By Chris Azzopardi
Kristin Chenoweth likes to say that if it can’t be explained, it must be the unicorns. Why does she have so many gay fans? Well, you’re only partially right if you thought it was because she originated the role of a beguiling, bedazzled, not-wicked witch who belts in a cloud of bubbles while flailing a wand. Because it’s also, obviously, a “unicorn thing.”
And why, exactly, did our call abruptly drop mid conversation? Was the Broadway star in a deep canyon? Was it AT&T? An overloaded cell tower? A weak signal? “You know what,” she squeaks when we reconnect, “it’s unicorn problems!”
Chenoweth’s perpetually chirpy way of life is a mood that can also best be explained as being … well, it’s unicornian, of course. It just is, and we’re all better for it. Ahead of the release of her latest album, “For the Girls,” I caught up with the 51-year-old Broadway legend and gay cruiser to talk about not stalking Dolly Parton, new details on the “Death Becomes Her” musical she’s set to star in, and why she thinks it’s important to perform on Mike Huckabee’s show – but especially in a rainbow dress.
(Chris Azzopardi) Before we get to the album, I have to know. What was your favorite part of sailing on a cruise ship in August with so many gay men?
(Kristin Chenoweth) (Laughs.) It’s my version of heaven!
I haven’t even gone on a gay cruise and I think it’s my version of heaven too.
I can’t say I blame you. I mean, first of all, all the love on the cruise ship, obviously, from audience to singer and singer to audience, but for each other.
So you’d recommend I go?
Yes! You know what it should be called? “Love Cruise,” because everybody is just there to have fun. I just loved it. I wanted to actually go on the thing, but it’s kind of hard for me (laughs) to be on a cruise because it’s pretty widely known I have Ménière’s Disease, an inner ear vertigo thing. So it’s hard for me to be on a boat … for very long, anyway. So it always bums me out when I have to disembark. I’m like, “Man, I wanna be on this thing!” But you should go!
You performed ‘For Good’ with Katharine McPhee on this gay cruise. Where does that rank among the gayest moments in a career filled with them?
It went viral.
I know, right? It was awesome. I’ve always been so moved when we’ve done it because her heart is so big and that’s who needs to sing that song – somebody with a heart, really big and open. Never mind that voice. The voice is ridiculous, it’s just wonderful. But I always look for the heart too. She’s got it in spades. And it was just a pleasure for us to do, and it was also a pleasure for it to be received so well.
Whose idea was it to put you in a super cute Michael Kors rainbow dress?
Well, whose do you think? (Laughs.) It was mine! I called my publicist. I said, “Do you think Michael would make the dress?” Because it’s so perfect. And he was kind enough to just gift me that dress. It’s so funny: I’m gonna have to do “Huckabee” (former Arkansas governor and conservative commentator Mike Huckabee’s weekly talk show) and Michael’s like, “You’re not gonna do Huckabee.” I’m like, “I sure am! I’m gonna wear my rainbow dress. You know I’m gonna wear my Pride flag. You bet I am! Of course I am!” It’s important for us to not only wear it with our people but with our “not” people.
Why is that true for you?
Because if we don’t talk to each other, and if we don’t talk to people who disagree with us or don’t believe like us, then we will never move forward.
Shifting to your new album, I know this is called ‘For the Girls,’ but Babs, Judy, Dinah and Doris – some of these songs strike me as ones that maybe you listened to with gay friends growing up.
(Laughs.) You think? How did you guess? Of course! You know, I had such a blessing in high school: I did have a group of friends – some were in the closet and some weren’t – and I feel like we did sit around and obviously we listened to Judy and we listened to Barbra, but I think I would’ve done that anyway because my parents, even though they’re engineers, loved music. They would listen to everything – I mean everything, from Puccini, everything that was on PBS. And I introduced them to Madonna, which was shocking at first. But we kind of loved everything in our house, and I think that says a lot about the way I was raised and also just what my musical tastes are. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered them all but country music was a big part of me. I’ve wanted to do that Dolly song (“I Will Always Love You,” which is featured on “For the Girls”) since I can remember, with her, and I never thought she’d say yes and, man, she did. I can’t believe she did.
But of course I’m gonna honor Judy on that record, of course I’m gonna honor Barbra. People forget about Eydie Gormé’s “I Wanna Be Around.” I’m gonna sing Eydie Gormé. I’m going to honor Linda (Ronstadt), who was one of the most versatile singers we had. I was on the cheerleading squad and I remember we had to make up a routine for halftime and mine was a lyrical dance to Linda’s “Desperado.” I remember the cheerleaders going, “I don’t think so, I don’t think that’s gonna work out.” That tells you where my brain and heart always was.
With the gay icons, of course.
How would you describe this album to a straight man?
My producer Steve Tyrell is as straight as they come, and he and I both wanted to honor the women. But I said to him in a recording session, “You know, this isn’t just about the women, this isn’t just about the renaissance that we are having now.” My tribute to them is about the men who’ve loved them. Gay, straight, tall, short. It’s really about the men who’ve been behind the women, like my dad. And so I think that’s kind of where it’s “for the girls,” for sure, but I hope the men who love us love it too.
Which, of course, includes gay men. I know you know there’s a special bond between gay men and straight women.
There is. I’ve been asked before to explain that and I say that’s a unicorn thing. I don’t know. It’s just how it is. It started for me when I was a little girl; I’ve always just been drawn to that community. Especially when I went to college, my world was opened up to even more by some of my best friends, especially growing up in the Bible Belt and how interesting that’s been, as well. But I say that it goes together for me, my faith and my love for not just gays but people. Listen, if you’re a jerk, I’m probably not gonna like ya.
And listen, there are gay jerks.
(Laughs.) Just like there are straight jerks, so I get it, baby. I get it.
You are meticulous in your approach to the roles you play on TV, in film and on Broadway. Like for your part on NBC’s ‘Trial & Error’ you knew the slap gloves had to be leather and you knew why and you were very specific. How does your creative brain work when you’re taking on a song that’s been done to death like ‘Crazy’ or ‘When I Fall In Love?’
(Laughs.) Yeah, thank you for saying that. I absolutely am. And I know that sometimes it makes other people bananas, but I have to say what I know, and one thing I’ve learned – and this is just what you call evolution in life – is if you do your truth and you have a reason for it, they might not all agree or like it but they can’t get mad at you for it. I’m gonna say what I think because a) I’ve been doing it for a second and b) I’ve been trained and c) I care! If I didn’t care I’d say, “OK, I’m just gonna release a record, who cares.” I wouldn’t have a thought about it, I wouldn’t.
When we were recording “I’m a Woman” with Jennifer (Hudson) and Reba (McEntire), I said, “I have to have Aretha on this album, I don’t know how to do that.” Steve Tyrell was like, “We’re gonna have her speak at the end.” Blew my mind. And that’s why I went to work with Steve, and that’s why I went to work with the people that I worked with on “Trial & Error,” because they think like me, I think like them. It’s kind of a unique club, and I’m not saying that we’re more precious or more special than others; I’m saying that being meticulous about your art is a gift. The day that I don’t care is the day I’ll quit.
How has ‘You Don’t Own Me,’ which you’ve recorded as a duet with Ariana Grande, influenced you?
I remember the first time I heard it: I heard Lesley Gore’s version, because in my family we listened to Lesley Gore. Then I became a big fan of Dusty Springfield’s and over the years have kind of compared the two and I always, for me, love the original. I always go back to the original. It’s just kind of who I am. Which is interesting that I chose to do this record, because (laughs) I’m trying to put my stamp on original songs. But I went back to Lesley’s version, and I wanted Ariana because I feel like it’s kind of my version of old school and new school together. I just felt like the words and lyrics were us.
You’ve spoken a lot about Dolly over the years and her influence on your career. Now that you’ve recorded a song with her, how chummy are you and Dolly? Do you text each other?
Well, mainly what I do is video because these nails don’t really do well with texting. (Laughs.) And if I could just quit and go on tour with her, I would do it. I would do it! It’s not stalker-y, but it is a healthy obsession, and it started, again, when I was little and I thought, “I feel like her.” That was the feeling I got. Then a long time ago when we first met she was like, “You’re like me!” And I was like, “I know!” It’s been like that over the years. And do I wish I could see her more? Yeah. Do I wish I could be with her on the bus watching her cook? Yes.
Hey, I bet you never thought that you would record a song with her, so you never know.
I never did. My next dream: I wanna go to Dollywood real bad.
Yeah, with her. But you know what, if it doesn’t happen soon, I’m just gonna go by myself and have my own party. Because I’ve got to go.
And you’ll FaceTime her when you’re riding the rides?
That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Have we gotten any closer to a ‘Pushing Daisies’ musical or potential TV revival? I think Lee Pace and creator Bryan Fuller have been maybe trying to cook up something.
Well, I wish they’d hurry up because we didn’t really get closure, which was, if you want to look at it this way, also a beautiful thing. But Bryan keeps talking about it, and I know nothing would make me happier. I just felt like we got the slow “no.” Networks and studios, I get it, it’s a business. It’s nothing against them. It’s just that we didn’t know that when we filmed our season finale that it was our series finale. I think we’ve all been kind of searching for (a revival) since.
Do you have a preference as to whether the show should return as a musical or TV revival?
Gosh, you know, I think it would be lovely to have a TV revival because it was so unique looking on camera. It was beautiful. And the music ended up being – well, anything Bryan does, music is a big part of it, whether there’s singing or not. I just would hate not to have that look again on film.
I feel like as a gay man I already know the answer to this, but what sold you on a musical version of ‘Death Becomes Her?’
Everything. At first, when they approached me, I thought it was obviously for the Goldie Hawn part. And they said, “No. The Meryl Streep part.” And I was like, “Really?” ’Cause I love her, I love that role. I just knew I wanted to do it. I knew the story was funny. I know that it is going to be unique in the trickery that they are inventing. And I know it’s funny. That doesn’t always mean that the show will be funny, but I know the writer and I have read part of it – we have part of the show – and I have complete confidence in what we’re going to create and I can’t wait to show the world.
I can’t wait to see how they’re going to make your head turn.
I have a bad neck, so I’m like, “Good luck with that, people.” (Laughs.) But I think they’ve been talking with different kinds of illusionists and magicians and I think it might be kind of a – not kind of, I think it will be the first on Broadway of its kind and I just can’t wait. I cannot wait.
RuPaul gave you his blessing to play Christian singer and evangelist Tammy Faye Baker. Is a Ru seal of approval the ultimate seal of approval?
Yes! I’ve been waiting. I mean, I’m sitting here doing a time step. I’m waiting for the script. We just hired Robert Horn who just had great success with “Tootsie” on Broadway and David Yazbek, so you know, tick-tock, tick-tock. I’m waiting. I can’t wait to get the lashes going, but also, I just can’t wait to explore her spirit, which was very deep. A lot deeper than people understood. I don’t see it as a big Broadway musical, per se. I don’t think that’s what we’re looking at. I think it’s much more of a small – you know how Audra (McDonald) did “Lady Day?” More in that vein.
You didn’t exactly plan to become the belle of Broadway, and I’ve read that you even thought you’d just become a singer, but obviously your career took you in different directions. What is the most pleasantly unexpected detour your career has taken up to this point?
Aww, what a great question. Seriously. I guess when I think about the work I’ve done, I would say having the opportunity to do all kinds of music. I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to do a country record. I didn’t think I’d have an opportunity to make an inspirational Christian record. I didn’t think I’d get the opportunity to put my stamp on Gershwin and Cole Porter last time. I didn’t know that I’d get to do a live record with film at a theater. And now this one. My label has given me great opportunities to do all of the kinds of music I like, and that was a big surprise to me because so many times labels get a bad rap, like, “I’m gonna be handcuffed to doing just one thing.” I have been able and allowed to do several things; that’s been a big surprise.
The personal thing that’s been a surprise with my career has been getting to talk about my faith and my beliefs behind that, and my love for our community that we’re talking about right now. I didn’t know that that was going to become so important, shall I say. I didn’t know, much like Tammy Faye was a trailblazer, that I was going to be … I just always was who I was. I have lost fans because of it; I have gained fans because of it. But the most important part of that for me, personally, is knowing in my heart that one of my purposes in life is being fulfilled: getting to say what I think and what I believe.
—As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.