Kristin Chenoweth on Roping in Ariana and Dolly For Her New 'Female Empowerment' Album

Kristin Chenoweth
Paul Morigi/WireImage for The Recording Academy

Kristin Chenoweth attends Grammys on the Hill 2019 on April 9, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Thanks to her roof-shattering soprano, impeccable comedic charm, and artistically adventurous spirit, Kristin Chenoweth has become not only one of Broadway's most beloved stars but a favorite onscreen as well -- winning a Tony for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and an Emmy for her supporting role in Pushing Daisies.

Her latest project: a “female empowerment record,” aptly dubbed For the Girls (out Sept. 27 from Concord Records, her third release on the label), which is also the inspiration for a nationwide tour and an upcoming eight-show run at the Nederlander Theater in New York.

Produced by Steve Tyrell, the record features Chenoweth covering an array of tracks either written or performed by female artists, with a tracklist running the gamut from Judy Garland’s brooding “The Man That Got Away” to Carole King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The set also boasts a slew of impressive guest stars, like Dolly Parton (“I Will Always Love You”), Jennifer Hudson and Reba McEntire (“I’m a Woman”), and Ariana Grande ("You Don't Own Me"). “Why not push the boundaries?" says Chenoweth. "It’s just music, and we’re just makin’ it, and it’s fun.”

Below, Billboard catches up with Chenoweth about her new album, new collaborators, and upcoming live schedule.

First of all, let's talk about your Nederlander run: we haven't seen you on Broadway since 2016. 

I’m pretty stoked because the last time I was on Broadway was my love letter to Broadway, which was the 2016 record The Art of Elegance. This record is so very different, and I’m starting to do these songs live now, and am excited to get them in front of New York. I’ll have some special guests and it may or may not be the same songs every night. I can’t wait. 

Did you always plan that For the Girls would be a concept record?

It’s interesting, because when I was on Broadway for The Art of Elegance, I was like, “Man, there are so many songs left.” I still wanted to sing songs by Dolly and all my other favorites. So I went back and wrote a list of 100 songs or something. I had to whittle it down and whittle it down, and when I started looking at the list I realized that they were all from powerful women, whether singer-songwriters or awesome singers. So it sort of shaped itself.

I was sitting in the studio with Steve Tyrell and he just said, “This is turning into a female empowerment record.” I said, “It’s for the women who sing them, and the women who wrote them, and the men behind them.” He said, “It’s for the girls!” in his gruff voice and it kind of stuck. It wasn’t like we were looking at the Time’s Up movement or that women are having a renaissance. It evolved into this.

How do you whittle a list of 100 songs down to just 12?

This is going to tell a lot about me, but when I look at an album I’m looking at a story or an arc. A lot of the songs that I picked fit the arc. For example, Karen Carpenter was a massive influence on me musically, but Lord help me, I couldn’t get her in the A to Z category of the story I’m trying to tell. When you look at the album, hopefully it will make sense to you what I was thinking when I went through it.

For example, growing up my mom wore out Carole King’s Tapestry. So that was a huge part of my musical influence, and while I don’t sing a lot of Carole King on my own, a Carole King song was going to be on that record. It represents my childhood and while it’s obviously for Carole, it’s for my mom.

What about Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away”? I think that’s the oldest selection on the album.

My history is known for a Broadway sound and Broadway choices. I had to honor Judy Garland and put my touch on that song, which is why I wanted to put our own spin on the orchestration. It’s a little jazzier, but I had to tip my hat to Judy. There’ll be phrasing in there that might be similar, but a lot of it will be mine because I still had to put my stamp on it. But man, it was fun. Was it fun. Ugh.

Among the many guest stars, Ariana Grande showed up for you. We know Ariana was a fan of Wicked for a long time. Did this get cooking when you were both on the 15th anniversary special last year?

It didn’t get cooking during that time, but as I was looking at the songs and the singers who sing them, I was like, “Ariana's a lot like Lesley Gore, she could play her life.” Like, I would love to see her in a biopic about Lesley Gore. There’s something old school about Ariana where she is this old soul. Then I was looking Lesley’s [1963] “You Don’t Own Me,” and the words to it. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, both of us need to be singing this song.”

I actually originally recorded it as a solo, and realized I needed a partner, and thought it’d be cool to get her. I know she’s busy, and she’s the biggest star on the planet and I never expected her to say yes, but she did. I wanted to get in an old-school and new-school vibe with Ariana, and I think we achieved that -- especially with additions like an old-school orchestra and an electric guitar.

You duet with Dolly Parton on “I Will Always Love You” -- which she wrote, though Whitney Houston's rendition is probably the better known one. It feels like you’re kind of giving it back to her.

I can’t believe you just used that phrase, because that’s exactly what I said to Steve: I wanted to give the song back. Dolly sung it so long, and it represented her taking a bet on herself. She left her mentor, her teacher, her partner to strike out on her own, and that was a good lesson for a lot of artists to see: just go for it and bet on yourself. She wrote that song and “Jolene” on the same day. 

I wasn’t sure she would go there with me on that. I had a whole other song, thinking maybe she would do “Here You Come Again” with me. But she said, “If I’m going to do a song, we’re going to do one I wrote,” and that’s another smart business choice. She never sold her music. She owns it. She’s just been an inspiration and influence to those of us who want that kind of career.

Whitney does own that with the big barnburner, but I wanted to tip my hat to Dolly and tell her how much we love her with her own song. And she sang on it so beautifully. She did so many new and interesting and cool things with it, and I was so honored she said yes. I did an ugly cry. What can I say? 

There's a real sense that you're having fun with the process on this record.

If you're going to have a female empowerment record, there has to be some fun on there, so then you can earn the heartbreak moments. I’ve never been one to stay in one lane. I never have. I have all kinds of records, everything from inspirational to classical to country to the classics from the '30s and '40s. Why not push the boundaries? It’s just music and we’re just makin’ it and it’s fun. When will I ever be able to put Judy Garland and Linda Ronstadt on the same record?