Kristin Chenoweth Is 'A Little Bit Wicked' From Broadway to Sesame Street, Kristen Chenoweth has tackled a wide range of roles, genres and media. Now, she tells her own story in her autobiography, A Little Bit Wicked.

Kristin Chenoweth Is 'A Little Bit Wicked'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Kristin Chenoweth, is one of the starring voices in the new animated series, "Sit Down, Shut Up," which premieres Sunday on Fox. She plays a Christian high school science teacher who doesn't believe in evolution.

Although this is a satirical portrayal of Christians, Chenoweth is Christian. She's taken a lot of heat from some fellow Christians for her support of gay rights. The Christian character Harriet, on the series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," was loosely based on her.

Chenoweth writes about her life and her stage and screen career in her new book, "A Little Bit Wicked." The title refers to her starring role as Glinda in the hit musical, "Wicked," which takes the witches from "The Wizard of Oz" and re-imagines their stories. She won a Tony for her performance in the musical, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

On TV, she starred in the NBC series "Kristin," co-starred in the ABC series "Pushing Daisies," and on "The West Wing," she played Annabeth Schott, a conservative Republican, working in a Democratic administration.

Let's start with her singing a song from the cast recording of "Wicked."

(Soundbite of song, "Popular")

Ms. KRISTIN CHENOWETH (Actor): (As Glinda) Elphie, now that we're friends. I've decided to make you my new project.

Ms. IDINA MENZEL (Actor): (As Elphaba) You really don't have to do that.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Glinda) I know. That's what makes me so nice.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Glinda) (Singing) Whenever I see someone less fortunate than I, and let's face it, who isn't less fortunate than I? My tender heart tends to start to bleed. And when someone needs a makeover, I simply have to take over. I know I know exactly what they need.

And even in your case, though it's the toughest case I've yet to face, don't worry, I'm determined to succeed. Follow my lead, and yes indeed,

You will be popular. You're gonna be popular. I'll teach you the proper ploys, when you talk to boys, little ways to flirt and flounce. I'll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair, everything that really counts.

To be popular. I'll help you be popular. You'll hang with the right cohorts. You'll be good at sports, know the slang you've got to know. So let's start 'cause you've got an awfully long way to go.

GROSS: Kristin Chenoweth, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, I was surprised to read that you were on track to be an opera singer before rerouting to Broadway. Now, you studied - you had a degree in music theater and opera, but still you were on more of an opera track. And what surprises me about that is that you have, as a singer, in musical comedies you often have a kind of like brassy, colloquial almost, you know, comedic voice - as I say in comedies. So how close did you come to being an opera singer?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Well, what happened is I got my undergrad in musical theater, and my voice teacher really opened up my voice and just showed me other kinds of music. And I always had loved classical music because I played the piano, and I ended up staying and getting my masters degree in opera performance and then won a few competitions and was accepted to the Academy of Vocal Arts there in Philadelphia.

And then a couple weeks before the program started, I auditioned for a show in New York for fun because my friend, Denny(ph), was going, and I just went to have the experience and ended up booking a part in New York.

And it's like okay, what's your decision really going to be? And because I'd been a singer and a dancer and an actress, you know, I knew the focus in opera was just mainly on the voice, and so I really just decided to follow my heart, and I still train operatically. I still do operas, but I am known for my musical theater.

GROSS: I love reading about your teacher, Dr. Florence Birdwell, who you say was very serious about the technical approach to singing, very serious about the apparatus of the voice. What are some of the things that she taught you that have stuck with you?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Well, I think, you know, the main thing is that the larynx is - all of the things that we use to sing is - a lot of it is muscular. So if I work out my biceps, and I work out my triceps, it's going to be - they're going to get in good shape.

If I don't work out my voice - it's not like I open my mouth, and it just comes out beautifully every day. I have to work at it, and I still work on the apparatus. I work on keeping the larynx down and breathing, you know, like I've got a tire around my stomach and breathing low and trying to learn more and more.

The biggest challenge for me has not been the breathing for the singing but for the speaking because naturally, I'd want to go up here because that's where I talk, and I'm spread out, and I'm from Oklahoma, and that's the way we speak. But I have to really work and concentrate on breathing while I speak. And for me, as I speak to you now, this is actually using the right kind of breath and actually my lower voice, if you will.

GROSS: That higher voice is the one that we more often hear in your movie and TV comedies.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Right. Right, I mean, people think that that's how I sound all the time, and definitely I have that quality to my voice. I mean, I'm never going to sound like Demi Moore. I mean, that's never going to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: But I do have - this is more me, how I'm talking to you now.

GROSS: Is there something you completely had to change about your voice?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Oh well, I mean, my accent for one. I mean, when I arrived in New York I had such a thick, you know, kind of a hick accent, and like taking a bath was like taking a bath and had two syllables, you know. And I don't know, I was just kind of hick, and that's the way we talk.

But I've really worked hard at not losing it because I still am who I am, but I do try to speak a little slower and also not sound like I'm completely from the sticks, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought I'd play something from one of your early recordings, and this song is a song everyone will know, "My Funny Valentine." I think in this recording, we'll hear more of, like the coloratura aspects of your voice. Do you agree?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah, I definitely think you'll hear the more legit sound.

GROSS: More legit, right. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So this is Kristin Chenoweth, singing "My Funny Valentine."

(Soundbite of song, "My Funny Valentine")

Ms. CHENOWETH: (Singing) You're my funny valentine, sweet comic valentine. You make me smile with my heart. Your looks are laughable, unphotographable, yet you're my favorite work of art.

Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak, are you smart?

But don't change a hair for me, not if you care for me. Stay little valentine stay. Each day is Valentine's Day.

GROSS: That's Kristin Chenoweth singing "My Funny Valentine." She has a new autobiography, which is called "A Little Bit Wicked."

Now you know, we've been talking about your voice and your high voice and your low voice and your opera voice and your Broadway musical comedy voice. You've done a fair amount of voices for animation in "Tinker Bell," "Space Chimps," "Sesame Street," and now you're in a new animated series called "Sit Down, Shut Up."

So let's start - before we hear a scene from that - let's start by talking a little bit about the kind of voices that you do for animation.


GROSS: Like what are some of the characters that you've done? Maybe you could, like, demonstrate some of the voices that you've done.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Oh of course. I think for "Tinker Bell," I play - a lot of the younger fans out there know me from Fairy Rosetta, who is in charge of all of the flowers, and she just wants everything to be just so, just like from her Southern town. And basically I'm just doing my Aunt Ginger, so it is not that really, you know, difficult for me to do her.

I was the ultimate girly girl as a kid. So I know that there's a lot of girly girls out there who like "Tinker Bell." In "Space Chimps," I play a character called Kilowatt, and she sacrifices herself for the good of the movie. So we all like Kilowatt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: She's the heroine. When she gets nervous, she lights up.

(Soundbite of whistling)

Ms. CHENOWETH: And you hear the whistle tone coming out of my throat. And then there is "Sit Down, Shut Up," which is probably the voice that a lot of people know me, would recognize the most, which is just a little bit more breathy, maybe a little bit more high-pitched. And she's so good because she's the science teacher, but she doesn't know a lot about science. So she's really good at yoga, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: And so these voices are all fun to create and make them as different as possible, you know.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a scene from "Sit Down, Shut Up," which premieres Sunday on Fox, and you play the science teacher, who not only doesn't know a lot about science. You don't really believe in science. You don't believe in evolution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: No, not at all. It's interesting, and I think about a certain music teacher I had that should never have taught music. So there you go, you know.

GROSS: And to prove that you're not descended from apes, at your job interview for the science teaching position, you strip.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah. You know, she has lot of high morals, Miracle. So…

GROSS: And also, your character's Christian, and your car has a bumper sticker, except it's on the windshield, blocking your view. And the bumper sticker says God will protect me. And you catchphrase is babies are a gift from God, and you're always carrying your baby with you.

So here's the scene I want to play. Jason Bateman plays the teacher who wanted the job that you got, as science teacher. And he actually believes in science, but since you got the job, he became the gym teacher. He thinks you're kind of weird, but he does have a crush on you, and here you are together.

(Soundbite of television program, "Sit Down, Shut Up")

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle Grohe) Hi, Larry.

Mr. JASON BATEMAN: (As Larry Littlejunk) Hey.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) Hi. I was just coming to give you a list of all the kids who are on the starvation drive.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Larry) Ah, that's awesome, Miracle. I'm so glad you're bringing in money.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) Throwing out food.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Larry) Whatever. I'd hate it if you were the one who got fired.

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) I know, and science class should be the first to go. Everyone knows it's just a bunch of voodoo the Jews came up with so they could charge us for medicine and stuff. Right, Baby (unintelligible)? He's trying to nod. Look, he's trying to nod.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Larry) Wait. You've got half my football team on this fast. No wonder they've been so lethargic. Are you that stupid?

Ms. CHENOWETH: (As Miracle) Look, Larry. I'm idealistic, okay? I believe in doing things that are unrealistic or have no effect. That's who I am. You man. You man, you. You man, you.

GROSS: That's Kristin Chenoweth and Jason Bateman in a scene from the new animated series, "Sit Down, Shut Up." It premieres this Sunday on Fox. Kristin Chenoweth's new memoir is called "A Little Bit Wicked." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth. Her new autobiography is called "A Little Bit Wicked." She starred as Glinda in the Broadway musical "Wicked" and co-starred in the TV series "Pushing Daisies" and "The West Wing." She voices one of the character in the new Fox animated series, "Sit Down, Shut Up, which premieres this Sunday.

You're a Christian, and that's one of the things you've become famous for in roles - like your character in the new show is Christian but doesn't, you know, doesn't believe in evolution.

In your sitcom "Kristin," it was about a young woman who, like you, is from a small Oklahoma town and is Christian and moves to New York, hoping to make it in show biz. And then in "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip," which was a kind of a behind the scenes of "Saturday Night Live" type of show, there was a main character who was loosely based on you who was Christian, and in that show, people found it kind of odd. Like they couldn't really comprehend that part of her.

Have you found that in life, that some of your friends in show business, you know, in theater and movies and television, don't quite get that about you?

Ms. CHENOWETH: You know, it's so interesting because growing up in the Bible Belt, as I did, I was not abnormal. In fact, if you didn't believe in God, you were abnormal. So when I moved to New York, and I remember meeting Marc Kudisch, who is one of the great loves of my life, he was the first Jewish person I'd met.

It sounds silly to say, but I remember making him laugh so hard because I was like oh my gosh, you're the first Jewish person I've met because New York is such a melting pot. He was like no, you just don't know. You just don't realize.

I don't understand why I'm - why that's a famous fact about me. I haven't really tried to wear it on my sleeve at all, and I'm one of those liberal Christians, which almost sounds like it doesn't go together anymore.

I didn't set out to become this, like, controversial, oh my God, she did a nude in a lurid magazine, and now she's a Christian. How can that be? I just am a person who is a Christian but was lucky enough to grow up in a household where my mom and dad taught me to not be judgmental of other people.

And I always say this to people, and yes I've been given a hard time. A very famous friend of mine, a very good friend of mine, said I just don't know how you can believe Adam and Eve. And I'm like well, I realize it takes a lot of faith to believe like I believe, but it takes a lot of faith for you to sit there and tell me no, too.

And you know what? I'm not going to say okay, it's Adam and Eve or nothing. Say we came from an ape or a particle of dust. I'm fine with that, but who made that? Who made it? To me, there's a higher power, and for me, it's God.

So I also haven't been given - see, I could talk a lot about this subject because I've been given a hard time by, I guess you could say, my own kind for my beliefs about human rights. I don't even call them gay rights.

I believe people are born a certain way, and God doesn't make mistakes. So I know what the Bible says, but yet I know how - what I've been taught who God is, and God is love. So that's all I can say on the subject, really.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to ask you say something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: There's a great story that you tell in your book. A few years ago, you had an album of Christian songs. And to promote it, you know, you did a lot of talk shows, and one of the shows that you did was "The 700 Club," which you say in your book you'd never seen, but it's a really conservative Christian show with a very anti-gay point of view. And you went on the show, much to the shock and horror of some of your fans.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Shock and horror of a lot of my fans, of course.

GROSS: Yeah. And then people got really divided over you as a result of that. Like, what was the aftermath of being on the show?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Well, I lost 10 pounds. I was so stressed out. I didn't understand - like I'd get - first of all, I get why some of my fans were horrified that I would do "The 700 Club" now that I know what it is that they talk about on the show. Lesson number one: Never agree to do anything until you know what it is. So I learned that lesson, okay? Learned that. Number two: I can't apologize for it because I was selling an inspirational album. That's a huge market. Would I do it again? No. But I did do it.

Those people who did see the interview actually got to hear me talk about what it's like to have faith in Hollywood and how we, as Christians, need to be more accepting and loving of people that don't believe like us.

Of course, that wasn't brought to the forefront. It was: She went on "The 700 Club." Don't buy her records. Don't go to her concerts. At the same time that was happening, the Christian right was upset with me for playing Annette Benning's lesbian lover in "Running With Scissors."

So I found myself in a predicament. Okay, Kristin, what is it that you truly want to say here because God's put you in a unique place. So I became the girl that said hey, I can't apologize for "The 700 Club," just like I can't apologize that I eat meat. I am who I am. I'm sorry if it offends some people. But I won't apologize to the Christian right for taking a part that I want to grow in because I'm an actress.

GROSS: In "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which was created by Aaron Sorkin, who, when he created it - I don't know if you were still together, but you had been together, and there was a character in it, Harriet, who's - just to go back a second. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was a sadly short-lived series that was set backstage of a live sketch comedy show, kind of like "Saturday Night Live".

So you both saw what happened backstage and in the lives of the people working on the show, and then at the end of the show, you'd see parts of the show that they put on TV that night, you know…


GROSS: …part of the sketch comedy show. So one of the main characters is the head writer of the show, and another of the main character is one of the actors within that "Saturday Night Live" sketch comedy-type show, and she's a Christian, and the head writer is her ex-boyfriend. And one of the reasons why they separated is because she went on a Christian conservative TV show, and he was furious about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So it's a constant source of friction between them. That character was loosely based on you, right?

Ms. CHENOWETH: That's correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: But I have to say loosely is the key word because let me tell you a little story about Aaron Sorkin. When I got the offer to do "700 Club," he said I don't know that you want to do that. I said Aaron, I have to promote this album. You don't know what you're talking about, and I did my thing.

Never once, never once did he judge me for it. When everything went down, I was devastated, and he was there to hold my hand and say not I told you so but to say I'm so sorry that this happened to you.

So you know, yeah the character was based on me, but loosely. I mean, the character also had problems with gay rights, which is not me. So you know - but I was honored that I was a teeny bit of inspiration for him to create a character on TV like that. I think it made it interesting, and I think, you know, we hadn't seen anything like that before. So I was really honored.

GROSS: Kristin Chenoweth will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "A Little Bit Wicked." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth. She's one of the voices in the new Fox animated sitcom "Sit Down, Shut Up," which premieres Sunday. She's written a new memoir called "A Little Bit Wicked." She starred in the Broadway musical "Wicked" and has been on several TV series including "Kristin," "Pushing Daisies," and "The West Wing." Part of her book is about growing up Christian in a small town in Oklahoma where just about everyone was Christian, then finding herself a minority on Broadway and in Hollywood. Now, you mentioned earlier that you've had - you know, two great loves of your life have been Jewish, one was Aaron Sorkin and the other was the person you referred to as the first Jewish person you ever met.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: And there's a really funny story I want you tell about a gift that you gave to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: Poor Marc. I wanted to do something because we were engaged. I wanted to do something for him special that represented both of our faiths. So I went down to the Diamond Districts because he showed me where it was. And I went and got a - I drew for these guys at a store. I said, hey I want to make this for my fiance and I proceeded to draw on a piece of paper the Jewish Star - the Star of David. And in the middle of it I put a cross. And I remember, the guy going on, Yacoub(ph) come here, out at the back. And poor Yacoub comes up and he's like what's the - what's so funny. And there, he looks and they all start laughing. I'm like, is it bad? He was like, no no no. That'll be two grand, you know. And then I just remember giving it to Marc and him being like, well wow, wow. That is - that is wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: But I have to tell you, his father, rest his soul, and I were very close. And when he was dying, he told me in private that that was one of the most thoughtful things he'd ever seen. You see, his father was a man of great faith, great Jewish faith, and so we had a lot of respect for each other. And though we had different beliefs, we have a lot in common. So when he told me that, then he gave me a beautiful necklace called the high, which is to life, and I still wear that necklace because that's really what it's all about. But yeah, that was a funny little story for people who would think that was funny. I was just horrified that maybe it could've been offensive but their family was wonderful about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So did your then fiance ever wear it?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I don't think I ever saw it around his neck. I think he kept it in a beautiful little box way in the back of his underwear drawer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I guess that's a $2,000 story that you can tell for the rest of his life.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Absolutely, absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress and singer Kristin Chenoweth. She has a new autobiography called "A Little Bit Wicked." She starred in "Wicked" on Broadway. Now, one of the many things you've done is you've been in several beauty pageants. You won Miss Oklahoma City University.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You were second runner up in the Oklahoma state pageant.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And then you were - did you win Miss Harrisburg?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I sure did it. Only then it was called Miss State Capital.

GROSS: Okay.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yes. And then I went on to get second runner up again at the Miss Pennsylvania pageant.

GROSS: Why were you taking that route, the beauty pageant route?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I wanted to be Miss America for all the wrong reasons. I didn't want to do the ribbon cuttings. I wanted to be hopefully on national TV in the top 10 and perform. And that is why I probably never won because that wasn't the right reason to be there. Although I would win talent and swimsuit and not win, and one never knows how that goes on. And I'm not bitter, not bitter at all. I don't understand why that was my goal but it was my goal because I thought that would be a way for me to get an agent. But the way it worked out was even better, you know. - moving to New York and by accident auditioning and then getting a part and then guess what? Got an agent. So because I'm a person of faith, I thought, okay God I get it.

GROSS: So this is probably unfair to ask you to do it but would you sing a few bars of that aria that you sang for the beauty pageant?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yes, I'm going to scoot back because I don't want to break your microphone.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Art Is Calling For Me")

Ms. CHENOWETH: (Singing) I want to be a prima donna, donna, donna, I long to shine upon the stage. With my avoirdupois and my tra la la la la, I will be the chief sensation of the age. I want to be a screechy peachy cantatrice, like other plump girls that I see. That's what I'm dying for, That's what I'm sighing for. Art is calling for me.

GROSS: Oh bravo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: There it is.

GROSS: So there's your opera voice.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah. And not too good I might add. It's kind of early for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's great. So in Oklahoma, for your state pageant, your issue that you had to talk about was AIDS awareness. How did that go over?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Like a fart in church, frankly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: Back in '91, that was new and people didn't really want to talk about that. I was pretty insistent on it because one of our voice faculty had passed away that year of AIDS and basically I saw him waste away. So I wanted people to know that you can't get it from hugging, that you can't get it from touching, that you can't - you know, that what people need is hugging and touching when they're sick. And what they need is their families to be beside them and if they're not, they need their friends.

And so that's what my whole thing was and that's what my whole thing was through every pageant I did and I'm really absolutely one hundred percent proud of that. Even though back then it was a little iffy, like don't you want it to be America's veterans? Don't you want it to be world peace? Don't you want it to seem like - no, I think I'll stick with the AIDS thing, you know. I'm sure it made them very happy.

GROSS: My guest is Kristin Chenoweth. Her new memoir is called "A Little Bit Wicked." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kristin Chenoweth and she has a new autobiography called "A Little Bit Wicked," which is a reference to the musical "Wicked" that she starred in as Glinda. Now, in "The West Wing," you were on that series for - was it last two seasons?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm. Correct.

GROSS: And continuing with the, kind of, fish out of water theme, that you've sometimes been up against. You play like a Republican in a liberal Democratic White House.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You're hired to be like the - the kind of a contrarian voice.


GROSS: How did you get that part?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I was approached by John Wells and said would you ever do a drama, who had taken over the show from Aaron Sorkin, and I said, yeah because nobody thinks - would think that of me. And it's also fun to play one of the smartest persons in the room, when a lot of times I've been cast as one of the dumbest. So…

GROSS: That's true, and why is that?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I think because playing dumb is very difficult. Being a dumb blonde is not easy and people think you're just acting like yourself. And it really hacks me off so many times when people say, oh, Glinda was just her. Um, no it wasn't. Hello, it's a character. I'm not Glinda.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: You know, what I mean? Lily St. Regis in "Annie" - I'm not Lily St. Regis. I'm playing a part. So, these are the things that you battle when you are a blonde and petite and you have an interesting speaking voice.

GROSS: Well, this is why I find it so interesting that in addition to that kind of, you know, high dumb blonde voice that you do in some roles, you also have this like, full operatic voice that is so completely different.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah. One of the things that Florence, my teacher in Oklahoma, really wanted to work with me on, like I said, was my speaking voice. But in a way she said, it's so great to take it to take you to a competition and for you to go, hi, I'm Kristin Dawn Chenoweth. I'm going to sing "Rigoletto" by Verdi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: …and then (singing) comes out of your mouth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: So, it was always that element of surprise that's very fun, if you get my meaning.

GROSS: Absolutely. I have another question about "The West Wing." I know you'd become friends with John Spencer, who played the chief of staff. And you described how awful it was for you when he died. And then how you kind of had to relive that on the show because that character died in the show, since he was no longer alive to continue the character. And I'm just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it was like for the people on the show, you know, for you and the other people on the show to deal with his - you know, to deal with his death and to incorporate it into the program.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Oh gosh, to deal with his death, first question. I hadn't been there from the beginning but I had known John from theater before and he was my ambassador. When I joined the show - see, when you join "The West Wing," you either step up to the plate with that cast or you get left at the train station, because they're all so good. And he was the one that took care of me. He was the one that I would go to whenever I had a question or if I just had a problem in life. For everyone else and to watch everyone go through his death, everyone felt so different. I know Stockard and him - Stockard Channing and him were like almost best friends.

So, I think for her - and she was also there when he passed away - I think for her, it was just on a whole other level. And I think the real love story on the show was between him and Martin Sheen. You know, that was such a great relationship. It was incredibly difficult. For me, I felt like the heart of the show had died. And honestly I don't know, I think that has a lot of reason to do with why that was our last season. There was a hole there when he died. My character had begun a slight crush on him and we thought that was really weird and funny because we had a father-daughter relationship and it was weird for us to then, to have to pretend that we have maybe liked each other on the show, like older man-younger woman.

John had a famous thing that he did. He always had Jolly Ranchers in his pocket. And I remember the day I had to be - Annabeth, my character -had to be the one to discover him in his hotel room passed away. And see, we had already shot a bunch of scenes together, so those were now void. We had to go backwards and shoot his death. And I remember the day that I went in to do it and they had his pants laying on the bed in the hotel room - this was on the set - so that I would see - so my character would see his pants and then wonder where he was and then find him in the back, in which the audience didn't see. And I remember walking on the set thinking, okay this is what you have to do a professional, Kristin.

This is acting. Yes it's close to home, obviously, but you have to pull it together. And then in the scene, I went over and I picked up the pants and all the sudden, there was this - he wore a lot of cologne -and there was this wave of cologne that had come from his - from me picking up his clothes. And I'll just never forget it because there - there he was. That was his way of saying, I'm here. And then I looked down. There was a Jolly Rancher that had fallen out of the pocket. And I thought well, thank you for letting me know that you're with me today, John.

GROSS: Were you able to get through the scene?

Ms. CHENOWETH: Yeah, a lot of my reaction was off camera, oddly enough, because I just got quote unquote "discovered him in the bathroom." But I'm telling you when I picked up that coat and those pants, I just can't even - you know, when someone's smell is there. It's like sensory memory, you know. It's incredibly - it takes you right back to being with him, and us laughing and me giving him a hard time for having a cigarette. You know, him telling me stories like you said earlier, how we were talking earlier about he knew Patty Duke and was on the show and different stories and how much I just loved him.

GROSS: I'm glad that you have found him to be such a wonderful person because, you know, from watching him on TV, he always seemed like he'd be that way and so it's nice to hear he really was that way.

Ms. CHENOWETH: He was really that way.

GROSS: Yeah, that's good. I have a question I want to ask you about something that a lot of people have to deal with and that is pain. And you've - I'm talking about physical pain, not emotional pain.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You have Meniere's disease which is an inner ear disorder. But as you describe it in your book, you describe it as a floor warping feeling, spinning, brain churning, think you're going to die and afraid you might not hangover, and multiply that times the aftermath of a power outage.


GROSS: So, that sounds pretty…


GROSS: …awful and…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …and the cure for it could be even worse than the disease because the surgery that you could get to cure it, could have a side effect of a significant hearing loss which would be horrible for you, since you're a singer - I mean music is so much a part of your life.


GROSS: So, I guess what I'm wondering is: how do you deal with those bouts of real pain, and with the uncertainty and fear that you'll have a recurrence at the wrong time?

Ms. CHENOWETH: First of all, I want to thank you for talking about it because not a lot of people know about Meniere's disease, or they think it's just vertigo. But I'm here to tell you that it sucks a big fat corn cob, as I say in my book. And how I've dealt with it, my doctors want to know that very answer. They say you're tough because we don't know anybody that could get on a stage. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten on stage, Terry, with that…

GROSS: Really?

Ms. CHENOWETH: …literally with the room spinning, almost feeling like I'm going to throw up. And I just - your body is an amazing thing when you say to it, you have to do this. There was a time - I remember Brian D'Arcy James during "The Apple Tree," my leading man - I said, during this one part I may have to lean on you. I mean I've leaned, literally, on my co-stars. I - there's been time when where I haven't been able to do the shows. I just haven't. And of course you get bad press because you're out.

But there's absolutely nothing you can do. You feel like you're in a -at the carnival in one of those funhouses - and you can't get off. Talk about stop the world, I want to get off. That's the way you feel, but you can't. So there's several treatments, one of which is a low sodium diet, sleeping on an incline. NeilMed nasal douche - sorry about that word.

But basically I have to live with no stress and lots of sleep and do those things, and none of those things can usually happen. But I am better at it. I do control it more, but when it happens, it's over. Life stops. So it's debilitating. And the first time it happened to me, I thought I was having, I didn't know if it was an aneurysm. I didn't know why I couldn't walk. My best friend, Denny, had to walk me to the bathroom. And my mom had to come in and live with me for a month. I was doing "A New Brain" off-Broadway at Lincoln Center, oddly enough called "A New Brain," and I couldn't - I could not sit up, I couldn't walk, I would - it was horrible.

But it - I am getting better with how to deal with it and how to treat it. Finally it's been diagnosed. So instead of - oh, Kristin's having one of her vertigo spells, now it's - I've got a label to it and I can try to help myself.

GROSS: You know, and another thing, another impression I got from your book is because of the accommodations that you have to make like sleeping on an incline, low-salt diet, when you're on the road and you need a bed on an incline in a hotel room, people think that you're kind of nuts. So like in addition to having to deal with this disorder, you also have to deal with making it clear that you're not just being a nuisance, you're not just being a pest. It's really important that you have the incline on the bed. It's really important that you don't eat salt.


GROSS: So how do you get through all that without felling like you're really weird…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …without worrying about what people are thinking of you?

Ms. CHENOWETH: I totally worry that people think I'm a weirdo and a diva. You know, I always read stories about Mariah Carey must have clear gummy bears backstage. I'm always like, I don't want to be that person. But now I look at it differently. Like maybe Mariah Carey can only sing with the clear gummy bears, I don't know. I always find myself telling the maid or the person coming in to help me with my bed, I always find myself over-explaining my disease, like, well, I have this thing called Meniere's disease and you have lift up the bed so I can put pillows underneath it. I'm not trying to be high maintenance. I like, overdo it.

And you know, the low sodium diet backstage at concerts. People now are aware that it, you know, my manager always makes it very clear - listen, this is a serious thing and if you want her to be able to perform and run the risk of not having her have this, then these are things we have to do. And luckily people are really understanding and get it. But I will say the only time it's uncomfortable is when I'm traveling into a hotel room and they're like, you want to what? You want to lift the bed up?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHENOWETH: It's a little embarrassing.

GROSS: Well, Kristin Chenoweth, it's really been great talking with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. CHENOWETH: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Kristin Chenoweth's new memoir is called "A Little Bit Wicked." You can hear her Sunday night as a voice on the New Fox animated series "Sit Down, Shut Up." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a timely new biography of the woman who was FDR's labor secretary, Frances Perkins. This is FRESH AIR.

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