As a heterosexual man who’d like to continue sleeping with my wife, I am occasionally required to attend Broadway musicals. But as a heterosexual man, there is very little about Broadway musicals that appeals to me. (I know that’s a horrible cliché, but you gotta admit it’s kind of true.) So ever since my wife announced that she absolutely had to see the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, currently in previews at the Broadway Theater in New York and officially opening on April 25th, I’ve been mentally preparing myself for an evening of pretending to care. For the Broadway buff, the show seemingly has everything. A script by Neil Simon! Music by Burt Bacharach and Hal David! Featuring the funny gay guy from Will & Grace playing a straight guy who sings! Wow, that’s just… I guess great? I can already feel my eyelids getting heavy. But there is at least one part of the production that’s made me legitimately excited. It stars Kristin Chenoweth.
I don’t know what it is about Chenoweth. At least on paper, she isn’t my cup of funny. She’s sunshiny and cute, with a helium-filled voice and aw-shucks Bible Belt cheerfulness. She regularly performs in inspiring musicals about witches and Charles Shultz cartoons, records faith-based albums with titles like “A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas,” and manages to be more adorable than actual muppets when appearing on Sesame Street. But for all her perky goodness, there’s a dark side to Chenoweth that peeks out occasionally. You can see it in her recent guest stint on Glee (another show no heterosexual man watches of his own free will, but we encourage you to keep up with it in our Gay Guide to Glee), where she played an alcoholic high school drop-out corrupting teenagers in a role reminiscent of Amy Sedaris in her Strangers With Candy prime. (She returns to Glee on Tuesday, April 27th.) You can see it in her memoir, A Little Bit Wicked, where she writes about fans who express their adoration with public masturbation and how a “Cooter Smash” resulted in her ability to predict rain. And you can definitely see it in her brilliant video for Funny or Die, in which she hosted a crystal meth intervention by way of musical theater, singing such timeless lyrics as “You make cash giving head, then spend it buying Sudafed.” Chenoweth somehow exists comfortably in both worlds, the filthy Yin to her own squeaky-clean Yang.
When I called Chenoweth for our interview, I wasn’t sure which version I’d get: the goofy, pint-sized charmer or the bad girl who’s like a miniaturized Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Because she’s such a consummate professional, I got a little bit of both.
Eric Spitznagel: I probably have misinformed ideas about what happens behind the scenes on a Broadway show. Is it pretty similar to that Bob Fosse movie All That Jazz?
Kristin Chenoweth: (Laughs) Absolutely.
So it’s all steamy affairs with choreographers and non-stop chain-smoking?
Yeah, that’s basically all we do. When we rehearse during the day, we spend most of our time figuring out exactly how to hold a cigarette and how many puffs to take. And then we dance for awhile. We have our five-minute breaks here and there, but mostly it’s just smoking and dancing. That’s literally all we do.
Tickets for Promises, Promises cost up to $250. That’s pretty steep in this economy. Does everybody in the audience get a foot massage?
Sure, why not? (Laughs.) It comes with a happy ending.
A what now?
I didn’t mean it like that!
What kind of “happy ending” did you mean?
I mean the kind where people are on their feet at the end and clapping.
So a family-friendly happy ending?
I understand that with the economy, it’s a little distressing for some families to afford these kinds of prices. But they seem to be doing it. They’re coming out and seeing our show. And that makes me feel really good. Some people have been saving for a year just for one night at the theater, you know?
Who gets to tell Timmy he can’t get braces next year because Mommy wanted to see you sing “I Say a Little Prayer”?
(Laughs.) Hopefully it won’t come to that. But there is pressure. I always try to remember that every night is somebody’s first time seeing the show. Let’s face it: do you want to do your job every single day of your life? Probably not. There are probably days when you’re like, “I can’t bear it!” But for me, I have to remember that there’s somebody out there who hasn’t seen the show before. That’s always in the back of my mind.
Jill O’Hara, who originated your role in the 1968 Broadway production, was described in the New York Times review as “innocently beddable.”
(Laughs.) Oh my gosh. What a wonderful description for her.
That’s a lot to live up to. Did you manage to get that same balance? Is your version of this character both innocent and beddable?
I think all three of us—Sean (Hayes) and me and Tony (Goldwyn)—are looking at doing our version of Promises while also staying true to the source material. I think there’s a quality to me that’s maybe kind of innocent. I don’t know about beddable part. (Laughs.)
In your memoir, A Little Bit Wicked, you shared a story about an audience member at You’re a Good Man, Charlie Man who had to be escorted out of the theater because he was masturbating during one of your songs. Is there a certain song or scene in Promises, Promises that could inspire autoerotism?
(Laughs.) Oh god, I hope not. I really, really hope not. Here’s what I hope: I hope that if anybody needs to masturbate, that they do it in the privacy of their own home and not in the back of the theater. Have that be a private moment just for you.
Everything about this show is gonna appeal to long-time Broadway fans. But what about people in their 20s or younger? How do you entice the kids to come out and see an old-timey musical?
We have been seeing a young crowd, which we love. I think that’s due to Sean, who has a wonderful fan base from the work he’s done in the past, and Tony too, and maybe a little bit me because of Wicked. But I also think people will come out if it’s good. If they can laugh and cry and get all the things you want from live theater, they’ll be there. I was leaving through the stage door the other night and a little girl was out there and she said to me, “My new favorite song is ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’.” That was so special to me. She’d never heard the song before that night. I loved that. I just loved it.
And then you gave her your jersey?
I did what now?
Sorry. This was beginning to sound like a Mean Joe Greene soda commercial.
(Laughs.) It was pretty darn close.
Because you spend all day singing Broadway tunes, surely you don’t go home at night and listen to Sondheim. What kind of music do you play to relax? Lots of heavy thrash metal?
I never get tired of listening to Sondheim. But I will say I am probably a unique person in the fact that I don’t go home and listen to music a lot. I like the silence. I also have a sound machine…
One of those things that plays white noise?
Yeah, yeah. That sounds so depressing, doesn’t it? But it’s the sad, pathetic truth. After the show, I just go home and go to sleep. I’m living like a nun! When I do listen to my iPod, it has Eminem and Judy Garland, it has Barbra Streisand and Mary J. Blige and Rihanna, it has Chely Wright, who is such an awesome country singer. It has all kinds of music. It has Beyonce and Jay-Z! I love Jay-Z. Absolutely love him.
You need to put out an album of rap covers. You could do for hip-hop what Pat Boone did for metal.
Well, I think Jay-Z is probably going to be contacting me very soon, especially after he sees this show. It’s really up his alley. We’re going to collaborate on something. He’ll be thinking, “Big Pimpin’ 2, that should definitely be Kristin.” (Laughs.) Because when you think of Big Pimpin’, you think of me.
You’ve been doing musicals for so long, does it start to affect the way you interact with the outside world? Are you surprised when you’re having a conversation and the other person doesn’t burst into song?
I’m surprised when they do. I’m still shocked by it. Just the other day I was in a sunglasses store and somebody started singing, and I thought, “Really? Please! Don’t embarrass yourself any more.” No, no, I’m kidding. It actually makes me feel happy. I love it when people come up to me and start singing something that I’ve done or something from a show I’ve been in.
At this point, you must want to throat punch the next person who sings “Popular” to you.
Yeah, I’ve heard “Popular” a few times. But I don’t mind it that much. It always makes me smile. I think it’s so sweet. Music is the universal language.
Maybe you can help me with this. My sister-in-law really enjoys Wicked, and every time I’m in her car, she plays “Popular” over and over and over again. Is there a non-rude way of making her stop?
I think your only choice is to destroy her CD. You throw it out the window when she’s not paying attention. And if she asks you about it, you don’t have any idea what happened. That’s what you do.
But what if she buys another copy? Or plays it on her iPod?
Throw it out the window. You can tell her I told you to do it. Just throw it out the window and say “Kristin Chenoweth says no!” (Laughs.) I sympathize with you. I can’t listen to “Popular” anymore either.
When you won an Emmy last year, announcer John Hodgman said that if you weren’t an actress, you’d be a private detective. That has to be a joke, right?
No, he wasn’t joking. If I wasn’t acting, I’d love to study criminal psychology and/or forensics. I just find the whole subject so fascinating. What makes people do horrible things? It’s like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Yeah, that’s probably what I would’ve done. I would’ve given my agency a really cute name, like “K.C. Detects.”
I’d add an exclamation point, so it’s “K.C. Detects!” That way, it sounds like it needs to be said with jazz hands.
Absolutely! I love it. (Laughs.)
By asking what you’d do if you weren’t acting, I feel like I’m doing one of those James Lipton, Inside the Actor’s Studio interviews.
Oh yeah, yeah. The Pivot questionnaire or something?
I don’t remember any of the other questions besides what’s your favorite curse word.
That would be shit. Shit, for sure.
Do you have a second favorite curse word?
Let me think. I don’t usually curse that much, but when I do, I’ll say shit. That or shitballers.
That’s a good one. I don’t even know what shitballers means.
It’s kind of a combo-platter. I try very hard not to swear, but let’s face it, sometimes it slips out.
There are rumors you’re going to play Dolly Parton in a movie about her life. What do you and Dolly have in common?
I think we both have interesting speaking voices. I think we’re both little. I think she’s a showman, and in my own way I am too. I think that we both come from the background of faith. We both have very close families. I grew up loving and singing country music, and obviously so did she. I just think she has a really special heart and she’s funny and she makes fun of herself, and those are all qualities that I love.
I notice you didn’t mention “and we both have ginormous boobs”.
(Laughs.) Yeah, that’s right. I was complaining the other day about my boobs. I’m not exactly small-breasted, but booooy, hers would be a back-killer.
Let’s find out if you can tell the difference between you and Dolly. I’ll read some quotes, and you tell me if they’re from your book or if they were uttered by Dolly.
Oh my lord! (Laughs.) O.K., I’ll try.
“If you see someone without a smile, give ‘em yours.”
That would be Dolly.
Nicely done. “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”
That’s gotta be me.
No, sorry, still Dolly.
What?! Are you serious? I thought that was in my book. I must have read it in hers and stolen it.
Looks like somebody owes Ms. Parton some cute proverb royalties.
(Laughs.) Ha! I love it!
“I’m not offended by all the dumb blond jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know that I’m not blond.”
That’s Dolly Parton. Definitely.
You’re 2-for-3. “I got the music in my soul and the rhythm in my feet. When I hear the music, you won’t catch me standing still.”
That’s me! So obvious!
You know what? I honestly have no idea. Could be either of you.
It’s gotta be me! Right? It’s me… (Long pause.) I think. (Laughs.)
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)