Kristin Chenoweth talks to Jacki Lyden on today's Weekends on All Things Considered, and if the only thing you got from the interview was Chenoweth warbling a bit of the first solo she ever did in church, it would be well worth it.
The Emmy-winning actress stars on ABC's new GCB, a sort of Desperate-Housewives-ish dishy, soapy comedy-drama premiering Sunday night at 10. She's come quite a long way since, as she explains, her father negotiated her first contract.
One of the themes of GCB — adapted from a book called Good Christian Bitches — involves the religious community of the women in the story. Chenoweth, too, has often spoken about her faith. She calls herself "a God person," but adds, "It's not my job to decide whether someone is 'a sinner' for doing something or being something or saying something. My grandma said, 'Oh, Kris, I read the Bible like I eat fish. I eat the meat that serves me well, but I don't choke on a bone.' I loved that, and I've never forgotten it."
Chenoweth speaks of her family, too, when she discusses her flair for comedy. Her parents, she says, were chemical engineers, and her brother is "a genius." She says her parents have fine senses of humor, but a simple fact remains: "I am," she says, "the odd duck."
On GCB, Chenoweth plays a woman whose old nemesis returns to town, and she is among the titular GCBs of the book. Asked whether she, as a Christian, finds the title or the idea offensive, Chenoweth says, "There's a difference between making fun of something and having fun with something. And we do the latter."
But television certainly isn't Kristin Chenoweth's only pursuit. She also releases records, including a recent country album. Lyden asks her about the inspiration she draws as a musician from one of her heroes, Dolly Parton. "This is a woman who has sacrificed and worked her butt off and worked hard to own her own music and not sold it — which is so smart."
Chenoweth may not be Dolly Parton, but she speaks of her own surprise at hearing her accomplishments detailed at a recent event that honored her. She says: "I'm trying to learn, as I'm in my 40s, to embrace what I've been able to achieve and be proud of it. And I know there's roles that I will want to play before I die, but I'm still just taking one day at a time."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Time now for some music and a classic American tale: the hometown songstress who one day, lights up Broadway. Here's a hint: She became a really, really good witch.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WICKED")
KRISTIN CHENOWETH: (as Glinda the Good Witch) (Singing) You will be popular...
LYDEN: Popular, all right. That's Kristin Chenoweth, formerly of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and star of the musical "Wicked." She won a Tony for her performance as Glinda the Good Witch. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Chenoweth was nominated for a Tony Award for that performance but did not win. She won a Tony Award for her performance in "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown."]
Tomorrow night, she'll be in a new TV series for ABC, called "GBC" - good Christian belles who are kind of wicked. She's got a new book out; she's going on her first tour.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WICKED")
CHENOWETH: (as Glinda the Good Witch) (Singing) I'll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair, everything that really counts to be popular...
LYDEN: And she can show us how to crown a career that started in the pews and went to the Great White Way and beyond. Like a lot of powerful American singers, Kristin Chenoweth started singing in church.
CHENOWETH: I was probably about 7, and I auditioned for a church solo. And there were mainly adults there but I showed up, and they said well, you're not going to get the solo in this particular song, but would you like to sing sometime in church? And I said, yeah. And so not long after that, I sang a song called "Jesus, I Heard You Had a Big House." And I sang it, and that was the end of that.
LYDEN: At the age of 12, Kristin Chenoweth got another big break, performing at the Southern Baptist Convention's national conference. She sang a song called "Four Feet Eleven," which proved prophetic - that is, in fact, her exact height. And when I spoke to her recently, I couldn't resist asking her to sing some of it for me.
I wondered if you'd grace us with singing a little bit of it. Is that possible?
CHENOWETH: Oh, sure. I mean, I'm battling a really bad throat infection, but I'll do my best. It's - the chorus is...
(Singing) I'm only 4-foot-11 but I'm going to heaven, and that makes me feel 10 feet tall. They say I'm not too strong, but I've known all along, I've got the greatest power of all. He lifts me up, makes me shout, come to Jesus, that's what I'm all about. I'm only 4-foot-11 but I'm going to heaven, and that makes me feel 10 feet tall.
Isn't that fun?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LYDEN: But if petite, she's always been a powerful package as a human being. And that includes her faith, which she's unabashed about. She's let it flow. When Kristin Chenoweth came to New York from Oklahoma's Lyric Theater, she fell in love with New York overnight. Her friend suggested she try out for an equity musical he was working on. She showed up, auditioned, and got the part.
CHENOWETH: You know, back then, I didn't know what I didn't know, so everything was a new experience for me. And then for the audition to go that way, I just thought, what? So I'm a big God person, and I thought that maybe I should listen to what was happening. And they just said, you know, we want to offer you this part. And they called my dad and - because I said, you can call him and talk to him about my salary.
LYDEN: Because you didn't have an agent.
CHENOWETH: I didn't have an agent. So my dad negotiated my first contract.
LYDEN: You say you're a big God person. What does that mean to you?
CHENOWETH: Well, you know, when you say you grow up in church and in the Bible Belt, that kind of gives a stigma that some people may like or dislike. But I'm very proud of my upbringing, and I wouldn't have traded it for the world. Nowadays, though, saying that you're a Christian, there's a lot of people who look at that in a negative light, which breaks my heart.
I very proudly am a Christian, and I am a God person. And I say that because for me - yes, church, and being around people like how I believe is important. But it's also important to me to show others that don't have any faith, or don't believe like me, that I accept them and don't judge them.
LYDEN: So you like to have an inclusive view of your faith.
CHENOWETH: Yeah. It's not my job to decide whether someone is a sinner for doing something or being something or saying something. You know, my grandma said, oh, Kris, I read the Bible like I eat fish. I take the meat that serves me well, but I don't choke on a bone. I loved that, and I've never forgotten it.
LYDEN: That's great. Now, I'd like to turn to your TV roles because, of course, you've appeared in "West Wing," and you won an Emmy in "Pushing Daisies." One of our favorite roles here is your role in "Glee." You've appeared as April Rhodes - and I'll remind people. She's the high school dropout who never quite makes it on the Broadway stage. And there's an excerpt of you from that show, singing "Maybe This Time" from the musical "Cabaret." Let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")
CHENOWETH: (Singing) Everybody loves a winner, so nobody loved me. Lady Peaceful, Lady Happy, that's what I long to be. All the odds are...
LYDEN: It's goose bump-raising. And I'm thinking, I love how you do it. Were you thinking Liza Minnelli, or did you just not think at all about her?
CHENOWETH: Well, I was so nervous because to me, it's her song. So I just threw myself into the moment when we were in the recording studio. And I remember Ryan Murphy came by - the creator of "Glee" - and he just said, just go for it, Kristin. This can be your song, too. And I think that was very freeing for me, to just be able to put my own stamp on it. And to me, there is no one other than Liza but hopefully, I did her proud.
LYDEN: You rock it.
CHENOWETH: Thank you.
LYDEN: You know, the other thing that you possess is great comedic timing. Where does that come from?
CHENOWETH: Oh, gosh. You know, my family and I are still trying to figure it out. I think, honestly - you know, I'm adopted, and it's pretty widely known. My parents are chemical engineers. My mom studied to be a nurse. My brother is a genius, runs a company. I mean, these are the kinds of people that I grew up with, and I always was a little different. But my mother and father have great senses of humor. And I always felt like if I can make them laugh, then I had made it.
And my mother makes me laugh to this day. She'll be like, why aren't you trying out for "The Misfits"? And what she means is "Les Miserables." Like, she just can't get things straight. But, you know, they make me laugh. And they've encouraged me my whole life just to be who I am. And, you know, I am the odd duck. But if you met them, you would say, of course, she's their daughter; of course.
LYDEN: So let's talk about this new show, "GCB" - quite a departure from the other roles. You play a gal called Carlene Cockburn, who's the queen of a small group of Dallas friends, high school friends. And you're very religious on this show, but you don't shy away from using your faith to kind of pass judgment on others, which is what you were known for back in high school. Let's hear this scene from the pilot episode.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GCB")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Has anyone have any prayers for the people? Carlene Cockburn.
CHENOWETH: (as Carlene Cockburn) Let us remember the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" - or in our case, daughter. We are overjoyed at the recent return of one of our own back into our fold. Let us open our hearts in support of her as she struggles to pick up the pieces of her shattered, tragic life. And keep us ever mindful of the humiliation of sin, degradation, and lack of moral decency. It's not ours to judge. Amen.
LYDEN: This TV series is based on the book by Kim Gatlin, called "Good Christian" - and the last word rhymes with one of the main characters in "Wicked."
CHENOWETH: Yes, witches.
LYDEN: "Good Christian - Witches." So it's rumored ABC changed the name to "GCB" to sort of avoid that.
CHENOWETH: Look, I'm not an executive, Jacki, but I think that ABC wisely changed the name. I, personally, would not have been offended, but there has been a lot of controversy I know, by certain groups that are saying that we were making fun of God. And that hurts me because I'm a Christian, and I wouldn't do that.
I will say, there's a big difference to me in making fun of something and having fun with something, and we do the latter. And I think - obviously, I'm very proud of it, and I hope people enjoy it - because it's just chocolate cake. It's just dessert; that's all it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LYDEN: Yeah. And you know what? You can have a slice, and you won't even gain an ounce. That's my favorite part.
CHENOWETH: That's right.
LYDEN: You know, you've released several CDs over the span of your career, featuring everything from gospel songs to pop standards. Now, last fall, you came out with your first country album. It's called "Some Lessons Learned." And one of the songs you covered on it was called "What Would Dolly Do?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT WOULD DOLLY DO?")
CHENOWETH: (Singing) I may not be from Tennessee but you know I got a lot of Dolly in me. And there's a Smoky Mountain law that says, thou shall not cheat. So take your truck and shove it, I know how much you love it. And it's a good thing 'cause that's where you're moving to. I'm gonna pull that wig down off the shelf, go high heels up with someone else 'cause I ask myself, what would Dolly do?
LYDEN: Obviously, this is a play on "What Would Jesus Do." Do you borrow from the life lessons of Dolly Parton?
CHENOWETH: Yeah. I can't think of a better example. I've always loved her sense of humor. You know, one time they asked her how long it takes her to do her hair. And she said, I don't know; I'm never there. And then, you know, they asked her - you know - how long it takes her to get ready, and she goes, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. And I think, OK, but what's the real person like?
And I've gotten to know her a little bit - just a little bit - and I love what I see. This is a woman who has sacrificed and worked her butt off, and worked hard to own her own music - and not sold it, which is so smart because when you think about Whitney Houston's remake of "I Will Always Love You," Dolly Parton owned that song when that came out again. And, you know, she just is a great woman and is there for her friends, and I admire her. So yeah, that's what I love about her as well.
LYDEN: It's interesting to think - thinking of her and another icon - to think where you might be in 10, 20, even 30 years.
CHENOWETH: Gosh. I don't even - it's so funny. When I was younger, I was in the Miss Oklahoma pageant. And they asked me, where do you see yourself in five years? And I thought, oh, please. I just want to graduate. And I kind of always feel, still, like that little girl.
The other day, I was lucky enough to be honored at the Drama League, and they did this whole thing about my career so far. And I thought, oh my gosh, I did that? Wait a minute; I did that? I did that, too? So I'm trying to learn, as I'm in my 40s, to embrace what I've been able to achieve and be proud of it. And I know there's roles that I will want to play before I die but, you know, I'm still just taking one day at a time.
LYDEN: That's actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth. Her new TV show is called "GCB." It premieres tomorrow night on ABC. And her latest album is called "Some Lessons Learned." And she'll be performing songs from it, as well as many of her Broadway favorites, when she embarks on her first tour this May - in a couple months.
Kristin Chenoweth, we really wish you well with that. It's been a great pleasure.
CHENOWETH: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS HERE")
CHENOWETH: (Singing) I wanna do something that matters, say something different, something that sets the whole world on its ear. I wanna do something better with the time I was given. I wanna try to touch a few hearts in this life, and leave nothing less than something that says I was here. I will prove you wrong. If you think I'm all talk, you're in for a shock 'cause this dream's too strong and before too long, maybe I'll compose symphonies...
LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast, the Best of Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. And until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.