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Happy Birthday, Kristin Chenoweth! By Peter Filichia

I won’t tell you how old she is, but I will tell you that July 24th is Kristin Chenoweth’s
birthday.

An ideal way to celebrate tonight is by playing “Tonight” via the recording that she made
with Hugh Panaro. It’s on A PLACE FOR US – A TRIBUTE TO 50 YEARS OF WEST
SIDE STORY.

If you’re the type who remembers dates, you’ll immediately know that the recording was
made over ten years ago, for the Bernstein-Laurents-Sondheim masterpiece was sixty
years old last September.

Chenoweth, the most famous native of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma (unless you’re a
baseball fan who remembers Warren Spahn) may be best known for originating the role
of Glinda in WICKED. However, she was already an established Broadway name before
that mega-hit hit town. If you want to start at the very beginning of her Broadway career,
you go to Kander and Ebb’s 1997 musical STEEL PIER – the show that gave us a look at
those arduous dance marathons that killed soles and souls during the Depression.

Of the five cast members who made their Broadway debuts, two were given Theatre
World Awards whose aim is to honor those making auspicious first appearances on
Broadway and off. That Daniel McDonald won wasn’t so surprising, for he was the
show’s leading man. Chenoweth, however, was in a much smaller role as one of the
many marathon dancers.

“Precious” McGuire was her character’s name, befitting the four-foot-eleven Chenoweth.
Her character would be married on the dance floor, for marathons were famous for
holding ad hoc marriages as both a respite and a novelty. Precious, the former Little
Taffy Miss for Fralinger’s (a salt-water taffy outfit) would tie the knot and sing “Two of a
Kind.”

It also gave her the chance to show her astonishing coloratura. Actually, if we had known
more about her at the time, we wouldn’t have been as surprised; only later did we learn
that she had been an opera performance major at Oklahoma City University.

Despite a fine Kander and Ebb score, STEEL PIER couldn’t manage more that seventy-
six performances, so Chenoweth had to wait almost a year before her next major
assignment: A NEW BRAIN. This time she’d be working off-Broadway, but with two
other blue-chippers: William Finn, the composer-lyricist, and James Lapine, who co-
wrote the book with Finn.

In this autobiographical story about Finn’s inoperable brain tumor that almost killed him
but – thank the musical theater gods and all the others! – didn’t, Chenoweth played
Waitress. Needless to say, this was not a glamorous part that didn’t even afford her a solo. Still her chirpy-perky voice can easily be detected in the eleven cuts in which she
appears out of the score’s twenty-nine.

After A NEW BRAIN closed its Lincoln Center run on August 23, 1998, Chenoweth had
to wait five months to the day for her chance to stand center stage and deliver her
breakout-role song: “My New Philosophy” in the 1999 revival of YOU’RE A GOOD
MAN, CHARLIE BROWN.

If you only know the show from seeing its original production or hearing its original cast
album, this song title will be unfamiliar. For that matter, the character that Chenoweth
played wasn’t even in the 1967 off-Broadway production. Charles Schulz’s character of
Patty – not to be confused with Peppermint Patty, who came later – had waned in
popularity while Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, had eclipsed her. As a result, Patty walked
the plank and Sally got on board the world-famous musical.

Original composer-lyricist Clark Gesner wasn’t up to creating any new material, so
Andrew Lippa stepped in and wrote Sally’s showstopper. The New York Times critic Ben
Brantley started his review by raving about Chenoweth, which might well have helped
the budding star get her Tony and Drama Desk Awards as Best Featured Actress in a
Musical.

(An aside: I’ve always preferred this revival cast album to the original because it’s better
orchestrated. The original made do with piano and percussion, with a heavy dose of
xylophone, then the instrument of choice for off-Broadway musicals before the cello took
over. The revival album has piano and percussion as well, but adds violin, viola, bass,
reeds and guitar. Michael Gibson’s orchestrations are tender and lovely, too.)

Chenoweth’s last cast album – well, let’s say it’s the most recent and hope it’s not her
“last” – is the one from the 2010 revival of PROMISES, PROMISES. She played Fran
Kubelik, who made the mistake of falling for Jeff Sheldrake, a high-powered executive
(Tony Goldwyn) when Chuck Baxter (Sean Hayes), a really nice Mr. Right, was right
there for the taking. It took two acts, but she finally took him.

In the original 1968 production, Fran had three terrific Burt Bacharach songs and shared
an equally fine duet (no less than “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”). To give Chenoweth
more to satisfy a public who wanted to hear more of her, the production added “I Say a
Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home” (the latter a title song from a 1964 film).
Many have said that the new songs made Fran appear to be bipolar, but you probably
won’t notice that when listening to the revival cast album.

Alas, Chenoweth’s appearances in the Encores! productions of ON A CLEAR DAY
YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and the Broadway revivals of THE APPLE TREE and ON
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY went unrecorded. However, we now know her voice so
well that if we listen to the cast albums with scores by more Broadway giants –
respectively Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane; Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick; Cy
Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green – we can imagine her in the songs that
Barbara Harris had in the first two shows and Madeline Kahn had in the last.

As much credit as Kristin Chenoweth deserves for her on-stage appearances, she should
receive some extra kudos for another reason. Somewhere along the way, someone
undoubtedly said to her, “Kid, you gotta change that name. It won’t even fit on any
marquee. And who’s going to be able to spell it?”

If that indeed happened, Chenoweth sure showed him, her or them. The moral of the
story always is that if you have enough talent, an atypical name won’t be a barrier. Just
ask Milo Ventimiglia or Benedict Cumberbatch.

But just in case you DO have a problem spelling Kristin Chenoweth’s name, remember
what you were taught in school: “i” before “e,” except after “c.” So use two “i’s” in her
first name –Kristin — and two “e’s” in her second — Chenoweth.

And if you’re going to say “But those ‘e’s’ DO come after ‘c,’” I’ll say “So the rule isn’t
an exact science — as the word ‘science’ proves.”

Whatever the case, happy birthday to you, Kristin Chenoweth.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each
Friday at www.mtishows.com . His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing,
Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com .