For Kristin Chenoweth, star of stage, screen, and recording studio, everything changed at seven years old when she asked herself one very important question: What would a bunny do? The query came when the young Chenoweth had a small role in the Tulsa, Oklahoma Ballet’s rendition of The Nutcracker. As a kid, she’d aspired to be a ballerina. In fact, it was in one of her early dance classes that she saw a piano, and mid-grand plié, decided music was to be her life’s work.
Around that time, Chenoweth auditioned for a role in The Nutcracker, and at first, thought she might win the role as a mouse in an important scene. But she was too small for the costume (even today, she stands at just 4’11”). So, the director gave her the role of the rabbit, a character who normally just sits in the background. Even at a young age, though, Chenoweth wanted more. She was inspired to act. So, sitting there during the show one day, she asked herself the question and just decided to get up and do exactly what a bunny would.
“There was a big vine,” Chenoweth says. “And I asked myself, ‘What would a bunny do?’ So, I hopped up there and put the vine in my mouth, and hopped back. And the audience went insane!”
From then on, Chenoweth, who is today a celebrated Emmy and Tony Award-winner, knew that her instincts were on point when it came to stage comportment, she says. “If I’m in character, I think about that character. Like, what am I trying to say or impart here.”
Now, a few decades later, Chenoweth is set to release her latest, energized professional work, Happiness is…Christmas!, on Friday (October 22).
Upon discovering music in earnest as a kid, Chenoweth says she begged her parents for a piano, which she eventually got. Chenoweth, who was adopted at birth, grew up in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which isn’t far from Tulsa. As a young person, her brother had a big impact on her musical sensibilities too. He liked country music and the two would listen to Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood, and others in his car when they hung out.
But her brother was also nearly five years older than she, so Chenoweth had a fair amount of time on her own. It was in these moments when she would make up entire dance routines in her bedroom. Each week, she sang in church. She also won an award in school for a song she composed, complete with sheet music. Slowly but surely, she was absorbing an education.
“It was me playing Tchaikovsky in my bedroom,” she says, “putting on a tutu and creating a dance, a ballet. Or me on an old beat-up upright piano making up songs, getting into trouble because I was learning things by wrote and not by reading the music.”
For her latest project, which is her second holiday album, along with A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas (2008), Chenoweth said she felt a bit of nerves going in. She wanted to provide fans with a balance of familiar songs and new tracks. For the album, she says, she was guided by a maxim: there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
“This has been a hard time,” Chenoweth says. “Those of us who celebrate the holidays or Christmas have felt like they were cancelled the last couple years.”
So, Chenoweth says, she wanted to brighten up those dismal feelings and bring to light a little cheer. For Happiness is…Christmas!, Chenoweth worked with a number of songwriters and artists, including Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’ on the track “Merry Christmas, Baby.” In fact, the two did something of a song trade. Chenoweth will appear on the blues singer’s new studio album, slated for January 2022. Chenoweth says she learned a lot from Mo’ and the two had such a good time working together that she hopes there can be more down the line.
Perhaps it will become a new holiday tradition, one among her favorites, like savoring her mother’s signature pumpkin rolls.
“I’m not a cook,” Chenoweth says. “Let me repeat, I’m not a cook. But my mom makes a kick-ass pumpkin roll. I remember many years ago, People Magazine—now I’m telling on myself—asked me to tell them a thing I make around the holidays and to cook it for them. I said, ‘You guys have to make it.’ And they said, ‘We’ll help you!’ So, I showed up [for the shoot] and the pumpkin rolls were all done, thank God. But it’s the pumpkin rolls. I just love them!”
For Chenoweth, the holidays are often about family and keeping things calm. They do a big dinner, open one present each on Christmas Eve and her father reads about the birth of Christ. The next day, it’s food-coma-central, movies, and canasta. For those wondering, Chenoweth says, she tries to avoid watching anything she’s in. She doesn’t want to critique herself if she doesn’t have to. Makes sense. For someone who’s earned glowing reviews and awards for music, acting on screen, and in stage roles like Glinda in the acclaimed musical Wicked, downtime is not about one’s day job.
Yet, perhaps one of her new holiday songs will find the rotation. For Chenoweth, who also recently joined friend Ariana Grande on this season of The Voice as an advisor, music is the glint on the gem that is this time of year.
“In a heartbeat,” Chenoweth says, “music can change your mood. In a heartbeat, it can create a spark, something you want to write or sing or play. It can make you forget. I just love it. I can’t imagine life without it.”
Happiness is…Christmas! Track Listing:
- Happiness (Is Christmas) /Christmas Time Is Here
- Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day?
- Merry Christmas, Darling
- (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag / Jingle Bell Rock
- The Stories That You Told
- The Little Road to Bethlehem
- Merry Christmas Baby (Feat. Keb’ Mo’)
- Christmas Lullaby
- We Are Lights
- Santa, I’ve Got a Bone to Pick With You!
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
- My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)