BWW Interviews: Kristin Chenoweth on OVER THE RAINBOW, ALW and Embracing 'Different'
Kristin Chenoweth is a Tony and Emmy Award Winning Actress and a superstar on Broadway - less than five feet of sheer vocal power and an inspiring force to be reckoned with. This week she returned to Toronto to mentor the nine girls currently vying for the coveted role of Dorothy on Over the Rainbow, a CBC show to cast the lead role in the upcoming production of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's Wizard of Oz.
Kristin spent time with each girl individually in order to coach them on their vocal solos for this week's episode (they will also sing a group number from the hit musical Wicked). After coaching the would-be Dorothys, Kristin sat down with BWW to discuss her recent accident and how its changed her, the advice she wants to give to young girls everywhere and how she would love Lord Lloyd Webber to create a role just for her!
You’re in Toronto to coach the girls vying for Dorothy on CBC’s Over the Rainbow! What’s it been like so far?
Let me just say I’m glad I’m not a judge! What a tough job they have, these girls are all incredible. And they aren’t cookie cutter in any way – they are each unique and different which makes them incredible.
I would imagine a lot of these girls grew up with you as a role model, what was their reaction like when they met you?
I was told it was going to be a surprise and that they didn’t know I was coming. Apparently they had their phones taken away last night and didn’t have access to TV or media at all. When I arrived they were all singing from Wicked and they couldn’t see me, so I just exclaimed ‘I know that song!” and they all screamed and came running toward me. Let me tell you, the love I felt from those girls was healing.
I would imagine most of these girls are at the perfect age for coaching because they’re still impressionable and open to feedback. Did you feel that?
Absolutely. It’s an amazing age. They want to hear from you. A lot of them are from little towns and they are having the experience of a lifetime and they just want to succeed. It’s incredible.
What has been your biggest piece of advice for them?
It’s interesting because for the role of Dorothy I wanted to make sure that they realized that a lot of people out there can sing it, but you also have to be able to act it. Otherwise this show would just be a vocal competition like Canadian Idol or The Voice. You have to act and be able to move an audience. I needed to feel that coming from them, and I’m proud to say I was moved by every one of the girls. Even when they chose a song that I was surprised by, they made it their own and had that emotional connection.
The second thing I wanted to tell them was to embrace the thing that makes you different. I have a very unique voice and I’m petite and that has been what has made me different. I want them to learn to embrace whatever their ‘different’ is – even if it doesn’t make them Dorothy.
When you were in high school did you ever find it difficult to be different? As we get older it becomes easier to appreciate but often as a teenager it can be very difficult. Even more if you are a ‘theatre geek’.
I found all of it hard. People often don’t believe this about me but I was a bit of a geek. A lot of people say ‘oh but you were a cheerleader!’ and I was…but I was the cheerleader who was in drama and choir. I was the designated driver. The Type A personality who always wanted to do good. But that’s ok, and that’s what I wanted to tell these girls. With Over the Rainbow eight girls will be told no, but that doesn’t mean they won't be told yes somewhere else.
In fact, when I was young I was in a pageant and I was the runner-up. Which basically means second place. I was devastated. I wanted to win. I wanted to be Miss Oklahoma. I didn’t know at the time that I would get other opportunities that would lead me down the path I was meant to go down. I want to make sure they don’t forget that.
How do you go about learning to embrace being different? Especially in high school? How do you handle those girls who pick on you because you aren’t exactly like them?
Honestly, I’ve had girls come and see me on Broadway and I’m shocked because I remember that they didn’t like me in high school. I bet everyone remembers those girls who were a little bit mean to them. The thing is, you have to handle those situations with grace. That person had their journey too, whatever it might have been. You don’t know what they’re going through. We live in our own narcissistic world most of the time and the truth is, most of these things aren’t really about us at all. So I would say handle everything with grace and recognize amazing opportunities when they come to you.
Over the Rainbow is one of those amazing opportunities that didn’t exist fifteen or twenty years ago. It’s a fairly new medium in the last five years that really celebrates theatre, and I love that. I work in a lot of different mediums but theatre is and always will be my first love and it was incredible to spend time with girls who feel the same way and love what they do.
Do you think this experience will be confidence building for the girls?
I can already tell that it is. I’ve gotten to know the girls a little bit and spent private time with each of them. I can say at least three of them have walked away very different. I want them to not just gain confidence, but to really enjoy this experience.
I had a life changing experience myself about ten weeks ago when I was injured working on a set, and it reminded me how much I love what I get to do. You can forget sometimes, but that experience brought me back to the joy of all of THIS. You only live once. Enjoy it.
And you can see that joy in these girls?
Exactly. They’re so happy. They’re having the time of their lives. And I really believe that they’re friends. They might not be best friends but they’re friends. They get to share an experience that only they know about and that’s special.
You were recently in Toronto for your solo concert and the city genuinely embraced you. Will you continue to do those shows?
Absolutely. It was the most fun of my life. I definitely want to continue doing that. Again I go back to the accident that happened ten weeks ago. I need to continue working to pay my bills, but I have several concerts coming up and I’m easing back into that life. I always want what I do to involve music. When it doesn’t I still enjoy it and it’s still a challenge but I feel like I’m missing my right arm. Getting back to training on my voice and doing things like Over the Rainbow inspire me to become a better artist. These girls inspired me.
These girls will be tackling some tough songs over the next few weeks. What’s the hardest song you’ve ever had to sing?
I love singing in a lot of different styles and I’m known for being able to do that and I love it. Whether it be opera, musical theatre or country, I love a challenge. A lot of people think Wicked would have been the hardest role, but I found it a blessing and had a blast doing it. It was so fun. I would say the hardest song was in Promises, Promises and was called ‘Knowing When to Leave’. If you’ve heard it you know why. It’s a high belt with heavy repetition on the same note. Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David who I miss tremendously. Every night before the show I would pray with Sean Hayes ‘Lord let me get through this song’ because I wanted to sing it well and also act it. I wanted to do it justice.
I would like to challenge him to write me an original musical. I always used to say it would be Christine from Phantom of the Opera because when I grew up there was a heavy focus on Phantom and Les Miserables. I also related to Phantom because it had a role for a soprano and I got to hear a voice that was like mine. I have done Christine before but I would like for him to write me something else. So Sir Andrew – this is a plea. Write something for a forty year old short blonde girl please!
Finally, how has the outpouring of love and support you have received from social media and Twitter helped you as you’ve recovered from your accident?
It’s been incredible. To know I have that kind of support is healing in and of itself. I’m very grateful.
When and Where?Catch Kristin Chenoweth on Sunday's Over the Rainbow at 8PM on CBC For more information on Over the Rainbow please visit their official website at www.cbc.ca/overtherainbow, follow them on Twitter at @cbcrainbow and check them out on Facebook Tickets for the Mirvish Production of The Wizard of Oz go on sale this Monday Sept 24 at 10am. For more information please visit www.mirvish.com
Photo Credit: CBC