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Kristin Chenoweth: All aboard 'On the Twentieth Century'

Kristin Chenoweth is not sorry to see winter go. She's starring in the Broadway revival of "On the Twentieth Century," and the weather's been tough. Producers delayed previews a day due to February snowstorms, then canceled a performance and pushed back their press opening after co-star Peter Gallagher went out sick for a week with laryngitis. And somewhere in there Chenoweth injured her ribs.

So spring's a blessing for the petite powerhouse soprano, beloved for her roles on stage in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" (she earned a Tony Award as Sally), "The Apple Tree" and, of course, "Wicked," and TV's "The West Wing" and "Pushing Daisies" (nabbing an Emmy).

"Twentieth," written by legends Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, opened last week and runs at the American Airlines Theatre through July 5. It tells the tale of a madcap luxury train trip from Chicago to New York, as a bankrupt producer (Gallagher) tries to hoodwink starlet Lily Garland (Chenoweth) into starring in his new show. He's got no script, no funding but, shhh, don't tell her that.

Chenoweth, 46, an Oklahoma native, spoke with us on break from rehearsals.


Guess you're glad it's getting warmer. Who's the guy who decided Broadway shows should launch in winter?

I don't know [she laughs]. But I don't find it funny anymore. This is probably the hardest role I've ever had. And the most rewarding. Cold or hot.


You rehearse in a drafty theater all day, perform at night, then stand out in the cold greeting fans. How do you not get sick?

Well, I'm knocking on wood. I have to be honest -- I'm a germaphobe. In recent years I've begun wearing gloves, summer or winter, when I leave a stage door. And sleep. Sleep is my friend. Right now, I'm tired. But once we open, I'll have my days more to myself.


Why this show? You must see lots of scripts.

I'm being given the opportunity to be part of a show nobody's seen for [nearly] 40 years. One that's beloved. People keep saying, "I saw the original in '78 with Madeline Kahn and Kevin Kline." They want to see it again. I always want to do something new or something people haven't seen for a while. And it's really funny. I can use my comedic chops.


So this was on the bucket list?

Yes. There are certain roles -- I definitely want to do "Hello, Dolly!" one day. But this has to happen now, because I'm the right age. You know, long before Betty [Comden] and Adolph [Green] passed, I did a song of theirs on my first album, and invited them to a recording session. I figured, they'll never come, so I invited them. And they came! They came! They came! I was singing their song "If" ("If You Hadn't, but You Did") from "Two on the Aisle." At the end of the session, Adolph looked at me and said, "You know, there's this role we wrote years ago. And you gotta do it one day." I saw them over the next few years and he'd always bring it up. So I can't help but think that somewhere he's smiling down, thinking "She's doing it."


Few women can belt a few numbers, then let loose with some serious soprano, like you. And those who can, start to loose the flexibility after 30. How do you stay in shape?

I still take voice lessons here in New York. It's like working out your biceps. If you continue to do bicep curls, you get stronger. But I will tell you I've learned on my day off -- I just don't speak. I'm living like a nun. I am. But I can do that because I love what I do.


Your college voice teacher, Florence Birdwell, from Oklahoma City University, must've really known what she was doing.

Oh my God -- she did.


I was reading about her. She's got an impressive roster of alums: you, Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara, former Miss America Susan Powell . . .

You know, I just filmed a concert in August in my hometown for PBS, called "Coming Home." And Florence Birdwell was there. After the show, she asked, "Have you started preparing?" I said, "For what?" She said, " 'On the Twentieth Century.' " I said, "Oh, a little here and there. But, you know, I'm touring, doing concerts, so I'm singing a lot." She said, "You better start preparing." I said, "You're making me nervous. Nothing's harder than 'The Apple Tree.' " She said, "Mmm, wrong again."


It's amazing how a good teacher can make all the difference -- really affect your life.

It's true. I'm so proud she was my teacher. To this day I have her voice in my head.

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