When producers first approached Kristin Chenoweth about playing the female lead in the musical “Promises, Promises,” she was hesitant and more than a little worried about taking on the role.
One of Broadway’s brightest stars, she’s best known for her zany portrayals of upbeat, comic characters in musicals such as " Wicked” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and she’s won more fans with her television work, first on “The West Wing,” later in her Emmy-winning performance on “Pushing Daisies,” and most recently in a recurring guest spot on the hit series “Glee.”
But in the Neil Simon adaptation of Billy Wilder’s classic film “The Apartment,” Chenoweth would be showing audiences a darker, more complex side, playing Fran Kubelik, a woman who has an affair with her married boss, slides into depression and then attempts suicide. Would the public accept her in such a different role?
“When they asked me to play this character, I told them, very honestly, that I’m scared,” she recalled. “I’m very open about insecurities with people I trust. And people just expect me to do comedy, comedy, comedy.”
The actress took on the challenge and opens Sunday night with Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”) in what is being advertised as “the original three martini musical,” with songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It hasn’t been revived in more than 40 years, and the buzz along the Rialto is that audiences who come expecting one of Chenoweth’s famously fizzy performances are in for a surprise.
“When you’re petite and blond, when you’re a basically happy person and a comedian, people don’t necessarily think you’ve got a dramatic side,” the 4-foot-11 performer said recently in her dressing room at the Broadway Theater. “They want to typecast you every time.
“I think the role of Fran for me is probably closer to home than I’d like to admit, than most people know about. There’s probably not a woman alive who doesn’t understand about being in love with somebody who’s unavailable to them, and that definitely has been a part of my life. Depression has been a part of my life. I go home at night with the same insecurities as anyone else.”
When does a creative leap become too much of a risk?
It’s a quandary that many performers would kill for, because Chenoweth has carved out a Broadway niche all her own. Her self-deprecating humor is on full display during a backstage chat. Gobbling a tossed salad and stretching out on a sofa, she cracks jokes about her height and the challenges of being a liberal Christian (“We do exist!”) in Hollywood. When she demonstrates how her normally high-pitched speaking voice has been brought down an octave for the new show, she suddenly belts out a high C for contrast — laughing at a visitor’s startled reaction.
Beyond Broadway, Chenoweth is a classically trained opera singer. She’s a pop and Christian music recording artist. She’s starred on TV and in movies. After “Promises, Promises,” she’ll begin a six-month national concert tour. The actress divides her time between homes in Manhattan and West Hollywood. Good luck connecting the dots.
Her experiences on “Glee” are a case in point. Chenoweth never dreamed she’d be playing a washed-up, alcoholic singer on one of TV’s hottest shows. (Sworn to secrecy about her return appearance Tuesday, she said only that her character resurfaces as the owner of a karaoke roller-rink and once again complicates the life of Matthew Morrison’s Will Schuester). As for future appearances, she’s keeping her fingers crossed.
“I don’t have a master plan for my career,” she said with a laugh. “It might look like all this is happening to me seamlessly, but it isn’t. From the beginning I’ve just gone from one thing to another.”
Raised by adoptive parents, Chenoweth grew up in Broken Arrow, Okla., and displayed showbiz talent at a young age. She took ballet lessons, played piano and sang in church. She developed an interest in opera, giving early hints of an unusually strong voice. After high school, she joined a theater troupe, playing the role of Kubelik at 19.
“I can’t remember much about it, which is a good thing, because I couldn’t possibly understand what ‘Promises, Promises’ was about,” she said. “I enjoyed the singing but had no life experience for the part.”
Her real instruction began soon thereafter, with renowned voice teacher Florence Birdwell, an Oklahoma City opera singer who would also train Broadway star Kelli O’Hara. In grueling sessions with Birdwell, who once said Chenoweth had “the voice of her generation,” the aspiring performer learned not only the mechanics of classical singing but the hard work and personal sacrifice needed for artistic success.
“What she [Birdwell] told me, and what I tell other young singers, is that if you have something else you can imagine doing, then do it,” Chenoweth said. “Because if you don’t, you must be prepared to work your butt off — to make your art the central thing in your life.”
Chenoweth, who graduated from Oklahoma City University, was headed for an opera career. But on her way to enroll at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, she auditioned for a New York musical on a lark and got the part. It was a turning point: Although she didn’t want to disappoint Birdwell, her heart lay on the musical stage.
The young actress — who was once praised by a critic for giving “the most winning performance by an animated cartoon in a Broadway musical” —- won a Tony in 1999 for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Her celebrity skyrocketed with “Wicked” in 2003, when she played Glinda the Good Witch and sang “Popular,” her signature song.
Although “Kristin,” an NBC sitcom, was abruptly cancelled after only six episodes, Chenoweth’s television career gained momentum with her portrayal of political consultant Annabeth Schott on “The West Wing.” Now, after four years, she’s returning to Broadway.
“Kristin sparkles every time she’s on stage, she’s got one of the great voices of our time,” said lyricist Hal David of her work in “Promises, Promises.” “She’s everything I imagine Fran Kubelik to be.”
Director Rob Ashford said his actors are “a very happy company” as opening night approaches. Instead of replicating the 1968 show, which invites comparisons to “Bye, Bye Birdie,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and other breezy musicals of the 1960s, he’s sought inspiration in “The Apartment,” an adult drama starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. He also said audiences would relate to the show’s edgy period setting given the success of " Mad Men.”
But he’s mindful of details: During a recent rehearsal, Ashford watched closely as Chenoweth and Hayes played the final scene. “Promises, Promises” ends on a hopeful note, with the two taking hesitant steps toward a relationship. As they finished, Chenoweth nixed the idea of them hugging. It wouldn’t be true to the period, she said, and the couple would be more likely to shyly hold hands.
The fine-tuning has continued in recent weeks. She and the creative team have been tinkering with her portrayal of Kubelik, brightening up the early dramatic story line before pathos sets in.
Are these simply normal, last-minute tweaks? Nowadays, to an inordinate degree, opening-night jitters on Broadway compete with online whispers about previews and whether a show will succeed or fail. But Chenoweth steers clear of Internet gossip (“It’s the devil’s playground,” she jokes), and her producers are upbeat.
“We always felt Kristin was a bona fide leading lady, and this is a role that could define the next step in her evolution,” said Craig Zadan, who produced the show along with Neil Meron and John Gore. “She isn’t playing the comic foil. She isn’t somebody with magic powers, or the cute girl…. She’s a full-blooded woman.”