Kristin Chenoweth; image courtesy officialkristinchenoweth.com
A couple of Saturdays ago, Kristin Chenoweth performed at Carnegie Hall. “The Evolution of a Soprano,” her show was called. She is one of the top Broadway performers of today. (I guess I use “Broadway” as a shorthand for musical theater.) And the organizing principle of her concert, as you can tell from the title, was autobiographical: These are the songs of my life, or, These are the songs that trace my life. That is a fine organizing principle, tried and true.
She began by singing “Se tu m’ami” into a microphone. This is an aria antica, an old Italian song, which many students have studied. At one time, Chenoweth planned to be an opera singer. On this particular night, she quickly stopped “Se tu m’ami” to banter with her pianist. She then explained to the audience that she had gone to her storage unit and dug out her copy of Twenty-four Italian Songs & Arias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. This is the book that everyone has used, with its yellow cover (yellow being the color of Schirmer editions). She held her copy aloft, for all to see. Then she read the inscription, from her teacher—who advised her to sing one of these twenty-four every day. This is kind of like “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Chenoweth is from Oklahoma, and her teacher was Florence Birdwell, who, I gather, is an Oklahoma legend.
The Broadway legend, or legend-to-be, Chenoweth, went on with her “evolution”—her musical-theater songs. The audience clapped at the beginning of almost every one of them. I have often wondered why people do this. There are two reasons, I suppose. One, people might be congratulating themselves on recognizing a song. Two, they might simply appreciate the song, and the opportunity to hear it. In any event, the crowd at Carnegie appeared to be an inside-Broadway one, and they got the jokes and references and allusions (some of which were lost on me, I confess).
Kristin Chenoweth is legendary, or near-legendary, for a reason: She is a wonderful singer and a dynamite performer. She has chutzpah and panache. She has two clear voices, it seems to me, one below the break and one above it. Each is excellent. Callas used to joke about her “three voices” (or lament them). I liked them all, frankly. In a way, it was hard to judge or hear Chenoweth’s voice, because she used lots of amplification. This had a distorting effect, and sometimes it was painful. Why people use so much amplification, I have no idea. It is both unnecessary and detracting.
All evening long, Chenoweth kept up a narration, or chatter. Mainly, this was charming. But one wearies of mockery of smalltown roots, or at least I do. I have heard it from New York stages for eons. You know how it goes: Isn’t life stupid back on the farm? Isn’t it great that we’re in New York, unlike the hicks stuck at home? Chenoweth told about how the Oklahomans shied from saying “tits” and “ass.” The New York crowd laughed uproariously. She also spoke about a “lack of grace in Wichita,” which I thought was graceless.
But, again, she was mainly charming, and unpretentious. She poked a little fun at herself, for diva-ness. She says “anyways” freely, as many Americans do. And she spoke of checking up on other singers on the Internet—“or, as I like to call it, Satan’s playground.” Truer words were never spoken.
As the first half of the concert drew to a close, she confessed herself a Christian, or a “controversial Christian,” as she later put it. (I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I think it had to do with matters sexual.) She said she was going to sing a Christian song. “Those who believe what I believe will like it.” (I’m paraphrasing.) “And for those who don’t, the song is just four minutes.” That was a clever, effective, and marvelous thing to say: Surely you can sit still for my song for a lousy four minutes. As the audience laughed, Chenoweth shouted, “Shalom!”
I thought that was a little strange: The major difference, I figured, was not between Christian and Jewish but between believing and non-believing. Anyways . . .
The song was wonderful, and Chenoweth sang it superbly. (I’m afraid I can’t give you the name of the song. Our program booklet did not list contents.) This was the highlight of the evening, in my opinion. Chenoweth sang with dignity and feeling, and with remarkable voice—a voice with real body in it. The high C at the end was boffo.
On the second half of the program, the singer said a number of interesting things, amid her songs. One of them, if I heard correctly, was that Jerome Kern is her favorite composer. Another was that Judy Garland is her favorite singer. In fact, Chenoweth sang “Over the Rainbow”—and then said, “That’s one of those songs that you think, ‘Do I dare?’” (Renata Scotto, among other sopranos, did.)
Chenoweth explained, as she had at the beginning of the evening, that she once wanted to be an opera singer. That was what she planned on and trained for. And now she was going to be joined onstage by someone who enjoyed just the kind of career she herself had dreamed of. Who would that be? It was Deborah Voigt, the great soprano—whose comic timing and related abilities are at least the equal of Chenoweth’s. They turned out to be a fantastic pair. Two naturals.
The Broadway star said to the classical star, “How many times have you sung here at Carnegie Hall?” “Fourteen,” said Voigt. “And how about you?” “Two,” said Chenoweth, meekly. Voigt hugged her and said, “Idn’t she cute?”
They sang a couple of songs together—including “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better).” A running joke was that Voigt’s voice is very large while Chenoweth’s is quite small (or light or coloratura). Chenoweth quipped, “I’m her overtones.” Once, while Chenoweth was singing alone, high and light, Voigt leaned over and cupped her ear, as if to say, “I can’t hear you! Are you singing?” Honestly, it was one of the funniest things I have ever seen on a stage.
Their closing number was “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” at the end of which Chenoweth botched her high D. It simply did not come out; she didn’t phonate. When Voigt left the stage, Chenoweth sang that D, just to prove she could do it. Then Voigt reemerged and said (something like), “Come on, let’s do it right.” They sang the ending again, and Chenoweth was triumphant.
The Voigt-Chenoweth act was at least as interesting and delightful as Sills & Burnett or Sills & (Danny) Kaye, or Horne & Cook.
A final thought, and I mean no offense: The Broadway style, or the dominant Broadway style, is not for everyone. I’m talking about the emotional, the sentimental, the over-the-top, the self-absorbed. The overamplified. (But is that so different from opera, except for the amplification part? And even opera is now threatened with the amplification curse.) Regardless, Kristin Chenoweth must be one of the greatest Broadway performers ever, and her Carnegie Hall evening was a helluva lot of fun. Musically satisfying, too.