Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Little Bit Wicked

Kristin Chenoweth is one of my favorite Broadway stars, so I looked forward to reading her memoir, A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages. Sadly, after making my way through the 221-page volume, I know little more about this talented performer than I did before.

Part of the problem is to be expected given Ms. Chenoweth’s age -- 40. In writing about human psychological growth, Carl Jung likened the first half of life to morning, a time when we develop our ego as we relate to the world. In the afternoon of our journey, beginning in mid-life, we connect inwardly to become our true and full selves. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father proves that someone under 45 can write a deep, insightful memoir, but generally it would be better, like Jane Fonda in her compelling and introspective My Life So Far, to wait until after a 60th birthday to begin critically examining one’s life.

Adopted at five days old by June and Jerry Chenoweth of Broken Arrow, OK, Ms. Chenoweth was called Kristi Dawn and grew up happy and loved by her extended family. She was told her birth parents were an unmarried fight attendant and a pilot who was married and had other children. She’s had no desire to meet them and is just grateful her mother didn’t use her employee benefits to fly to where abortion was legal in 1968. “She chose to have me instead, and thank you does not begin to cover how I feel. But that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to say to her.”

Ms. Chenoweth’s greatest hero is the mother who raised her and supported her performance pursuits, first ballet, then beauty pageants and finally singing and acting. “She knew nothing about showbiz and cared even less,” Ms. Chenoweth writes. “Instead of pushing me to perform, she taught me to pray, and that made her the perfect mother for me.”

The second most influential woman in Ms. Chenoweth’s life was her voice teacher at Oklahoma City University, Florence Birdwell, who heard in her student “the voice of the decade, the voice of her generation.” She encouraged Ms. Chenoweth to switch her major from musical theatre to opera performance and to stay on for a masters degree. Along the way she transformed her student from “a precocious belter” into “a classically trained coloratura soprano.”

Then she went one step further, persuading Ms. Chenoweth to change her name to Kristin. “You already look like a Kristi Dawn. You already have that to fight against. . . Insist on being taken seriously when you open your mouth to sing.”

Since graduation Ms. Chenoweth has performed in several Broadway shows, winning a Tony in 1999 for her efforts in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. She’s an opera singer, has had her own TV series, “Kristin,” been a regular on others and appeared in a half dozen feature films. She shares anecdotes about these accomplishments, far too much about her beauty pageant days and some really funny tales of her early days in New York migrating from one subletted apartment to another.

She has nothing but praise for most of her former lovers, who include Broadway star Marc Kudisch and “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, but no reflection on why her relationships don’t last, other than to say no man has been able to “handle the complicated logistics of my life.”

What’s lacking is perspective on all of this, an examination of patterns and some insight into who she really is beneath the pretty and talented performer. Ms. Fonda was brutally honest about scrutinizing the choices she had made and considering how they shaped the woman she is today -- and about her relationships and why she was in them. Hers is an extremely vulnerable book, but that’s what makes it so inspiring. Ms. Chenoweth writes that “some things are sacred, other things private and others just none of anyone’s beeswax,” but getting personal is what effective memoir writing is all about. The closest she gets is at the end when she talks about her religion and the heat she drew from conservative Christians over her more liberal view of homosexuality. “I’d never watered down my message of faith for Hollywood, and I wasn’t going to water down my message of acceptance for these folks now,” she writes.

One significant chance for her to go deeper would have been in relating her months caring for her mother following a double mastectomy. I wish co-writer Joni Rodgers had insisted on the basic element of good writing -- show don’t tell. Take us into the room, please. This mother and daughter had always been close. How was this time together different? She says they talked about things they had never talked about before. What? And how did this change their relationship? Ms. Chenoweth devotes a mere five paragraphs to this experience, while her hair problems and adventures with extensions get nearly 40.

A Little Bit Wicked can be entertaining in the way reading People Magazine at the nail salon during a pedicure can be, but it’s more like an extended interview on late night television than an analysis of a life lived large. Ms. Chenoweth has a reputation for being one of the nicest and most professional people in the business, and I've certainly liked her the times I interviewed her. Her life deserves a better accounting. “When I’m a grand old dame of the stage, I might get around to writing a proper ‘tell-all’ autobiography,” she writes. “Right now, I’m offering this completely biased ‘tell-a-little’ slice of life.” This one is Kristi Dawn’s story. I hope she does write that second volume someday because I’d really like to get to know Kristin.

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