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Issue Date:  July 1, 2005

Talented and old school

Actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth brings faith to song and stage


When Kristin Chenoweth was preparing for her Carnegie Hall concert debut in January, she drew comfort from a rosary given to her by fellow “West Wing” actor Martin Sheen. It’s not that she said the rosary. In fact, she doesn’t know how; that’s not something she learned growing up in the First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla. But she drew strength from the faith it represents and now carries it in her purse.

“He said, ‘I know you’re not Catholic, but keep it near you,’ ” she said of Mr. Sheen, who had received the rosary from the pope. “He said, ‘If you get nervous, hold on to it.’ I feel a special closeness with him. He’s old school and I gravitate to people who are old school.”

That’s probably because Ms. Chenoweth, although only 36, is rather old school herself. With her strong conservative Christian faith, she stands out in show business as much for what she professes as for her considerable gifts, which include Tony Award-winning talent and a gorgeous four-octave voice. With her new CD of Christian music, “As I Am,” she is putting her faith and talent together in a whole new way.

“People told me it’s a brave thing to do, but it’s not brave,” she said. “It’s just natural.”

Natural, maybe, for someone who was singing solos in church at 7 and who sang solo before 10,000 people at a Baptist convention when she was 12. But not so natural for someone starring on Broadway, on TV and in feature films.

“My agents and managers said, ‘You will take hits. You have to decide what you believe,’ and I said ‘I know what I believe.’ I’m an actress and a singer and I’m also a Christian. We’re not all crazy right-wingers. I just want to be like Jesus, forgiving and loving and nonjudgmental, accepting of everyone even if they don’t agree.”

The CD, among the top five on Christian charts since it debuted in April, has found favor not only with Christians but many nonbelievers, as Ms. Chenoweth hears at signings. One memorable encounter was with a Jewish woman who said she had never had faith, but when she heard Ms. Chenoweth singing she believed it was possible.

“If that’s the only person I touch, I’ll have done what I set out to do,” said Ms. Chenoweth during a phone interview from Toronto, where she was filming “RV” with Robin Williams. (Another movie, “Bewitched” with Nicole Kidman, will be released this summer.)

The CD’s 12 selections offer a variety of arrangements, from country for “It Will Be Me,” pop/rock for “Word of God Speak,” blues for “Poor, Wayfaring Stranger” and classical for “Joyful, Joyful.” Her voice ranges from vulnerable in “Abide in Me” to electrifying in “Upon This Rock,” where it soars into the stratosphere, ending on a high E.

Ms. Chenoweth will perform these songs this summer in concerts around the country. She’ll also be shooting her second season on “The West Wing,” in which she plays media consultant Annabeth Schott, and preparing to sing with Plácido Domingo and the Washington National Opera for its 50th anniversary celebrations this fall. In these ways she has journeyed full circle, becoming the Christian singer she thought she’d be as well as the opera singer she was expected to be after graduating with a master’s in opera performance from Oklahoma City University and receiving a four-year postgraduate scholarship to the Metropolitan Opera’s Academy of Vocal Arts, having won its “most talented up-and-coming singer” award.

Two weeks before Ms. Chenoweth was scheduled to begin classes at the academy, she auditioned for a role in an off-Broadway musical version of the Marx Brothers’ “Animal Crackers.” She did it just for the experience, she said, waiting all day to be seen because she wasn’t a union member. When she was finished, the incredulous director asked, “Who are you?”

She got the part, gave up the scholarship and before long was on Broadway. After two unsuccessful shows closed, she landed the role of Sally, a part written for her, in the revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and won a Tony. That award opened the door for her role as Lily St. Regis in the ABC-TV movie version of “Annie,” her own series, “Kristin,” on NBC in the summer of 2001, her starring role as Marian in the ABC-TV movie version of “The Music Man” and numerous other parts, including her Tony-nominated role as Glinda in the Broadway musical “Wicked.”

Ms. Chenoweth stays centered by attending church -- Methodist in New York and nondenominational in Los Angeles -- and reading a devotional book before bed. She thanks her parents in her CD notes for “instilling the faith in Him that I still carry with me every day. Faith in God is the most precious gift any parent could give their child.”

She said she hopes her life and work will enrich others’ lives. “If I die tomorrow, I want people to say, ‘She was a good example. She lived what she believed.’ ”

Retta Blaney’s book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth and others.

Related Web site

National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005

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