There’s a theater inside the Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center in Broken Arrow, Okla., that bears her name, but when asked about it, Kristin Chenoweth seems slightly embarrassed. “When you see your name up above there, you’re like, ‘What am I going to do with that?’” the actress and singer attests.
Feeling a responsibility to steward the recognition of literally having her name in lights, Chenoweth has turned her namesake into her legacy. For the past five years, she’s hosted a Broadway Boot Camp at her theater, where select high school students have the opportunity to learn from some of the most talented entertainers in the field. Alongside her famous friends, Chenoweth teaches a series of workshops that culminate in a stage production. Several of Chenoweth’s students have gone on to attend prestigious universities across the country.
“I can’t tell you what that means to me, that there are kids of mine that are going to be making their dreams come true,” she says. “I know I have a future GRAMMY® winner. I know I’ve got a future Tony Award winner. I just want them to flourish.”
Chenoweth herself is an Emmy and Tony Award winner. She’s a talented actress, who’s conquered film, TV and Broadway; and a versatile singer who’s covered everything from jazz and opera to Gospel and Country. Passing on the lessons she’s learned throughout her extraordinary career has made her mindful of the people who influenced her as a young artist, many of which were the big female voices she heard on the radio back home in Broken Arrow.
That’s why after she finished her last traditional album, The Art of Elegance, she began making a list of all the songs she really loved—songs that had left an indelible mark on her to this point. She soon realized the list, quite unintentionally, consisted of songs recorded solely by females.
“It’s important for me as an artist to pay homage to people who struck me as a young child that I understood immediately,” says Chenoweth, citing voices like Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Carole King, Patsy Cline, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton among them. “I know why people are scared to do covers, because you have that original version stuck in your head.”
On her latest collection, For The Girls, Chenoweth ambitiously covers timeless songs originally recorded by these women. From Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” to Linda Ronstadt’s “Desperado,” the album is a time capsule of songs that hold special meaning for Chenoweth and prove she can literally sing anything. This includes the multi-octave “I Will Always Love You,” which she recorded with the icon herself, the incomparable Dolly Parton.
“I did the song with Dolly—you know, the song,” Chenoweth emphasizes as if confiding a secret. “I never thought she’d say ‘yes’ to ‘I Will Always Love You.’ And then when Dolly said ‘yes,’ I did the ugly cry and I thought, Well, I can retire. I’m done. Honestly, if it all ended tomorrow, I got to sing with her. I’m good.”
Of the dozen tracks, Chenoweth claims recording her own version of Pasty Cline’s “Crazy” was one of the album’s most challenging moments, because her tendency was to mimic the beloved singer. “One thing about my voice is it does a lot of different things, and I could really imitate her,” Chenoweth reveals. “I knew it was written by Willie Nelson, and I just wanted to kind of pay homage to him, to be frank. In the end, I had to really listen to the words, listen to what Willie wrote. That’s when I started putting my own stamp on it.”
Chenoweth also covers “I’m A Woman,” alongside Jennifer Hudson and another queen of Country, Reba, who recorded her own version of the Peggy Lee classic on her 1979 album, Out of a Dream. Having just returned from Vegas where she saw Reba perform with Brooks & Dunn at their residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, Chenoweth was inspired by the Country superstar’s versatility as an entertainer.
“If you listen to Reba, and you listen to Dolly, you know that they’ve both done Broadway; they’ve both done TV. Reba literally brought ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ back from death on Broadway,” Chenoweth asserts. “Like them, I get to balance all these lanes. It’s what every actress and artist wants to do.”
It’s evident Chenoweth has carved her own path as both an actress and a singer. The work she’ll release in 2019 alone is further proof that she seamlessly transitions between artistic pursuits. She has not one, but two, made-for-TV holiday movies debuting this Christmas—one on Hallmark and one on Netflix—where she plays vastly different characters. Simultaneously, her new music won’t just be hovering in the wings either.
Now that she’s had time to get comfortable with her own renditions of some of her favorite songs, Chenoweth is ready to do what she does best—perform them live. “I’m an entertainer. I’m dying. It’s like I’m at the horse race gate, and I’m waiting for them to let us go,” Chenoweth says of her desire to bring For The Girls to life in a live setting.
Fortunately, the starting bell will ring this November when Chenoweth returns to Broadway for a limited residency at New York’s Nederlander Theatre for an eight-show run in support of For The Girls.
And if she shows up somewhere seemingly unexpected between now and then, don’t be surprised. After all, she’s not interested in following a lane; she’s interested in leaving a legacy.