‘Coming Home Tour’
Friday, Jan. 29
Music Center at Strathmore
5301 Tuckerman Lane
North Bethesda, Md.
It’s a cliche, but Kristin Chenoweth needs no introduction.
Next weekend, the Tony-winning legend brings her “Coming Home Tour” to the Strathmore. We caught up with her by phone from New York.
WASHINGTON BLADE: You’ve been on the road with this show but it sounds like the Strathmore show will be a little different.
KRISTIN CHENOWETH: Yes, I’m probably doing some new stuff at the Strathmore including some stuff by Andrew Lippa, stuff we’ve been working on with his opera “I Am Harvey Milk” and a prequel to that that he did for me called “I Am Anne Hutchinson,” which is a continuation of that piece. But I’m always changing it up. It never feels like I’m doing the same show. I have a five-piece show, an 11-piece show and an orchestra show and I’m always changing it up and putting in new stuff which makes it fun for me.
BLADE: Do you feel a concert can work with the songs speaking for themselves or does the evening have to take you somewhere? What considerations are you thinking of when you craft your set list?
CHENOWETH: I never do the same set list twice because I want to make it special for each place I’m going to. That’s challenging for me musically and artistically. Sometimes I wish I weren’t built that way because I’d love to just park and bark, but I don’t know how to do that. I’m currently working on a couple new songs, a couple covers by some people we all know and love and there’s certain songs I will do so I don’t get shot. But I’m constantly switching it up. I have a Don Henley song now that’s making its appearance pretty regularly. Dolly’s making an appearance, Jerome Kern, goodness, Adele, Rodgers and Hammerstein. As you can see, it’s all over the map but I like it that way because it challenges me.
BLADE: I know you’ll be back to the Strathmore in April for the Harvey Milk work you just mentioned. How did you get involved in that?
CHENOWETH: About six or seven years ago, Andrew Lippa came to me and said he’d written this opera “I Am Harvey Milk” and he said, “I’ve written a soprano role for you.” At that time in my life, I wasn’t able to do it, which is a regret of mine. I really wish I could have. … They came to me again later and once again I couldn’t do it, I was in L.A. But the third time, they did it last year at Lincoln Center and I said, “I’m available and I’m making it work.” Then Andrew told me he was working on a prequel on a woman named Anne Hutchinson who was basically persecuted for being a thinking Christian woman. I loved the idea and the story. She had a lot of things going on in her life and she was judged and in some ways, I can relate. We started learning that actually yesterday and one song I may put in my solo show at the Strathmore. Andrew Lippa has been a huge part of my history and I’ve been somewhat of a muse for him and what can I say, I fall in love with his music every time he plays so I’m honored he’s written yet another thing for me.
BLADE: You’ve spoken of how (gospel singer) Sandi Patty is one of your heroes and inspirations. What was your favorite Sandi Patty album when you were growing up?
CHENOWETH: Her hymns collection. Especially her version of “It is Well With My Soul.” … I do one of her songs in my show and I love so many songs she’s done — “Love in Any Language,” “Via Dolorosa,” there are so many that I grew up listening to and I have the utmost respect for her. In fact we just sang together in Indianapolis. She sang “For Good” with me and it was a full circle moment because she was such a huge influence on my life so to get to sing with one of your idols, that’s pretty cool.
BLADE: Did you ever sing to her accompaniment tracks in church? Remember those tapes you used to be able to get from Christian bookstores?
CHENOWETH: Are you kidding, that was my orchestra. I say in my concert we had these little square things that we put in big machines we got from RadioShack. That’s how I got my music — theater, opera, pop. It was all from tapes.
BLADE: You have a master’s degree in opera yet it sounds like most of your influences were Broadway, pop and gospel. Would you have been happy with an opera career had things worked out that way for you?
CHENOWETH: I think I would have been happy no matter what because I’m one of those people who once I make a decision to do something, I pretty much don’t look back. But I think one of the reasons that musical theater fits me so well is that I’m an actor first. Not that opera singers aren’t, so many of them are, but what I love is character and character development and creating new roles, that’s what I love to do. It could be on film, television or whatever. I didn’t want to live in just one arena.
BLADE: Obviously you use your upper register all the time but some would say it would enjoy a fuller expression, perhaps, in opera. Have you ever thought about doing a classical album?
CHENOWETH: All the time. I would love to revisit some of the arias that were challenging for me and fun when I was starting out. Every once in awhile I do one in my show, so that’s not out of the complete realm of possibility.
BLADE: Lots of people can sing pop but not just anybody can do opera and you obviously could.
CHENOWETH: Amen, brother.
BLADE: Did you have any reservations about playing Maleficent (in last year’s “Descendants” for the Disney Channel) so shortly after the Angelina Jolie movie or was that a non-issue?
CHENOWETH: I knew the style and the way we were gonna shoot it, I knew the tone would be completely different so no, I didn’t have any trepidation. I mean look, Angelina and I couldn’t be any more opposite. Her one leg equals my entire body. She is an incredible actress. My Maleficent was for the Disney Channel and she sings, so I knew it would be different.
BLADE: Anytime push has come to shove between the evangelical Christian world and the gays, you’ve always come down on the side of the gays and sometimes paid a price for it. Sometimes it seems like the ice is thawing a little but other times it seems both politically and religiously things are becoming more polarized. Will evangelicals ever come around on gay issues?
CHENOWETH: Oh, I hope so. You know, I say in my concerts and it’s true, I say, I always gotta do a Jesus song because I’m a Christian. As an artist and as a person, that’s a big part of who I am but another big part of who I am is a gay rights lover … and that doesn’t always go hand in hand as you know.That’s not something that people necessarily agree with but as I always say, and I really mean this, I don’t want to be judged for what I believe, I just want people to enjoy my music. What would make me happy is if there was more acceptance and tolerance and love, not just to the gay community but to the Muslim community, to any community of people who are considered outcasts or not the quote-unquote norm. I just try to do what Jesus would do. I don’t always succeed. I have a lot of faults but I approach things from a love place and not a hate place so I hope we keep heading in that direction on this issue.
BLADE: Speaking of gospel singers, is it true that you once sang the Evie song “Four Foot Eleven” at a Baptist convention when you were 12?
CHENOWETH: You bet, that was one of the first songs I ever sang. If I’d known that was all the taller I’d get, I might have sung something else. Evie was also a huge musical influence on me growing up. You have to understand, music and church sort of for me went together and Evie Tornquist is somebody who still to this day, I wish I could just do an album of her and Sandi. I just loved her. She sang another song, “Live for Jesus/that’s what matters/when other houses crumble mine is strong/live for Jesus/that’s what matters/that you see the light in me and come along.” Those are the things that have kept me going.
BLADE: She was huge in the ‘70s, but today a lot of people don’t know her.
CHENOWETH: In my world growing up in Tulsa, everybody knew her. I think she is literally an angel’s voice on earth. Just like I view Eva Cassidy’s voice, Renee Fleming, Dolly, Judy, Julie, Sandi, Barbra — they’re all there and they’re all angels. To me, that’s how I imagine heaven and it’s a place I can’t wait to sing.