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Kristin Chenoweth Is 'A Little Bit Wicked'

From Broadway to Sesame Street, Kristen Chenoweth has tackled a wide range of roles, genres and media. Now, she tells her own story in her autobiography, A Little Bit Wicked.

43:25

Other segments from the episode on April 16, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 16, 2009: Interview with Kristin Chenoweth; Review of Kristin Downey's book "The woman behind the new deal."

Transcript

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Kristin Chenoweth Is 'A Little Bit Wicked'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Kristin Chenoweth, is one
of the starring voices in the new animated series, “Sit Down, Shut Up,”
which premieres Sunday on Fox. She plays a Christian high school science
teacher who doesn’t believe in evolution.

Although this is a satirical portrayal of Christians, Chenoweth is
Christian. She’s taken a lot of heat from some fellow Christians for her
support of gay rights. The Christian character Harriet, on the series
“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” was loosely based on her.

Chenoweth writes about her life and her stage and screen career in her
new book, “A Little Bit Wicked.” The title refers to her starring role
as Glinda in the hit musical, “Wicked,” which takes the witches from
“The Wizard of Oz” and re-imagines their stories. She won a Tony for her
performance in the musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

On TV, she starred in the NBC series “Kristin,” co-starred in the ABC
series “Pushing Daisies,” and on “The West Wing,” she played Annabeth

Schott, a conservative Republican, working in a Democratic
administration.

Let’s start with her singing a song from the cast recording of “Wicked.”

(Soundbite of song, “Popular”)

Ms. KRISTIN CHENOWETH (Actor): (As Glinda) Elphie, now that we’re
friends. I’ve decided to make you my new project.

Ms. IDINA MENZEL (Actor): (As Elphaba) You really don’t have to do that.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Glinda) I know. That’s what makes me so nice.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Glinda) (Singing) Whenever I see someone less
fortunate than I, and let's face it, who isn't less fortunate than I? My
tender heart tends to start to bleed. And when someone needs a makeover,
I simply have to take over. I know I know exactly what they need.

And even in your case, though it's the toughest case I've yet to face,
don't worry, I'm determined to succeed. Follow my lead, and yes indeed,

You will be popular. You're gonna be popular. I'll teach you the proper
ploys, when you talk to boys, little ways to flirt and flounce. I'll
show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair, everything that
really counts.

To be popular. I'll help you be popular. You'll hang with the right
cohorts. You'll be good at sports, know the slang you've got to know. So
let's start 'cause you've got an awfully long way to go.

GROSS: Kristin Chenoweth, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, I was surprised to
read that you were on track to be an opera singer before rerouting to
Broadway. Now, you studied – you had a degree in music theater and
opera, but still you were on more of an opera track. And what surprises
me about that is that you have, as a singer, in musical comedies you
often have a kind of like brassy, colloquial almost, you know, comedic
voice – as I say in comedies. So how close did you come to being an
opera singer?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Well, what happened is I got my undergrad in musical
theater, and my voice teacher really opened up my voice and just showed
me other kinds of music. And I always had loved classical music because
I played the piano, and I ended up staying and getting my masters degree
in opera performance and then won a few competitions and was accepted to
the Academy of Vocal Arts there in Philadelphia.

And then a couple weeks before the program started, I auditioned for a
show in New York for fun because my friend, Denny(ph), was going, and I
just went to have the experience and ended up booking a part in New
York.

And it’s like okay, what’s your decision really going to be? And because
I’d been a singer and a dancer and an actress, you know, I knew the
focus in opera was just mainly on the voice, and so I really just
decided to follow my heart, and I still train operatically. I still do
operas, but I am known for my musical theater.

GROSS: I love reading about your teacher, Dr. Florence Birdwell, who you
say was very serious about the technical approach to singing, very
serious about the apparatus of the voice. What are some of the things
that she taught you that have stuck with you?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Well, I think, you know, the main thing is that the
larynx is – all of the things that we use to sing is – a lot of it is
muscular. So if I work out my biceps, and I work out my triceps, it’s
going to be – they’re going to get in good shape.

If I don’t work out my voice - it’s not like I open my mouth, and it
just comes out beautifully every day. I have to work at it, and I still
work on the apparatus. I work on keeping the larynx down and breathing,
you know, like I’ve got a tire around my stomach and breathing low and
trying to learn more and more.

The biggest challenge for me has not been the breathing for the singing
but for the speaking because naturally, I’d want to go up here because
that’s where I talk, and I’m spread out, and I’m from Oklahoma, and
that’s the way we speak. But I have to really work and concentrate on
breathing while I speak. And for me, as I speak to you now, this is
actually using the right kind of breath and actually my lower voice, if
you will.

GROSS: That higher voice is the one that we more often hear in your
movie and TV comedies.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Right. Right, I mean, people think that that’s how I
sound all the time, and definitely I have that quality to my voice. I
mean, I’m never going to sound like Demi Moore. I mean, that’s never
going to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: But I do have – this is more me, how I’m talking to you
now.

GROSS: Is there something you completely had to change about your voice?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Oh well, I mean, my accent for one. I mean, when I
arrived in New York I had such a thick, you know, kind of a hick accent,
and like taking a bath was like taking a bath and had two syllables, you
know. And I don’t know, I was just kind of hick, and that’s the way we
talk.

But I’ve really worked hard at not losing it because I still am who I
am, but I do try to speak a little slower and also not sound like I’m
completely from the sticks, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought I’d play something from one of your early recordings,
and this song is a song everyone will know, “My Funny Valentine.” I
think in this recording, we’ll hear more of, like the coloratura aspects
of your voice. Do you agree?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah, I definitely think you’ll hear the more legit
sound.

GROSS: More legit, right. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So this is Kristin Chenoweth, singing “My Funny Valentine.”

(Soundbite of song, “My Funny Valentine”)

Ms. CHENOWETH: (Singing) You’re my funny valentine, sweet comic
valentine. You make me smile with my heart. Your looks are laughable,
unphotographable, yet you’re my favorite work of art.

Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you
open it to speak, are you smart?

But don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me. Stay little
valentine stay. Each day is Valentine’s Day.

GROSS: That’s Kristin Chenoweth singing “My Funny Valentine.” She has a
new autobiography, which is called “A Little Bit Wicked.”

Now you know, we’ve been talking about your voice and your high voice
and your low voice and your opera voice and your Broadway musical comedy
voice. You’ve done a fair amount of voices for animation in “Tinker
Bell,” “Space Chimps,” “Sesame Street,” and now you’re in a new animated
series called “Sit Down, Shut Up.”

So let’s start – before we hear a scene from that - let’s start by
talking a little bit about the kind of voices that you do for animation.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Sure.

GROSS: Like what are some of the characters that you’ve done? Maybe you
could, like, demonstrate some of the voices that you’ve done.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Oh of course. I think for “Tinker Bell,” I play – a lot
of the younger fans out there know me from Fairy Rosetta, who is in
charge of all of the flowers, and she just wants everything to be just
so, just like from her Southern town. And basically I’m just doing my
Aunt Ginger, so it is not that really, you know, difficult for me to do
her.

I was the ultimate girly girl as a kid. So I know that there’s a lot of
girly girls out there who like “Tinker Bell.” In “Space Chimps,” I play
a character called Kilowatt, and she sacrifices herself for the good of
the movie. So we all like Kilowatt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: She’s the heroine. When she gets nervous, she lights up.

(Soundbite of whistling)

Ms. CHENOWETH: And you hear the whistle tone coming out of my throat.
And then there is “Sit Down, Shut Up,” which is probably the voice that
a lot of people know me, would recognize the most, which is just a
little bit more breathy, maybe a little bit more high-pitched. And she’s
so good because she’s the science teacher, but she doesn’t know a lot
about science. So she’s really good at yoga, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: And so these voices are all fun to create and make them
as different as possible, you know.

GROSS: Well, why don’t we hear a scene from “Sit Down, Shut Up,” which
premieres Sunday on Fox, and you play the science teacher, who not only
doesn’t know a lot about science. You don’t really believe in science.
You don’t believe in evolution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: No, not at all. It’s interesting, and I think about a
certain music teacher I had that should never have taught music. So
there you go, you know.

GROSS: And to prove that you’re not descended from apes, at your job
interview for the science teaching position, you strip.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah. You know, she has lot of high morals, Miracle. So…

GROSS: And also, your character’s Christian, and your car has a bumper
sticker, except it’s on the windshield, blocking your view. And the
bumper sticker says God will protect me. And you catchphrase is babies
are a gift from God, and you’re always carrying your baby with you.

So here’s the scene I want to play. Jason Bateman plays the teacher who
wanted the job that you got, as science teacher. And he actually
believes in science, but since you got the job, he became the gym
teacher. He thinks you’re kind of weird, but he does have a crush on
you, and here you are together.

(Soundbite of television program, “Sit Down, Shut Up”)

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle Grohe) Hi, Larry.

Mr. JASON BATEMAN: (As Larry Littlejunk) Hey.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) Hi. I was just coming to give you a list of
all the kids who are on the starvation drive.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Larry) Ah, that’s awesome, Miracle. I’m so glad you’re
bringing in money.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) Throwing out food.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Larry) Whatever. I’d hate it if you were the one who
got fired.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) I know, and science class should be the
first to go. Everyone knows it’s just a bunch of voodoo the Jews came up
with so they could charge us for medicine and stuff. Right, Baby
(unintelligible)? He’s trying to nod. Look, he’s trying to nod.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Larry) Wait. You’ve got half my football team on this
fast. No wonder they’ve been so lethargic. Are you that stupid?

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) Look, Larry. I’m idealistic, okay? I believe
in doing things that are unrealistic or have no effect. That’s who I am.
You man. You man, you. You man, you.

GROSS: That’s Kristin Chenoweth and Jason Bateman in a scene from the
new animated series, “Sit Down, Shut Up.” It premieres this Sunday on
Fox. Kristin Chenoweth’s new memoir is called “A Little Bit Wicked.”
We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth. Her new

autobiography is called “A Little Bit Wicked.” She starred as Glinda in
the Broadway musical “Wicked” and co-starred in the TV series “Pushing
Daisies” and “The West Wing.” She voices one of the character in the new
Fox animated series, “Sit Down, Shut Up, which premieres this Sunday.

You’re a Christian, and that’s one of the things you’ve become famous
for in roles - like your character in the new show is Christian but
doesn’t, you know, doesn’t believe in evolution.

In your sitcom “Kristin,” it was about a young woman who, like you, is
from a small Oklahoma town and is Christian and moves to New York,
hoping to make it in show biz. And then in “Studio 60 On the Sunset
Strip,” which was a kind of a behind the scenes of “Saturday Night Live”
type of show, there was a main character who was loosely based on you
who was Christian, and in that show, people found it kind of odd. Like
they couldn’t really comprehend that part of her.

Have you found that in life, that some of your friends in show business,
you know, in theater and movies and television, don’t quite get that
about you?

Ms. CHENOWETH: You know, it’s so interesting because growing up in the
Bible Belt, as I did, I was not abnormal. In fact, if you didn’t believe
in God, you were abnormal. So when I moved to New York, and I remember
meeting Marc Kudisch, who is one of the great loves of my life, he was
the first Jewish person I’d met.

It sounds silly to say, but I remember making him laugh so hard because
I was like oh my gosh, you’re the first Jewish person I’ve met because
New York is such a melting pot. He was like no, you just don’t know. You
just don’t realize.

I don’t understand why I’m – why that’s a famous fact about me. I
haven’t really tried to wear it on my sleeve at all, and I’m one of
those liberal Christians, which almost sounds like it doesn’t go
together anymore.

I didn’t set out to become this, like, controversial, oh my God, she did
a nude in a lurid magazine, and now she’s a Christian. How can that be?
I just am a person who is a Christian but was lucky enough to grow up in
a household where my mom and dad taught me to not be judgmental of other
people.

And I always say this to people, and yes I’ve been given a hard time. A
very famous friend of mine, a very good friend of mine, said I just
don’t know how you can believe Adam and Eve. And I’m like well, I
realize it takes a lot of faith to believe like I believe, but it takes
a lot of faith for you to sit there and tell me no, too.

And you know what? I’m not going to say okay, it’s Adam and Eve or
nothing. Say we came from an ape or a particle of dust. I’m fine with
that, but who made that? Who made it? To me, there’s a higher power, and
for me, it’s God.

So I also haven’t been given – see, I could talk a lot about this
subject because I’ve been given a hard time by, I guess you could say,
my own kind for my beliefs about human rights. I don’t even call them
gay rights.

I believe people are born a certain way, and God doesn’t make mistakes.
So I know what the Bible says, but yet I know how - what I’ve been
taught who God is, and God is love. So that’s all I can say on the
subject, really.

GROSS: Well, I’m going to ask you say something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: Okay.

GROSS: There’s a great story that you tell in your book. A few years
ago, you had an album of Christian songs. And to promote it, you know,
you did a lot of talk shows, and one of the shows that you did was “The
700 Club,” which you say in your book you’d never seen, but it’s a
really conservative Christian show with a very anti-gay point of view.
And you went on the show, much to the shock and horror of some of your
fans.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Shock and horror of a lot of my fans, of course.

GROSS: Yeah. And then people got really divided over you as a result of
that. Like, what was the aftermath of being on the show?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Well, I lost 10 pounds. I was so stressed out. I didn’t
understand – like I’d get – first of all, I get why some of my fans were
horrified that I would do “The 700 Club” now that I know what it is that
they talk about on the show. Lesson number one: Never agree to do
anything until you know what it is. So I learned that lesson, okay?
Learned that. Number two: I can’t apologize for it because I was selling
an inspirational album. That’s a huge market. Would I do it again? No.
But I did do it.

Those people who did see the interview actually got to hear me talk
about what it’s like to have faith in Hollywood and how we, as
Christians, need to be more accepting and loving of people that don’t
believe like us.

Of course, that wasn’t brought to the forefront. It was: She went on
“The 700 Club.” Don’t buy her records. Don’t go to her concerts. At the
same time that was happening, the Christian right was upset with me for
playing Annette Benning’s lesbian lover in “Running With Scissors.”

So I found myself in a predicament. Okay, Kristin, what is it that you
truly want to say here because God’s put you in a unique place. So I
became the girl that said hey, I can’t apologize for “The 700 Club,”
just like I can’t apologize that I eat meat. I am who I am. I’m sorry if
it offends some people. But I won’t apologize to the Christian right for
taking a part that I want to grow in because I’m an actress.

GROSS: In “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which was created by Aaron
Sorkin, who, when he created it – I don’t know if you were still
together, but you had been together, and there was a character in it,
Harriet, who’s – just to go back a second. “Studio 60 on the Sunset
Strip” was a sadly short-lived series that was set backstage of a live
sketch comedy show, kind of like “Saturday Night Live”.

So you both saw what happened backstage and in the lives of the people
working on the show, and then at the end of the show, you’d see parts of
the show that they put on TV that night, you know…

Ms. CHENOWETH: Right.

GROSS: …part of the sketch comedy show. So one of the main characters is
the head writer of the show, and another of the main character is one of
the actors within that “Saturday Night Live” sketch comedy-type show,
and she’s a Christian, and the head writer is her ex-boyfriend. And one
of the reasons why they separated is because she went on a Christian
conservative TV show, and he was furious about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So it’s a constant source of friction between them. That character was
loosely based on you, right?

Ms. CHENOWETH: That’s correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: But I have to say loosely is the key word because let me
tell you a little story about Aaron Sorkin. When I got the offer to do
“700 Club,” he said I don’t know that you want to do that. I said Aaron,
I have to promote this album. You don’t know what you’re talking about,
and I did my thing.

Never once, never once did he judge me for it. When everything went
down, I was devastated, and he was there to hold my hand and say not I
told you so but to say I’m so sorry that this happened to you.

So you know, yeah the character was based on me, but loosely. I mean,
the character also had problems with gay rights, which is not me. So you
know – but I was honored that I was a teeny bit of inspiration for him
to create a character on TV like that. I think it made it interesting,
and I think, you know, we hadn’t seen anything like that before. So I
was really honored.

GROSS: Kristin Chenoweth will be back in the second half of the show.
Her new memoir is called “A Little Bit Wicked.” I’m Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with actress and singer
Kristin Chenoweth. She’s one of the voices in the new Fox animated
sitcom “Sit Down, Shut Up,” which premieres Sunday. She’s written a new
memoir called “A Little Bit Wicked.” She starred in the Broadway musical
“Wicked” and has been on several TV series including “Kristin,” “Pushing
Daisies,” and “The West Wing.” Part of her book is about growing up
Christian in a small town in Oklahoma where just about everyone was
Christian, then finding herself a minority on Broadway and in Hollywood.
Now, you mentioned earlier that you’ve had – you know, two great loves
of your life have been Jewish, one was Aaron Sorkin and the other was
the person you referred to as the first Jewish person you ever met.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: And there’s a really funny story I want you tell about a gift
that you gave to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: Poor Marc. I wanted to do something because we were
engaged. I wanted to do something for him special that represented both
of our faiths. So I went down to the Diamond Districts because he showed
me where it was. And I went and got a - I drew for these guys at a
store. I said, hey I want to make this for my fiance and I proceeded to
draw on a piece of paper the Jewish Star – the Star of David. And in the
middle of it I put a cross. And I remember, the guy going on, Yacoub(ph)
come here, out at the back. And poor Yacoub comes up and he’s like
what’s the – what’s so funny. And there, he looks and they all start
laughing. I’m like, is it bad? He was like, no no no. That’ll be two
grand, you know. And then I just remember giving it to Marc and him
being like, well wow, wow. That is - that is wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: But I have to tell you, his father, rest his soul, and I
were very close. And when he was dying, he told me in private that that
was one of the most thoughtful things he’d ever seen. You see, his
father was a man of great faith, great Jewish faith, and so we had a lot
of respect for each other. And though we had different beliefs, we have
a lot in common. So when he told me that, then he gave me a beautiful
necklace called the high, which is to life, and I still wear that
necklace because that’s really what it’s all about. But yeah, that was a
funny little story for people who would think that was funny. I was just
horrified that maybe it could’ve been offensive but their family was
wonderful about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So did your then fiance ever wear it?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I don’t think I ever saw it around his neck. I think he
kept it in a beautiful little box way in the back of his underwear
drawer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I guess that’s a $2,000 story that you can tell for the rest of
his life.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Absolutely, absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is actress and singer Kristin
Chenoweth. She has a new autobiography called “A Little Bit Wicked.” She
starred in “Wicked” on Broadway. Now, one of the many things you’ve done
is you’ve been in several beauty pageants. You won Miss Oklahoma City
University.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You were second runner up in the Oklahoma state pageant.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then you were - did you win Miss Harrisburg?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I sure did it. Only then it was called Miss State
Capital.

GROSS: Okay.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yes. And then I went on to get second runner up again at
the Miss Pennsylvania pageant.

GROSS: Why were you taking that route, the beauty pageant route?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I wanted to be Miss America for all the wrong reasons. I
didn’t want to do the ribbon cuttings. I wanted to be hopefully on
national TV in the top 10 and perform. And that is why I probably never
won because that wasn’t the right reason to be there. Although I would
win talent and swimsuit and not win, and one never knows how that goes
on. And I’m not bitter, not bitter at all. I don’t understand why that
was my goal but it was my goal because I thought that would be a way for
me to get an agent. But the way it worked out was even better, you know.
– moving to New York and by accident auditioning and then getting a part
and then guess what? Got an agent. So because I’m a person of faith, I
thought, okay God I get it.

GROSS: So this is probably unfair to ask you to do it but would you sing
a few bars of that aria that you sang for the beauty pageant?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yes, I’m going to scoot back because I don’t want to
break your microphone.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, “Art Is Calling For Me”)

Ms. CHENOWETH: (Singing) I want to be a prima donna, donna, donna, I
long to shine upon the stage. With my avoirdupois and my tra la la la
la, I will be the chief sensation of the age. I want to be a screechy
peachy cantatrice, like other plump girls that I see. That’s what I’m
dying for, That’s what I’m sighing for. Art is calling for me.

GROSS: Oh bravo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: There it is.

GROSS: So there’s your opera voice.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah. And not too good I might add. It’s kind of early
for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That’s great. So in Oklahoma, for your state pageant, your issue
that you had to talk about was AIDS awareness. How did that go over?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Like a fart in church, frankly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: Back in ’91, that was new and people didn’t really want
to talk about that. I was pretty insistent on it because one of our
voice faculty had passed away that year of AIDS and basically I saw him
waste away. So I wanted people to know that you can’t get it from
hugging, that you can’t get it from touching, that you can’t - you know,
that what people need is hugging and touching when they’re sick. And
what they need is their families to be beside them and if they’re not,
they need their friends.

And so that’s what my whole thing was and that’s what my whole thing was
through every pageant I did and I’m really absolutely one hundred
percent proud of that. Even though back then it was a little iffy, like
don’t you want it to be America’s veterans? Don’t you want it to be
world peace? Don’t you want it to seem like – no, I think I’ll stick
with the AIDS thing, you know. I’m sure it made them very happy.

GROSS: My guest is Kristin Chenoweth. Her new memoir is called “A Little
Bit Wicked.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Kristin Chenoweth and she
has a new autobiography called “A Little Bit Wicked,” which is a
reference to the musical “Wicked” that she starred in as Glinda. Now, in
“The West Wing,” you were on that series for - was it last two seasons?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm. Correct.

GROSS: And continuing with the, kind of, fish out of water theme, that
you’ve sometimes been up against. You play like a Republican in a
liberal Democratic White House.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You’re hired to be like the – the kind of a contrarian voice.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yes.

GROSS: How did you get that part?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I was approached by John Wells and said would you ever do
a drama, who had taken over the show from Aaron Sorkin, and I said, yeah
because nobody thinks - would think that of me. And it’s also fun to
play one of the smartest persons in the room, when a lot of times I’ve
been cast as one of the dumbest. So…

GROSS: That’s true, and why is that?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I think because playing dumb is very difficult. Being a
dumb blonde is not easy and people think you’re just acting like
yourself. And it really hacks me off so many times when people say, oh,
Glinda was just her. Um, no it wasn’t. Hello, it’s a character. I’m not
Glinda.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: You know, what I mean? Lily St. Regis in “Annie” - I’m
not Lily St. Regis. I’m playing a part. So, these are the things that
you battle when you are a blonde and petite and you have an interesting
speaking voice.

GROSS: Well, this is why I find it so interesting that in addition to
that kind of, you know, high dumb blonde voice that you do in some
roles, you also have this like, full operatic voice that is so
completely different.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah. One of the things that Florence, my teacher in
Oklahoma, really wanted to work with me on, like I said, was my speaking
voice. But in a way she said, it’s so great to take it to take you to a
competition and for you to go, hi, I’m Kristin Dawn Chenoweth. I’m going

to sing “Rigoletto” by Verdi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: …and then (singing) comes out of your mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: So, it was always that element of surprise that’s very
fun, if you get my meaning.

GROSS: Absolutely. I have another question about “The West Wing.” I know
you’d become friends with John Spencer, who played the chief of staff.
And you described how awful it was for you when he died. And then how
you kind of had to relive that on the show because that character died
in the show, since he was no longer alive to continue the character. And
I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it was like
for the people on the show, you know, for you and the other people on
the show to deal with his - you know, to deal with his death and to
incorporate it into the program.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Oh gosh, to deal with his death, first question. I hadn’t
been there from the beginning but I had known John from theater before
and he was my ambassador. When I joined the show – see, when you join
“The West Wing,” you either step up to the plate with that cast or you
get left at the train station, because they’re all so good. And he was
the one that took care of me. He was the one that I would go to whenever
I had a question or if I just had a problem in life. For everyone else
and to watch everyone go through his death, everyone felt so different.
I know Stockard and him - Stockard Channing and him were like almost
best friends.

So, I think for her - and she was also there when he passed away - I
think for her, it was just on a whole other level. And I think the real
love story on the show was between him and Martin Sheen. You know, that
was such a great relationship. It was incredibly difficult. For me, I
felt like the heart of the show had died. And honestly I don’t know, I
think that has a lot of reason to do with why that was our last season.
There was a hole there when he died. My character had begun a slight
crush on him and we thought that was really weird and funny because we
had a father-daughter relationship and it was weird for us to then, to
have to pretend that we have maybe liked each other on the show, like
older man-younger woman.

John had a famous thing that he did. He always had Jolly Ranchers in his
pocket. And I remember the day I had to be - Annabeth, my character -
had to be the one to discover him in his hotel room passed away. And
see, we had already shot a bunch of scenes together, so those were now
void. We had to go backwards and shoot his death. And I remember the day
that I went in to do it and they had his pants laying on the bed in the
hotel room - this was on the set - so that I would see – so my character
would see his pants and then wonder where he was and then find him in
the back, in which the audience didn’t see. And I remember walking on
the set thinking, okay this is what you have to do a professional,
Kristin.

This is acting. Yes it’s close to home, obviously, but you have to pull
it together. And then in the scene, I went over and I picked up the
pants and all the sudden, there was this - he wore a lot of cologne -
and there was this wave of cologne that had come from his – from me
picking up his clothes. And I’ll just never forget it because there –
there he was. That was his way of saying, I’m here. And then I looked
down. There was a Jolly Rancher that had fallen out of the pocket. And I
thought well, thank you for letting me know that you’re with me today,
John.

GROSS: Were you able to get through the scene?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah, a lot of my reaction was off camera, oddly enough,
because I just got quote unquote “discovered him in the bathroom.” But
I’m telling you when I picked up that coat and those pants, I just can’t
even - you know, when someone’s smell is there. It’s like sensory
memory, you know. It’s incredibly - it takes you right back to being
with him, and us laughing and me giving him a hard time for having a
cigarette. You know, him telling me stories like you said earlier, how
we were talking earlier about he knew Patty Duke and was on the show and
different stories and how much I just loved him.

GROSS: I’m glad that you have found him to be such a wonderful person
because, you know, from watching him on TV, he always seemed like he’d
be that way and so it’s nice to hear he really was that way.

Ms. CHENOWETH: He was really that way.

GROSS: Yeah, that’s good. I have a question I want to ask you about
something that a lot of people have to deal with and that is pain. And
you’ve – I’m talking about physical pain, not emotional pain.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You have Meniere’s disease which is an inner ear disorder. But as
you describe it in your book, you describe it as a floor warping
feeling, spinning, brain churning, think you’re going to die and afraid
you might not hangover, and multiply that times the aftermath of a power
outage.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yes.

GROSS: So, that sounds pretty…

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah.

GROSS: …awful and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …and the cure for it could be even worse than the disease because
the surgery that you could get to cure it, could have a side effect of a
significant hearing loss which would be horrible for you, since you’re a
singer - I mean music is so much a part of your life.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Right.

GROSS: So, I guess what I’m wondering is: how do you deal with those
bouts of real pain, and with the uncertainty and fear that you’ll have a
recurrence at the wrong time?

Ms. CHENOWETH: First of all, I want to thank you for talking about it
because not a lot of people know about Meniere’s disease, or they think
it’s just vertigo. But I’m here to tell you that it sucks a big fat corn
cob, as I say in my book. And how I’ve dealt with it, my doctors want to
know that very answer. They say you’re tough because we don’t know
anybody that could get on a stage. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve
gotten on stage, Terry, with that…

GROSS: Really?

Ms. CHENOWETH: …literally with the room spinning, almost feeling like

I’m going to throw up. And I just - your body is an amazing thing when
you say to it, you have to do this. There was a time - I remember Brian
D'Arcy James during “The Apple Tree,” my leading man - I said, during
this one part I may have to lean on you. I mean I’ve leaned, literally,
on my co-stars. I – there’s been time when where I haven’t been able to
do the shows. I just haven’t. And of course you get bad press because
you’re out.

But there’s absolutely nothing you can do. You feel like you’re in a -
at the carnival in one of those funhouses – and you can’t get off. Talk
about stop the world, I want to get off. That’s the way you feel, but
you can’t. So there’s several treatments, one of which is a low sodium
diet, sleeping on an incline. NeilMed nasal douche - sorry about that
word.

But basically I have to live with no stress and lots of sleep and do
those things, and none of those things can usually happen. But I am
better at it. I do control it more, but when it happens, it’s over. Life
stops. So it’s debilitating. And the first time it happened to me, I
thought I was having, I didn’t know if it was an aneurysm. I didn’t know
why I couldn’t walk. My best friend, Denny, had to walk me to the
bathroom. And my mom had to come in and live with me for a month. I was
doing “A New Brain” off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, oddly enough called
“A New Brain,” and I couldn’t – I could not sit up, I couldn’t walk, I
would – it was horrible.

But it – I am getting better with how to deal with it and how to treat
it. Finally it’s been diagnosed. So instead of – oh, Kristin’s having
one of her vertigo spells, now it’s - I’ve got a label to it and I can
try to help myself.

GROSS: You know, and another thing, another impression I got from your
book is because of the accommodations that you have to make like
sleeping on an incline, low-salt diet, when you’re on the road and you
need a bed on an incline in a hotel room, people think that you’re kind
of nuts. So like in addition to having to deal with this disorder, you
also have to deal with making it clear that you’re not just being a
nuisance, you’re not just being a pest. It’s really important that you
have the incline on the bed. It’s really important that you don’t eat
salt.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yes.

GROSS: So how do you get through all that without felling like you’re
really weird…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …without worrying about what people are thinking of you?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I totally worry that people think I’m a weirdo and a
diva. You know, I always read stories about Mariah Carey must have clear
gummy bears backstage. I’m always like, I don’t want to be that person.
But now I look at it differently. Like maybe Mariah Carey can only sing
with the clear gummy bears, I don’t know. I always find myself telling
the maid or the person coming in to help me with my bed, I always find
myself over-explaining my disease, like, well, I have this thing called
Meniere’s disease and you have lift up the bed so I can put pillows
underneath it. I’m not trying to be high maintenance. I like, overdo it.

And you know, the low sodium diet backstage at concerts. People now are
aware that it, you know, my manager always makes it very clear – listen,
this is a serious thing and if you want her to be able to perform and
run the risk of not having her have this, then these are things we have
to do. And luckily people are really understanding and get it. But I
will say the only time it’s uncomfortable is when I’m traveling into a
hotel room and they’re like, you want to what? You want to lift the bed
up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: It’s a little embarrassing.

GROSS: Well, Kristin Chenoweth, it’s really been great talking with you.
Thank you so much.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Kristin Chenoweth’s new memoir is called “A Little Bit Wicked.”
You can hear her Sunday night as a voice on the New Fox animated series
“Sit Down, Shut Up.” Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a timely new
biography of the woman who was FDR’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Frances Perkins, ‘The Woman Behind the New Deal’

TERRY GROSS, host:

Frances Perkins, who has served as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of
labor, was the first female Cabinet member. Her legacy, however, has
been eclipsed by Eleanor Roosevelt’s great popularity and harmed by the
refusal of Perkins’ daughter, who died in 2003, to give access to some
of her papers. Former Washington Post business reporter Kirstin Downey
has just written a biography of Perkins called “The Woman Behind the New
Deal” and book critic Maureen Corrigan says it couldn’t be more timely.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Let’s travel back to Tuesday, March 7th, 1933. Newly
elected President Franklin Roosevelt has just called his Cabinet
together for the first time. The average age was 59; the predominant
gender was male, except for Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s controversial
pick for secretary of labor. Perkins was 52, rather plain, and
deliberately dressed in a sedate fashion. She never wore makeup and
favored tri-cornered hats and no-nonsense black and navy suits.

Early in her professional life, Perkins had begun taking notes on male

colleagues. She filed them in a large red envelope labeled Notes on the
Male Mind. One thing she discerned was that women in politics were
accepted if they reminded men of their mothers; hence the matronly
wardrobe. At that first Cabinet meeting, the usually assertive Perkins
hung back, waiting for Roosevelt to finally call on her for a report.
Here’s what Perkins later said about that groundbreaking moment.

I tried to have as much of a mask as possible. I wanted to give the
impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn’t buzz-buzz all the
time. I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men’s conversation is
very unwelcome. I just proceeded on the theory that this was a
gentleman’s conversation on the porch of a golf club, perhaps. You
didn’t butt in with bright ideas.

Perkins’ strategy of reticence worked. Although the men sometimes acted
like schoolboys and passed notes about her during Cabinet meetings,
Perkins managed to achieve many of her bright ideas - like the minimum
wage, work hour limitations, and the Social Security Act. Indeed, if
Perkins had completely realized her vision, national healthcare would
have long been an American reality. Kirstin Downey’s lively, substantive
and dare I say inspiring new biography of Perkins, called “The Woman
Behind the New Deal,” illuminates not only Perkins’ career but also
deepens the known contradictions of Roosevelt’s character.

He was courageous enough to appoint Perkins over the furious outcry of
labor leaders and others who especially in the desperate depths of the
Great Depression didn’t want a woman as secretary of labor. But
Roosevelt spoke not a word in Perkins’ defense when in 1939 she became
the target of an impeachment proceeding. Perkins’ offense? She’d refused
to give orders to deport Harry Bridges, the Australian longshoreman who
had led a successful general strike in San Francisco in 1934. Bridges
was suspected of being a Communist. Personally, we’re told, the upright
Perkins detested Bridges, who was a womanizer. But she found the
evidence against him vague.

Perkins paid for her principles. Though early anti-Communist witch
hunters failed to impeach her, she was portrayed in the press as a dupe
- a foolish, soft-minded woman. By that time, though, Perkins was if not
armored against censure, certainly used to it. Her conservative family
was dismayed. When attending college at Mount Holyoke, she came under
the influence of suffragists and progressive reformers and eventually

moved to Chicago, where at risk of life and limb she investigated phony
employment agencies that lured immigrant girls into prostitution.
Working in New York in 1911, Perkins happened to witness the Triangle
Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian
women, died.

As Downey shows, witnessing that tragedy transformed Perkins into a
practical crusader who felt called to commit her life to making
workplaces safer. Perkins herself knew what it meant to have to work for
survival. She supported her husband and daughter, both of whom suffered
from bipolar disorder. In her 80s she was still working, teaching at
Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, where she
was befriended by, among others, young neocon scholars like Allan Bloom
and Paul Wolfowitz, who appreciated her knowledge and deadpan humor.

What a great lady. And I do mean lady - not gal nor dame. Perkins, as
Downey vividly describes her, was a lady of the old school who bristled

when Senator Robert Wagner started calling her Frances in the 1930s,
even though by then they’d had known each other for more than 20 years.
In her biography of Perkins, Downey does readers and history a service
by pleasurably reminding us how much we owe to this lady who rarely took
off her hat in public but who knew how to take off her gloves when it
mattered for American workers.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “The Women Behind the New Deal,” by Kirstin Downey.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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