‘Speaking the truth’: Kristin Chenoweth ranks performing with the Tabernacle Choir in her top 3 all-time moments
Legendary Broadway actress and singer also talks about Christmas Hallmark movies and doughnuts
SALT LAKE CITY — The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square were in the middle of a rehearsal Thursday evening when director Ryan Murphy announced the surprise arrival of a special guest.
A quiet rumble of chatter spread through the choir seats shortly before Kristin Chenoweth walked out, followed by a small entourage, said organist Richard Elliott.
“The place just erupted,” Elliott said.
Some people sitting in Salt Lake Tabernacle pews recognized the Broadway legend and actress while others tried to figure it out. Eventually the word got around.
The 360 members of the choir immediately knew the 4-foot-11 Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress/singer with golden hair. She was the guest performer at the 2018 Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert.
Chenoweth was back in Utah this week in part to promote her new Christmas album with the Tabernacle Choir, “Angels Among Us,” releasing Friday.
For a few minutes Thursday, Chenoweth became emotional as she expressed her appreciation for the choir and the opportunity to perform with them last year, Elliott said.
“She’s the kind of performer that just exudes so much love and warmth that people just respond. When you’re performing with somebody like that, it affects the whole performance,” Elliott said. “We love Kristin and it is a real treat to work with her.”
During a media interview at the Conference Center on Friday, Chenoweth said performing with the choir ranks near the very top on her list of all-time favorite career highlights.
“Top three,” Chenoweth said. “It was one of the best weekends of my career. ... My heart was so full.”
The other two epic memories in her top three include her debut at Carnegie Hall and a solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera, she said.
“It’s funny. Both have been in New York and then (in Salt Lake City),” Chenoweth said. “Speaking the truth.”
While reflecting on her time with the Tabernacle Choir, Chenoweth touched on various other topics in an interview with the Deseret News, including her new album, “For the Girls,” a forthcoming Hallmark Christmas movie, doing the voiceover in “My Little Pony: The Movie,” and reveling her favorite doughnut.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: You grew up dreaming about performing with the Tabernacle Choir. Why do you think you were drawn to the choir at a young age?
Kristin Chenoweth: The music, first of all. The fact that there were so many musicians and so many choral singers onstage at once. Growing up in Oklahoma, I just didn’t see that. Even today, it’s getting less and less because it’s so expensive to have that many singers and that many more Christian members. But I didn’t think about that when I was a little kid. I just liked the music.
I also liked that every year it seemed different. There was a new singer involved. So it seemed like a rite of passage for any singer to get to be asked to do this and it hadn’t worked out before. I was so bummed, I thought, “You know, when are the dates going to align?” This time it did.
DN: Tabernacle Choir director Mack Wilberg said you had been on the Tabernacle Choir’s radar for 10 years.
KC: Maybe 15 years ago, I can’t remember who approached my manager, but they had asked me to do a program. I don’t know if it was the Christmas one. I think it might have been Easter, I’m not sure. It didn’t happen, but this time it did.
DN: Looking back at your experience with the choir, did it live up to your expectations? What stands out when you reflect on the experience?
KC: To me, I’m still living it. I feel like I’m still on a high from it.
What stands out for me on a personal note, besides just the massive building, audience and the musicians, were how kind, welcoming and accepting everyone was toward me. Therefore it made me comfortable and it may made me feel confident to know that I was standing onstage with such great musicians, and that I was being allowed to do what I was trained to do. I got to sing all over the map and have some humor. It just seemed like a match made in heaven.
DN: Before the Christmas concert last year, one gay advocacy group called for you to cancel your appearance in protest of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its policies, but you declined that request. You responded by saying “music is a healer” and you hoped your performance with the Tabernacle Choir would bring unity to the church and the LGBTQ community. Looking back, do you feel like you accomplished that?
KC: I think it was accomplished, and I think it was starting a little bit before my arrival. I think God knows all. I think that when things are ready to be revealed, they happen. I see the healing, not just in the Mormon Church, but also in the Christian church. We’re very similar in our beliefs.
I have to work with people every day that don’t believe like me. Every day. In fact, most of the time I work with people who don’t believe in God. That’s just the nature of the business that I’m in. So if the church was OK with hiring me, knowing that I’m an LGBTQ activist, why wouldn’t I then be honored to make music with some of the best musicians in the world? That’s the way I looked at it, and we did.
I just want to say this. This is an extremely sensitive and wonderful topic that you bring up, and I would like to thank you for bringing it up because I think that our kids need to know, Mormon-Christian alike, Jewish-Muslim alike, that they are going to be OK. God loves them.
DN: What did you think about the title of the album, “Angels Among Us”?
KC: It’s so funny. I learned so much doing the show. I call it a show. It’s a concert, but I keep calling it a show.
For me, what was so beautiful about that piece is I didn’t know that song. They brought it to me and I was like, “I’m not really getting that.” I went over it on my own at home on my piano and then I started looking at the words. I’m also a lover of lyric, more so than even melody. I was listening to this song about angels among us, walking around. I’ve had my own experiences on this Earth where people show up out of nowhere. I have Meniere’s disease. It’s an inner ear problem that causes vertigo sometimes. I’ve been unable to walk down the street in New York and out of nowhere (this was 20-30 years ago now) a man came and he said, “Are you okay?” I said, “I can’t walk.” He said, “Where do you live?” This was a stranger in New York City, right? I said, “I can’t say,” and he goes, “Let me get you a cab.” He got me cab, gave the cabbie a $20 said take her where she goes. To me, that’s an angel. I don’t know what he believes, but he was an angel for me.
When I learned that song, I told the guys this is going to be my song now. Like I love it. I’m gonna sing it this Christmas again at a Christmas concert. I love it. I love the message. Then it became the title of the piece, which I think is something that we all need. In the times we live in right now, it’s really great to have hope and see the good in people.
DN: Your new album, “For the Girls,” features some of your favorite female singers. Is there one among them that really inspired you as you were launching your career?
KC: It’s so tough because J-Hud (Jennifer Hudson), we’re the same sort of age bracket.
Ariana (Grande) is younger than me, so I hope I’m mentoring her. That’s what I want to be in her life and I’m like a big sister in a way.
Reba (McEntire) grew up in Oklahoma, so of course, I grew up with Reba on the radio.
Dolly (Parton), there’s something about her. When I was a little girl, when I very first heard her sing, I thought there’s no other voice like that. For some reason, at the age I was, it struck me and I knew not only did I think I kind of sounded like her, I thought her spirit was something that I was drawn to. So I’d have to say she was a very, one of the very first musical influences for me.
DN: Your new Hallmark movie, “A Christmas Love Story” opens on Dec. 7. What is the best part about being in a heartwarming Hallmark movie?
KC: Well, nobody does Christmas better than Hallmark. Maybe the Tab (Tabernacle Choir) does.
But seriously, the stories that they choose, families can sit down and watch together and that’s something, No. 1, that I appreciate. Second, it looks beautiful. It looks like Christmas, OK. I mean Christmas threw up in every one of their movies and I love Christmas, so it’s perfect!
DN: That’s quite an image.
KC: You’re welcome for that, by the way. And the third thing, for me, as an actress, I always look for something that either hasn’t been done or speaks to me personally. I can’t give the subject matter of the movie away, but it deals with a subject that Hallmark has never tackled but one that is very part of me.
I also wrote the title song with my friend Shelly Wright. So that will be a first for me. I’ve never had a song I wrote in a movie before.
DN: How did being the voice for Princess Skystar in the “My Little Pony: The Movie” impact your life?
KC: Thank you. It’s some of my best work.
I’m gonna be a little revealing in this moment. Everyone knows “My Little Pony.” But I had not seen “My Little Pony,” and fans out there were horrified that someone who had not known, have not been a watcher, was cast. I decided to do my research when they said we want you to create this character. I became a “My Little Pony” freak, so much to the point where I began to spray paint my ponytail pink. So I don’t know what that says about me other than I lived the role when I would go in there and do the voiceover. But the song that my character sings is called “One Small Thing.” I love it because it’s basically saying one tiny little thing or person can do great things if they really want to. I’m very proud to be in that family now.
DN: In past interviews you’ve said you like doughnuts. What is your favorite type of doughnut?
KC: Yes, I was just in a tabloid last week eating one, thank you very much, Star Magazine.
My favorite? This is easy. It’s got to be the Krispy Kreme old fashion. You’d think the regular glazed, right? I don’t know what it is about the old fashioned. Maybe it’s the ridge on top. Maybe it’s that I feel I can eat in sections so it lasts longer. I’m not sure. But, I mean it really doesn’t have to be Krispy Kreme. I really like an old fashioned though. I also like a good apple fritter.