Kristin Chenoweth: A Career Founded on Faith

How does the Tony-award winning actress and singer overcome criticism and doubt? She describes the inner voice that has kept her faith strong and guided her from Oklahoma to Broadway. 

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- Posted on Nov 17, 2016

Kristin Chenoweth backstage with her dog, Maddie

You’ve got to have a lot of things go right for you to make it on Broadway. Not just the obvious, like a strong voice and the ability to bring a character to life. You also have to find the right characters to play. And you need a thick skin because this is a competitive business. Great roles, I’ve been fortunate to have. But I’m still struggling to develop that thick skin.

I’ve always been sensitive. Too sensitive, my mom might argue. I can’t help taking to heart what people say about me. Back home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, that wasn’t a problem. I loved to sing and dance, and folks encouraged me, even when I got it into my head that I wanted to be in show business. In my high school yearbook, classmates sent me off with, “Become the famous singer you hope to be.”

The New York theater world is just a little tougher. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been blessed with my share of praise, and I’m grateful. But all it takes sometimes is one critical remark to cut me to the bone. Like the comment I heard—well, overheard—in the ladies’ room of a Broadway theater one day after auditioning for a new show. Two women came in.

READ MORE: 5 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT KRISTIN CHENOWETH

“I mean, she can sing—I’ll give her that,” I heard one of the women say. I recognized her voice right away, an established Broadway star. “But funny? Come on! How hard is it to play a cartoon character? I don’t get all the hoopla!”

They’re talking about me, I realized. I’d just won a Tony Award for my role as Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Sure, the part was based on a comic strip character, but I’d put all of myself into playing it.

One of the biggest names in the business, and she thinks I’m overrated. What if she’s right? I wondered. What if all the hoopla really is for nothing?

That’s when a little voice inside me said, You’re better than that, Kristin. Don’t doubt yourself. The voice I’d listened to—listened for—ever since my very first performance.

I was seven years old and playing a bunny rabbit in The Nutcracker at the Tulsa Ballet Theatre. (They wrote in parts for all the little kids.) Opening night I took my spot beside the Sugar Plum Fairy. I watched girls dressed in beautiful gossamer gowns dance and twirl across the stage with vines in their hands. As the last dancer finished I noticed something lying on the stage. A vine.

Someone must have dropped it, I thought. You’re not supposed to have anything on the floor during a ballet. Someone might trip on it.

The Sugar Plum Fairy was staring at the vine too. How could we get it off the stage without stopping the show?

Go, Kristin, said a voice deep inside me. Hop to it. So I did. I hopped over to the vine, put it in my mouth and hopped back to my spot. The audience erupted. I was one proud rabbit.

READ MORE: KRISTIN CHENOWETH FINDS COMFORT IN PRAYER

When the curtain went down, the artistic director exclaimed, “What a smart little bunny you are! How did you know to do that?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know then whose voice it was. But in the years to come I would hear it and depend on it time and again.

In 1993, for example. I’d just completed a master’s degree in opera performance at Oklahoma City University and won a scholarship to The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. The Lord was laying out a pretty clear path for me, I thought. Then I came to New York City to help my best friend move into his apartment.

On a whim I flipped through the audition listings in Back Stage. One jumped out at me. “The Marx Brothers’ musical Animal Crackers, singers and dancers needed.”

I want you to try. What have you got to lose? There was that voice again. The voice that had never failed me.

That’s why I walked into the Paper Mill Playhouse for the audition. All the other girls had headshots, résumés, an air of confidence. And I had no idea what I was doing! The only thing that kept me from walking out was that inner voice. Just have fun with it, Kristin. Show them what you’ve got.

I sang and I danced. I read the scene they gave me. I was in my element, enjoying the moment. I never expected one of the producers to ask, “Who’s your agent?”

“Agent? I was just doing this for fun,” I tried to explain. “My dad, I guess. I mean—I don’t really have an agent.”

Right then and there they offered me a part. A lead. Arabella. I told them I’d have to think about it.

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I called home as soon as I got back to my friend’s apartment.

“Mom, you’ll never guess what happened,” I said excitedly. “I got a part, a real part in a musical!”

“But what about your scholarship?” Mom said. “The academy only takes five people a year. Are you sure you want to walk away from that?”

“Mom, I’m supposed to be Arabella. I just know it,” I said. “I was sent to that audition for a reason.”

Mom and Dad gave me their blessing. After all, they had raised me to trust that guiding voice. Faith and church were at the center of our family, and we always sought God’s blessing on whatever we undertook.

I called the academy director and explained my situation. “I’m sorry, but I’m giving up my spot.”

She didn’t say a word at first. Then she let me have it.

“You are making the biggest mistake of your life,” she said. “Once you wake up and realize what you’ve done, the door is going to be shut. Don’t even think about trying to come back here.”

She slammed down the receiver. I felt sick, listening to the loud, empty dial tone. Her words really hurt.

I’m glad I trusted my inner voice, though, and took the role of Arabella. It led to other parts. Two jobs came up at once; a lead in Annie Get Your Gun and a minor role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

The director of Charlie Brown called me. “Kristin, I want to expand a role just for you,” he said. “I can’t tell you about it until I get Charles Schulz’s approval, but please take it on faith, it’s perfect for you.”

READ MORE: KRISTIN CHENOWETH'S MYSTERIOUS ENCOUNTER

Take it on faith. For a month I prayed about the decision, listened for that voice. Everyone from my friends in the business to my grandmother back home in Oklahoma thought that I should choose Annie Get Your Gun, a tried-and-true show.

But I was drawn to the role of Sally Brown, Charlie’s little sister. The dialogue and the characters were simple, yet honest and genuine. The entire play was about being happy with who you are—something I believed in.

Almost as deeply as I believed in the inner voice pointing me to Sally. It was the right role for me, a role that earned me the Tony Award.

The day after the Tonys I was on a high. A high that came crashing down with one phone call.

“I really hate to tell you this, Kristin, but the show is closing,” the producer said. “We’re just not making expenses.”

I was devastated. Doubts about my decision came seeping into my brain. If I’d listened to everyone else, I’d still have a job. I hung up the phone. You just won a Tony, I told myself. Move on.

READ MORE: BEN VEREEN ON USING GOD'S GIFTS

I tried. I went to an audition. Only to wind up in the ladies’ room afterward, overhearing that catty comment about all the hoopla over my performance. It hurt.

But I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t give in to doubt. I had to stand up for the show and the role I put all my faith in. I had to stand up for myself. Lord, please help me handle this with class.

I pushed the stall door open and walked up to the row of sinks. I stood right next to the Broadway star. Silence. I washed my hands and headed for the exit. I turned around and looked back at the pair.

“I don’t get all the hoopla, either,” I said with a wink and walked out of the ladies’ room, head held high.

And really, that’s the truth. What does all the hoopla matter in comparison to that inner voice, that voice deep in our hearts that always keeps us true to ourselves, that never fails us. It is the voice I listen to—and for—each and every day.

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