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Last March, soon after New York City’s lockdown began, Kristin Chenoweth grabbed a Clorox wipe and did what she does best: walked through her apartment belting high notes. Then she tried it wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh onesie and cradling her dog. A few weeks later, Andrew Lippa, who composed songs for the 1999 You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown revival that won Chenoweth a Tony and launched her career, wrote her a Pat Benatar-esque parody number about Tiger King antihero Carole Baskin. For that one, she skipped the disinfectants and cartoon paraphernalia.
Like many of us in the paranoid days of early quarantine, Chenoweth desperately needed someplace to project her energy. A workaholic unaccustomed to life without a calendar of upcoming stage and screen appearances, she was craving the electricity of live performance. Zoom wouldn’t cut it. “If I’m an addict of anything, it is the relationship between artist and audience, whether I’m sitting in an audience or I’m the artist,” she says. “I did not know where to put it. I didn’t know how to unpack it.”
Come October, once some productions had resumed filming with strict COVID-19 protocols, the 52-year-old Chenoweth finally found a satisfying outlet: Schmigadoon!, a whimsical Apple TV+ comedy that doubles as a pastiche of musical tropes. She’d been battling depression when Barry Sonnenfeld, who previously directed Chenoweth in the Robin Williams movie RV and the beloved ABC series Pushing Daisies, made an offer she couldn’t refuse in the form of an 18-page patter song that they would shoot in a continuous four-minute take. The challenge was too great to pass up. “I wanted to make sure I could still do something like that, because it’s hard,” she says.
The number, “Tribulation” (inspired by “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man), is the highlight of the six-episode series, which premieres July 16. And the role as a whole is somewhat unusual for Chenoweth, whose perky demeanor has defined her résumé in projects like The West Wing, Running with Scissors, Glee, and Promises, Promises. In Schmigadoon!, she’s the tightly coiffed villain, Mildred Layton, hellbent on upholding the so-called traditional values with which her great-great-grandfather founded the titular village where townsfolk routinely burst into song. When a perplexed couple (Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key) happen upon Schmigadoon in a moment of crisis, their modernity threatens Mildred’s treasured sense of order.
As is her wont, Chenoweth came to Schmigadoon! with a bushel of ideas. “I did not want Mildred to be attractive,” she says, pointing to the matron’s harsh, angular makeup and oft-pursed lips. “Even down to the corset. I said, ‘Make it tight. I want to be in a bad mood.’ And I was!” While itemizing the town’s supposed problems in “Tribulation”—promiscuity, depravity, stray peanut shells—Chenoweth decided to grab a Bible and wield it upside down, a nod to Donald Trump, who, along with The Joker and people she “may or may not be related to,” inspired her MAGA-like turpitude. She plays the resident buzzkill, but she had a ton of fun doing it. Chenoweth felt her spirit being restored in the process.
“When we did the table read about six or seven weeks before we were going to film that scene, with all the cast there, she already had that song memorized by heart and acted it out,” Sonnenfeld says. “When she finished, the whole room stood up and gave her a standing ovation. She’s just extraordinary. We only did three takes of that whole number, and there’s not a single cut in it.”
Chenoweth’s closest Schmigadoon! parallels are Trial & Error, the cult NBC mockumentary for which she based her performance as a kooky heiress on Bette Davis in All About Eve, and racist Velma Von Tussle in the 2016 television production of Hairspray. Chenoweth may be Hollywood’s best-known optimist, but she’s developed a surprising knack for weaponizing that persona. As Mildred, she cloaks ruthless one-liners in sing-songy venom.
The story of Kristen Chenoweth, at least as she tells it, is one of underestimation. Since she was young, people have reminded her how unusual it is to hear such an operatic voice emerging from a petite body. (She is 4 feet 11 inches tall.) “There is a big part of me that is Olive,” she says, referring to the romantic Pushing Daisies character who netted her an Emmy in 2009. “Growing up, no one ever saw me, really, until I sang. They didn’t take me seriously.”
That paradox is what made her a star. All she ever wanted was a spot in a Broadway chorus—“I’m a team player; I want to be part of a group,” she says—but she has yet to achieve that goal. Upon moving to New York from her native Oklahoma, she was immediately cast in scene-stealing parts, à la You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. That ultimately led to her own short-lived sitcom, titled Kristin, and an era-defining role as Wicked’s original Glinda the Good Witch. “The actress’s bright bugle of a voice and laser-sharp comic timing turn her every exclamation into a zinger,” Charles Isherwood raved in his Variety review. Today, she is among the world’s most famous theater performers. During the course of our hour-long conversation, she lists Carol Burnett, Julie Andrews, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, and the late Nora Ephron (who put Chenoweth on the big screen for the first time, playing Nicole Kidman’s best friend in 2005’s Bewitched) as mentors.
Now that Chenoweth is successfully tweaking her persona in Schmigadoon!, there’s a sense that she has done it all, including seven studio albums and counting. But one major achievement still eludes her: a movie musical. Around the time she was entering showbiz in the early 2000s, movie musicals were passé. Now that they’re back, she wants a turn. She even has a pitch for one.
“I love Dolly Parton,” she says. “Everyone knows I love her. Who doesn’t? I have not met anyone who doesn’t. I think there’s a musical to be had of her life, and I think she feels the same. I would love to examine that on Broadway and then go ahead and make a movie out of it. I’m always like, ‘Dolly, come on, hurry up before I leave this earth.’”
Until then, Chenoweth will just keep finding ways to surprise us. This month, she performs with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City — her first stint on the stage since before the pandemic. She would have paid them for the opportunity if needed, she jokes; that’s how thrilled she is. But Chenoweth plans to retire the Winnie-the-Pooh outfit, relying instead on her purest attributes: her larger-than-life pipes and her natural charisma.
“I’m just going to keep chugging along,” she says with a smile, “as long as people will have me.”
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