She had a big Oscar night, as both a red carpet host and an end-of-show performer, but Kristin Chenoweth had another major engagement right before that.
In mid-February, the Tony- and Emmy-winning singing and acting dynamo staged a one-woman program at New York’s Lincoln Center, encompassing show tunes made famous by many female stars of the Great White Way. That performance now comes home nationally as PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcasts the “American Songbook” offering “Kristin Chenoweth: The Dames of Broadway … All of ’Em!” at 3 p.m. Sunday.
“I’d been working pretty hard on it for a couple of months,” the ever-spirited star reports. “I’m just so glad that I got to do it and that people seemed to be satisfied with it.” Indeed, in his review of that evening, Stephen Holden of the New York Times credited Chenoweth with displaying “the metallic radiance of a human sparkler.” She allows such critiques are “always nice to read. I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t.”
“The Sound of Music,” “The King and I,” “A Chorus Line,” “Carousel,” “Show Boat,” “Flora the Red Menace” and “The Most Happy Fella” are among the musicals represented in the show. Thus, under the direction of Richard Jay-Alexander, Chenoweth and accompanists including pianist Mary-Mitchell Campbell render works by such renowned composers as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Frank Loesser and Kander & Ebb, as well as Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein.
“When I started listing some of the songs I’d always wanted to do,” Chenoweth recalls, “Richard Jay said, ‘Well, here are the songs we want to hear you do.’ And Mary threw in her two cents, and it just kind of came together. And then when I was looking at that list, I was like, ‘One after another, these are home-run songs. I don’t know if I can do this.’ You know you’ve got it in you, but do you have it in you in a row?”
The “homers” include such standards as “My Funny Valentine,” “Edelweiss,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Somebody Somewhere.”
Chenoweth says that after performing the show, “I don’t know that I could have turned around and done it again the next day. I might have been able to, but it was pretty demanding, emotionally and vocally and mentally. All those ‘-ly’ words.”
Creatively, she had solid backing.
“Richard Jay said to me, ‘Kristin, you’re one of the few people who can do all these different kinds of material,’ ” she recalls. “Whenever I get a job, I try to specialize it to the audience I’ll have. I take that as my assignment.
“I’m hoping when people see this on the air, maybe other places will want to bring me in to do it. It’s very cost-effective, since it’s only a three-piece band, but I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to hear most of it with a full orchestra. The material is just so rich.”
It’s also more specific to one theme than Chenoweth’s usual touring show. “That’s incredibly difficult in a different way,” she notes, “because it’s disco and country and Broadway and everything, but this is more what I was trained to do. It was my exact purpose, so I wasn’t going to blow this opportunity. I wanted to nail it, especially with songs I feel so strongly about. It’s really about challenging yourself an as artist and taking yourself to the next level.”
Such a thought is particularly timely for Chenoweth, given other challenges she’s faced lately.
She’s still recovering from injuries she suffered from a fallen lighting fixture on the set of CBS’ “The Good Wife” last summer, and just as her parents came from Oklahoma to New York to support her then, so they did again for her Lincoln Center show.
“To have them there,” she says, “sitting in the audience as I talked about music and how certain songs came into my life – or shouldn’t have – it was really fun.”
At the time, Chenoweth also was attempting to channel legendary “Dames of Broadway” such as Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing.
“I wanted to do them proud,” she reflects. “There was a song cut from the movie version of ‘Funny Girl’ that I grew up listening to Barbra (Streisand) sing, ‘Who Are You Now?’ … and I thought, ‘I just dare not.’ And Richard Jay said, ‘Kristin, she would want this to be done. It’s an honor to her when you do it well.’ That was what kind of clinched it for me.
“I also wanted to put my stamp on these numbers,” Chenoweth adds. “It’s not about trying to outdo somebody, I’m just trying to do my version. With ‘Moonshine Lullaby’ from ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ I did that very much like a girl from Oklahoma, as Kristin would do it. It was very countrified, and we had these four awesome male singers. I wasn’t trying to invade anybody’s territory; I just made it mine. Or tried to.”
In that sense, Chenoweth likens the intention of her “Live From Lincoln Center” show to Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar-winning “Walk the Line” performance as June Carter Cash.
“When you see it, you see there is a part of Reese that fully identified with June,” Chenoweth says. “Therefore, we bought it hook, line and sinker, and that Academy Award was deserved. I just think each of these [homages] needs to be done with care.”