The path that brings Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth back to Charlotte in February began, of all places, at “Celebrity Fight Night” in Rome.
Last fall’s week-long event – hosted by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli – featured the likes of Elton John, Smokey Robinson and others performing to raise money for charity, including Bocelli’s foundation.
Chenoweth, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress well-known for her role as Glinda in the hit musical “Wicked,” has long admired Bocelli. So she seized on the chance to perform at the benefit in Rome, singing a couple songs and a last-minute duet with Bocelli.
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Soon after, Chenoweth readily agreed to appear with him in New York, as well as at several other shows. That includes Feb. 9 at the Spectrum Center for Bocelli’s first appearance in Charlotte; Chenoweth was last in town in 2016. Working with Bocelli, she said, also provided inspiration for what she wants her own legacy to be.
Chenoweth discussed her future, her fears and a memorable “Wicked” rehearsal during a recent interview with the Observer.
A ‘good kind of fear’
Chenoweth has talked about how she admires Carol Burnett’s fearlessness as a performer. So what spooks Chenoweth?
“What I have is a good kind of fear,” the 49-year-old said of her operatic soprano voice. “I was never fearful of losing those notes or the agility. But the agility is harder and what’s happening is my voice is deepening. And I was scared of it for awhile.”
There were plenty of songs she wouldn’t go near in her 20s, 30s and early 40s because of the low notes. And now? “I’m able to broaden my material as an artist because the low notes are comin’,” she said. “I never thought I’d sing ‘The Man Who Got Away.’ I wouldn’t dare. I thought, no that’s not me. But it is now.”
Still quite ‘popular’
Long after its 2003 debut, “Wicked” remains a strong draw for audiences, especially young girls and women. The show reimagines “The Wizard of Oz” through the rivalry, and ultimately, friendship between Glinda and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West (originally played by Idina Menzel).
“I think it resonates because both Elphaba and Glinda are outcasts in a way. They are both good and bad, they are both insecure and confident,” Chenoweth said. Its themes of love, friendship and above all, forgiveness, “are the themes in life that we look for in our relationships. It’s special to see two girls be together, and be each other’s adversary — and best friend.”
And in the midst of the #metoo movement, of women speaking out against past wrongs, Chenoweth called the show “probably more relevant than it’s ever been.”
One memorable tech rehearsal involved Chenoweth perched on Glinda’s bubble machine. They hoisted her up past the rafters. Then they forgot about her.
“I was up there, and I saw them working out something on the stage. I was yelling and no one could hear me.”
So Chenoweth did what she does best: She began belting out a high note. A friend in the ensemble heard it, looked up and started pointing.
“And they were like, ‘Oh my God,’ and they floated me down. I was like, ‘You guys, you cannot forget about Glinda in the bubble up there,’ ” Chenoweth recalled, laughing.
The Tammy Faye connection
Ask Chenoweth about a classic Broadway role she yearns to play and she’ll tell you she’s drawn to creating new characters, or ones who haven’t been seen for a long time.
A musical based on the movie “Death Becomes Her” is being adapted for Chenoweth, who will play the Meryl Streep role of an age-obsessed Broadway diva.
Then there’s Tammy Faye Bakker, the late former wife of disgraced Charlotte-area televangelist Jim Bakker. Chenoweth has been developing a musical about her life for years, and amplified her interest in the role in a 2012 interview with “Playbill.” (“I understand the whole Christian network television deal, and I think she was ahead of her time in a lot of ways,” she told the magazine. “She was so accepting and loving of all kinds of people. She really was the epitome of what we’re supposed to be as Christians.”)
“It’s had a couple of incarnations but we gotta get the script right,” Chenoweth told the Observer. “So that’s what we’re doing right now. I can’t say who, but we’re hiring a writer.”
One more thing: If Dolly Parton ever wrote her life story, Chenoweth wants in on the project. Or to sing with her on stage. “That’s been my lifelong dream,” she said.
Growing up in the Tulsa, Okla., suburb of Broken Arrow, Chenoweth never had a performing arts center to visit. But just such a center opened in her hometown a few years back, and its theater was named in her honor in 2012.
Three years ago, Chenoweth started a week-long summer arts camp there; last summer, she picked 47 kids out of 800 who auditioned for her “Broadway Bootcamp” and worked with them the entire week, bringing in guest artists like Tony-winning actress Faith Prince and choreographer Baayork Lee, an original cast member of “A Chorus Line.”
This year, Chenoweth expects twice as many students to audition. And she’s already talking up plans for dorms, a rehearsal studio and an arts studio at the site.
Here’s where Bocelli comes in.
“He is somebody I want to emulate,” Chenoweth said, citing his mentoring of younger opera singers and others.
Chenoweth sees the foundation she’s laying at the Oklahoma program as helping cement a legacy of her own. “I didn’t know this was going to be what I wanted more than anything,” she said, “and it has become an obsession.”
Want to go?
Andrea Bocelli concert, with guest performers Kristin Chenoweth and soprano Nadine Sierra.
When: 8 p.m. Friday Feb. 9.
Where: Spectrum Center, 333 E. Trade St.
Tickets: $78.50 and up.
Details: 704-688-9000; http://www.andreabocelli.com/tourdates/spectrum-center/
Kristin Chenoweth (Cheno to her die-hard fans) has easily moved between stage, movie and TV roles. Here are a few highlights:
▪ Broadway: Chenoweth won a Tony Award in 1999 as Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role as Sally in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and was nominated for another Tony in 2004 for “Wicked.” Other Broadway appearances included “Promises, Promises,” “On the Twentieth Century” and a limited concert appearance called “My Love Letter To Broadway.”
▪ TV: Chenoweth nabbed an Emmy for her role as Olive in TV’s “Pushing Daisies” in 2009, and made memorable appearances in “Glee,” “The West Wing” and “American Gods,” as well as productions of “Hairspray Live!,” “The Music Man” and “Annie.” She’s producing and starring in an upcoming comedy for ABC, “The Real Fairy Godmother.”
▪ Movies: Chenoweth got animated for voice work in “Rio 2,” “The Peanuts Movie” and “My Little Pony: The Movie,” while appearing in such live-action films as “RV” and “The Pink Panther.”
▪ Books: In 2009, she wrote about her life in “A Little Bit Wicked,” which debuted on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list.
▪ Sidewalks: Chenoweth received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015.