When Kristin Chenoweth graduated from Oklahoma City University 23 years ago, she walked out the door with training, ambition and a healthy dose of youthful naivete.
Looking back on the early days of her career, the Tony Award-winning actress and singer said not knowing what the world had to offer — both the good and the bad — was its own kind of blessing.
“You don't know what you don't know,” she said.
Chenoweth graduated from OCU with a bachelor's degree in music in 1990 and a master's degree in opera performance in 1992. She was in Oklahoma City on Saturday to accept an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from OCU.
When she left OCU, Chenoweth was excited to make her mark on the world, she said. She was sure she'd make a living in the entertainment industry, although she didn't know exactly how.
“Nothing was going to stop me,” she said.
Since then, Chenoweth has had a varied and prolific career that has included a Tony Award for her role as Sally Brown in “You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and an Emmy Award for her work on the television drama “Pushing Daisies.” But as it happened, Chenoweth landed her first professional role more or less by accident.
In 1993, Chenoweth went to New York to help a friend move. While she was there, she auditioned for the role of Arabella Rittenhouse, the female lead in the musical comedy “Animal Crackers” at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a regional theater in Millburn, N.J.
But Chenoweth already had made other plans. She had been accepted to the Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia, where she had been offered a scholarship. The decision was a difficult one, Chenoweth said, but she turned down the scholarship in Philadelphia and accepted the role.
After being offered the role, Chenoweth went to New York having already found a job and an agent — an advantage she said she didn't fully appreciate at the time.
Chenoweth's decision not to go to the Academy of Vocal Arts disappointed her mentor at OCU, the acclaimed vocal teacher Florence Birdwell, Chenoweth said. And rightfully so, she said — studying opera at the academy would have been a tremendous opportunity.
But Chenoweth always had dreamed of being on Broadway, and the role she'd been offered placed her in a position to reach that goal.
“I'm an actress, first and foremost,” she said.
Thinking back on that decision, Chenoweth suspects she would have found her way into something like her current career if she'd chosen to go to Philadelphia.
Chenoweth has explored a wide range of genres, including performing at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, as well as recording country and gospel albums, and she thinks she still would have had those opportunities if she'd made different decisions.
Chenoweth believes God's plan for her was to go into entertainment, and that plan would have been fulfilled, regardless of the choices she'd made, she said.
“I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't do that,” she said.
Whatever luck she's had along the way, Chenoweth said part of the credit for her success goes to OCU. The university offered the right combination of training and performance experience, she said, and her experience with Birdwell left a lasting mark on her career.
The level of talent among students at OCU was high, she said, meaning competition was fierce. But she forged friendships with fellow students who, even today, know her as Kristi Dawn Chenoweth from Broken Arrow.
“I met some of the best friends that I've ever had,” she said.