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July 24, 2015

It’s Kristin’s Birthday!

How considerate of Kristin Chenoweth to close ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY five days before her birthday.

That way, the cast didn’t have to go through the expense of cards, a cake, candles and presents for Friday, July 24.

In case you DO want to send the Tony- and Emmy-winning star a little something, please spell her name correctly. It’s easy to get wrong, but if you remember that little rhyme we were all taught in school – “‘I’ before ‘E,’ except after ‘C’” – you’ll at least be on the right track.

For the lady’s first name uses “i’s” while her last gets the “e’s.” The problem is that her last name DOES begin with “C,” so maybe this little rhyme is more trouble than it’s worth. (It doesn’t help with Sondheim, either, does it?)

Googling Chenoweth’s name does reveal an occasional misspelling, but that must be expected, for her name yields more than a million references -- one million and sixty thousand, to be precise. That’s pretty impressive for the former Kristi Dawn Chenoweth.

Yes, her first name is actually “Kristi.” Notice: no “n.” Most entertainers with long names shorten them (cf. Ethel Zimmermann). Chenoweth expanded hers.

Was this a compensation for her lack of height? She is, after all, only four-foot-eleven. Wonder if the character she played on THE WEST WING was surnamed “Schott” because at least in Boston, “Schott” is the way “short” is pronounced?

Chenoweth was adopted at birth, giving credence to the “nurture vs. nature” argument. Certainly she’s alluded to that on many occasions, greatly praising her parents Junie and Jerry. Her birth mother was a flight attendant who’d dallied with a married pilot. Chenoweth has repeatedly stated that she has no particular no curiosity to meet them, but she also bears them no ill will. They DID, after all, get her on this planet.

I’ll be facetious when adding that Chenoweth must have been destined to be a star of stage, film and television because she comes from a town called Broken Arrow – the name of a 1996 movie and a 1956-60 TV series. More to the point, she’s a native of Oklahoma, the state that provided the Broadway musical with a landmark title.

Whatever the case, The Sooner State has certainly been important to her career. Chenoweth gives great credit to Oklahoma City University teacher Florence Birdwell for guiding her along. Without her, she probably wouldn’t have finished as high as second-runner up in 1991 Miss Oklahoma Pageant. To show her gratitude to the state, she became a philanthropist and started The Kristin Chenoweth Broadway Boot Camp for the kids back home. The state returned the favor by naming a theater after her.

Few have come such a long way in a short time. As a teen, Chenoweth auditioned to be an ANNIE orphan in the 1982 feature film. She didn’t get a role, but by the time of the ANNIE remake in 1999, she was enough of a name to nab the part of Lily St. Regis.

We almost lost her to another branch of the entertainment field. In 1993, Chenoweth received a full opera scholarship to the Philadelphia Academy of the Vocal Arts. What possessed her to audition for the Paper Mill Playhouse production of ANIMAL CRACKERS? Who knows, who knows, who knows? But after director Charles Repole had cast her, Chenoweth suddenly felt right at home in musical theater. Arrivederci, opera.

I’ll brag enough to say I was on the nominating committee that said “Let’s give her a Theatre World Award” for her not-large role of the aptly-named Precious in the 1997 musical STEEL PIER. She’s one of the alumni of which our organization is most proud.

But Chenoweth, along with the rest of us, isn’t perfect. I remember the day she told me that she’d been offered the title role in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. She eventually didn’t do it, of course, a decision for which Sutton Foster will always be grateful. Chenoweth’s pass put Foster on the musical theater map and allowed her to win a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical – a prize that’s been denied Chenoweth in the last four musicals she’s starred.

At least in WICKED and ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Chenoweth was Tony-nominated; such honors were denied her for her stints in THE APPLE TREE and PROMISES, PROMISES.

I’ll flatly state that Chenoweth should have received the Tony this year for her Mildred Plotka and Lily Garland. Nothing against Kelli O’Hara, who was indeed wonderful in THE KING AND I; may she live to be a hundred and give us dozens more of her stunning performances.

But Chenoweth had the substantially harder assignment. She had to play two characters (although one was admittedly little more than a cameo), appeared in twice as many numbers as O’Hara and quite often had to hit notes substantially higher. No, she didn’t have perfect attendance, but she certainly stayed with ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY longer than original Mildred/Lily Madeline Kahn did.

(Kahn has been an influence on Chenoweth. How much? The lady even named her dog Maddie in her honor.)

Chenoweth has never married, although she’s certainly has had no dearth of beaus, including Marc Kudisch and Aaron Sorkin (who based the character of Harriet Hayes on her in his STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP). Chenoweth’s reluctance to tie the knot could be explained by her statement “I believe in marriage as a social institution, business deal and holy sacrament.” (In that order, Ms. C?)

While she’s intensely religious, she has given herself some slack. She didn’t say no when asked to appear in the upcoming TV movie called – not CASPER THE FRIENDLY GHOST but MICAH THE ASSHOLE GHOST. (I’m serious. That’s its name.) Chenoweth is not above saying “Faith is fine, but the Lord helps those who help themselves.”

So like millions of others, Chenoweth is a Cafeteria Christian, choosing what she cares to believe from the Bible and simply rejecting what she doesn’t. Thus, she’s not remotely anti-gay. As she wrote in her New York Times best-selling autobiography, “Jesus told people to scratch the scriptures and think for themselves. I want to be a Christian like Christ – accepting. What if it were a sin to be short?” she asks before wryly adding “Well, I guess it is in the Miss Oklahoma pageant.”

No wonder she called the book A LITTLE BIT WICKED.

         — Peter Filichia



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