INTERVIEW WITH ACTRESS KRISTIN CHENOWETH
Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviews On the Twentieth Century actress Kristin Chenoweth.
Ted Sod: Why did you choose to do the musical On the Twentieth Century and the role of Lily Garland?
Kristin Chenoweth: When I was a college student, my voice teacher always was saying, “Lily Garland is the part you’ll play one day.” I thought, yes, yes, yes, okay, not really connecting with it yet, and then in 2000, I met Betty Comden and Adolph Green, because I did one of their songs from Two on the Aisle on my first record. It’s a song called “If,” and I invited them to my recording session, never thinking they’d come, and they did. Having them be there was so special to me. I just wanted to meet them. And Adolph said, “You know what part you’re born to play?” And Betty said, “Lily Garland.” And I just remember them saying, “You must do it. You just have to do it.” And it stuck with me and then, four or five years ago, we did a reading at Roundabout. I fell in love with the role; it requires a lot from the actress who plays Lily. The comedy chops are major, the vocal chops are challenging and tough, and physically it’s a killer. I’ve wanted to work it in my schedule for a while, and finally it happened. I just want to do it justice, you know? I want to put my stamp on it and make Betty, Adolph, and Cy Coleman proud.
TS: I know you work diligently on your roles. What kind of pre- production work have you been doing; what’s your process before rehearsal?
KC: I think everybody’s process is different, and I know that some actors don’t want to work on anything until they show up and have a “very real experience” without any preconceptions. And I think that’s lovely, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I need to go into rehearsal with a working knowledge of the music and script so that I can use rehearsal time to play, and maybe fail. I need to figure out my take beforehand. I want to be available to my costars and see what works for them, so we can find it together. I have been singing every day for several years. I’ve been doing a lot of concert work. My voice is actually in good shape. This score by Cy Coleman requires different muscles. I’m trying to get this music in my voice right now. I’ve been working on and off for a couple months, in my spare time, which has not been a lot. I’ll pick up a song from the score and work on that one song for a week; and then the next week, I’ll pick another song and live with that one.
I read the script a lot. I’ve been on a lot of flights, so I find plenty of time to read the script. I’ve listened to the tracks on the album a few times, but I’ve discovered that, for me, I can’t do that anymore. I will, unabashedly, pick up on Madeline Kahn, all of her choices. I usually think about the song I’m working on, and I’ll read that scene aloud to myself over and over. But I can’t get too comfortable with it—because I still want that spontaneity—as if I’m saying the lines for the first time.
TS: Was Madeline Kahn a favorite performer of yours?
KC: Definitely. We’re very similar. I’ve been compared to her before, which I take as a humongous compliment because I think there was no one like her. She was an original, which is why people wrote for her. And I’m glad that I’m getting the opportunity to put my feet in her
12 ROUNDABOUT THEATRE COMPANY shoes. I want to do her proud, too.
TS: What are the challenges of a role like this? KC: It’s all going to be hard. I’m going to have to live like a nun, which I do anyway, so it’s not going to be that big of a change. The key will be sleeping a lot, resting my voice, and staying in physical therapy. I have previous injuries, and I have to take care of my body so that I can get through the run. But I’m going to do it because I’m ready.
TS: One of the things I love is that Lily’s real name is Mildred Plotka. It’s almost as if she’s self-invented, or perhaps Oscar helped invent her.
KC: I think she thinks that she’s self-invented, when in actuality, Oscar helped her. She’s not in a place to give him credit for one damn thing, though. It’s the narcissist syndrome. Two people with huge egos discover each other—one is already a narcissist, and he helps a budding narcissist find herself. When two narcissists try to be together, it can be difficult. I think for me the trick will be making her pain real; making the audience understand that she’s really been wronged by Oscar. And I believe she was. I believe that, in his heyday, Oscar did hurt her, even though he discovered her. Mildred Plotka never imagined she’d become Lily Garland—she never knew she was going to be a star. But she’s accepted it gracefully and owns her role as a movie star. There’s a part of me that wants to show the audience Mildred Plotka along the way. Because the truth is, you can take the girl out of Oklahoma, but you can’t take Oklahoma out of the girl—just like me. I mean, I’m Kristi Dawn Chenoweth. I will always be that, and I think there’s part of Lily that will always be Mildred.
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