners and fans. Her latest album “The Art of Elegance”, released on 23 September, brings together a 13-song set, produced by veteran producer Steve Tyrell which represents a diverse assortment of periods and styles.
Speaking to Ms Chenoweth ahead of a concert in Boston I was excited to hear about the idea behind the new album and the difficult decisions behind choosing the material.
“I have to tell you I always follow my heart and I always love things that I agree to do”, she explains, “but I think this is really my favourite because a lot of this music is what I cut my teeth on. When I first became a young singer in Oklahoma at university my teacher would say you must sing Cole Porter, you must sing Gershwin, you've got to learn these classics. You've got to sing these songs and understand them.”
Having made a number of previous best selling albums, she explains how “The Art of Elegance” reflects her age and musical maturity. “I think if I had made this album in my twenties it may not have been the same result because of life and experience, it's just different now”, she comments. “Artists singing with a full orchestra is so rare, and I just knew it needed to be that way to fulfill the composer and the lyricist's original dream of the songs. I'm so so happy with the songs, I love this music – it's my favourite genre.”
She goes on to explain how working with producer Steve Tyrell on creating a definitive set list was certainly a difficult job.
“It was hard – I had to cut so many songs! In fact I think I'll have to make another one, because there's just so much material. I wanted a little bit of an arch obviously. I'm still a little bit old school where you listen to an album from start to finish – and it has somewhat of a theme. But I'd also never been one just to pick songs just for tempo.”
Whilst Chenoweth has long been a champion of modern musical theatre composers such as Andrew Lippa and Stephen Schwartz, this new album has allowed her to look further back into the musical theatre canon.
“I very carefully found songs that were not overdone in this genre like “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, “Skylark”, and “I'm a Fool to Want You” - certainly they're classics but they're not “Someone to Watch Over Me”, which is also on the album. So I wanted to stretch myself and do things that were new to me in my voice and introduce them to my younger fans. It's been so great to hear their reactions when they say “I Get Along Without You Very Well” sounds like an Adele song - exactly! This is what I'm saying. You guys might fall in love with these songs and not even know that they're classics.”
As comfortable as she is behind the camera or in a recording studio, Chenoweth's first love is the stage, and she returns to Broadway later this year with an exciting new show entitled My Love Letter to Broadway which runs at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for a strictly limited run. Never too far from New York, she explains how the theatre is really her first love:
“I'm sure that's all we all feel about our roots. If I were to have started on film perhaps that's where I would feel the most comfortable and the most at home, but this is my DNA.” Unlike previous productions Chenoweth will be starring not as a character, but as herself. “I am nervous because obviously I want to kill it, but I want to do a show that's not the same every single night and that's a challenge that I've put on myself. That I can honour a lot of different musical styles – not just the old but the new, and composers that we know and adore. The show cannot be five to ten hours long, so I have 14 days to fit in a lot of songs.”
One of the challenges when curating an album or concert must be the choice of material, and Chenoweth certainly has a wealth of material available to her from her many roles over the years and beyond. Known especially for her incredible Soprano voice, I wonder what her favoured type of style is to perform.
“I have to say I've been asking myself that question a lot of late because this album is resonating with my fans and even new fans, and there's not a lot of soprano on it” she replies. “At first I was like 'oh gosh they don't like my soprano any more!' but I think one of things I love to do with my voice is be able to do a lot of different things. I love working in the lower register, adding more chest to the sound but it's still Kristin Chenoweth, come on I'm going to do the high notes – it's going to happen! Cos that's where I live too. I've worked so many years and trained so hard but like an athlete I've thought I can go on performing on different tours. The show I did on Broadway Promises, Promises was in a totally different placement to On the Twentieth Century, which was a totally different placement to Wicked. Wicked had it all. I just hope to be doing THAT.”
In bringing up Wicked, a show with which she is perhaps most associated with following her development through the original production in San Francisco and later Broadway, I wonder if that constant association ever weighs her down.
“I always just wanted to be in a show that people had heard of” she laughs. “I wanted my Les Mis or Phantom – I was raised on those. I was in a show and won a Tony for a show that closed the next week. When I knew about Wicked and came to understand that I was going to be in it for the long haul and I really dedicated myself to that role. I honour that to this day, I always will sing “Popular” in my concerts – it may be done a little differently but the song is associated with me and not many people in their career can have that moment and I'm going to take it proudly.”
As Wicked recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in London this week at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, I ask Kristin why she feels the show continues to relate so strongly with audience members from around the world.
“At first it started out as a love story between Elphaba and Fiyero and throughout our workshops and in our work it suddenly evolved into something else” she explains. “Whenever they saw myself and Stephanie J Block and then Idina Menzel they worked out it was really about the women and their friendship. Wicked has those themes in life that we all want – love and friendship and forgiveness and that's why it works and that's why it is a classic. I'm so proud of it, I'm so grateful that I got to do it from the beginning.”
It's clear that Kristin is a performer who just loves to work and her dedication to her fans around the world is paramount. With her new album and upcoming Broadway run she admits that she has a lot of exciting projects on the go at once. “It's going to be a challenge but I'm excited for it” she admits. “You get one chance for something like this in your life and you have to take it.”
Kristin Chenoweth's new album “The Art of Elegance” is out now.
Her Broadway show Kristen Chenoweth: My Love Letter to Broadway runs at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City from 2-13 November 2016.