Role Playing: Idina Menzel Opens Up About Acting, Singing, and Full-Time Motherhood
Tony Award winner Idina Menzel has had quite a diverse career, from the stage, to films and music. A powerhouse of talent, she constantly amazes audiences with her strong, emotional performances. Menzel broke into the spotlight playing the role of Maureen, a bisexual performance artist, in the origional production of Rent. She has since starred in AIDA and The Vagina Monologues, and originated the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the smash-hit Wicked.
In film, Menzel has appeared opposite Susan Sarandon, Patrick Dempsey and Amy Adams in Disney’s Enchanted, as well as co-starred in Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust, opposite Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell. Most recently, she joined the cast of Glee, playing the coach of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline. A skillful songwriter, Menzel also writes and performs her own music. Her first album, I Stand, was released in 2007.
Now, amidst a series of one-night-only concerts across the US, Menzel is completing a new album, as well as focusing on her newest–and some would say most important–role as a mother to her two-year-old son Walker. Dish caught up with her just prior to her performance at Nashville’s world famous Schermerhorn Symphony Center to chat about her career and life as a working mother.
Dish: The question about your career I hear echoed most from fans is when are you going to release a follow-up album to 2007’s I Stand?
Idina Menzel: I am in the studio all the time working on new stuff and I’m really just trying to decide if the next one will be a live album that reflects the shows that I’ve been doing or if it will be original music. I’m sort of experimenting right now while I am in this sort of transitional phase, but I have all the materials sitting around. It’s just a matter of choosing what I want to put out there. Believe me, I am ready for a new one to be out.
D: Your shows have been getting rave reviews all across the country. Why do you think people are resonating so much with your performances?
IM: The thing I am most proud of is that I am maintaining a level of intimacy with audiences in these larger venues, even though there is a huge orchestra behind me. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do, and I spent a lot of time working on it. I include some of the staples of the Broadway shows I have been in–some standards and some originals–but my biggest focus is not losing my connection with the audience. Since the shows have started getting bigger I have made it a point to share some great stories and connect the music with that dialogue. Hopefully when people leave the show they will feel like they have gotten to know me in a real way.
D: Even before your turn on Glee, you had an incredibly dedicated fan base that you have maintained a real closeness to, one that many of your peers have not. To what do you attribute your massive success in garnering and keeping fans?
IM: I think that I’ve learned a lot through the characters that I’ve played and the experiences I’ve had. The roles I have created and the shows I have been a part of all connect with the audience on a very deep level and connected with a lot of people when they were young as well. Quite often they are about the underdog. So, I feel that in my own life I have learned so much as a human being from the characters I have played; and that is reflected in my relationship with the audience.
D: I was first exposed to your work when Rent hit Broadway and, to this day, Maureen is one of my favorite characters in theatre. You must get asked to “Moo” onstage a lot from fans.
IM: If I allow enough air during a story about Rent that will usually come up. They feel so comfortable with me that they feel like they can just scream out in the middle of things and ask me the craziest questions. But, I’ve learned how to discipline my disobedient audience. And I’ve learned that a little tough love seems to be very appealing to them. Those are iconic things that I am proud to be known for. I love reliving those moments on stage in concerts, but I’m also always looking for what the next thing will be. For me things tend to take a while to develop because I want them to be really unique and original. I am working on some new musicals but they are in the really early stages.
D: So, we can definitely expect to see you back on The Great White Way soon?
IM: Oh yes. Lately my husband has been in LA working on his TV show. With that and the baby I wouldn’t even think of splitting the family and going to New York right now. But as soon as we have a window where I can get back to New York with them we will all go back there. Hopefully my husband may be doing theatre as well, and we’ll be back in our favorite city.
D: Do you take Walker on the road with you when you travel?
IM: I do. He’s got probably more miles than most adult people. Ever since he was born we’ve traveled with him. I try to do it less and less these days because consistency and schedules are so important that it can be hard. On the other hand, he is becoming a really adaptable and friendly child that feels really comfortable with people in all instances. I think that might have a lot to do with being flown to New York and being on the stage with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra then going down to West Palm Beach showing up for sound check with me and meeting all sorts of people. It really is incredible. He’s not afraid of the wall of sound the symphony has. He will come up on stage during the sound check and be so excited. It doesn’t overwhelm him in any way. I’m sure it’s a sign that he is destined to have music in his life, but I don’t know how I feel about that.
D: Your guest spots on Glee really upped the ante significantly in terms of your national exposure. Can you talk a little about how that came about and what the experience was like for you?
IM: It’s not what everyone would think simply because I had just had the baby. I was really in the beginning stages of figuring out how to balance motherhood and work. I was a huge fan of the show and I just kind of put the feelers out. I think there was some sort of synchronicity and I wound up getting an offer to go on the show. I was excited, but once I got there I realized that it was going to be difficult because I was still breast feeding and couldn’t fit into my normal clothes. It wasn’t as glamorous as most people who have a run on the show would express. Yet, it was very exciting being on the set because they really appreciated theatre people. That energy is really hard to define. There is something about New York’s theatrical mentality that you know when you see it. There is a mix of playfulness and discipline that was there on the set that you just don’t get on other sets. It was really nice for me to be a part of such a great show. It was also nice to look at what it would look like when I have a baby and am working at the same time and figuring out how to negotiate all the different things like being away for hours and then coming home to put him to bed and so on. Singing with Lea was great because I know her from home. Any time you can combine all of your talents in one place is rare and something to be valued.
D: Will we see you reprise the role for any future episodes?
IM: I hope so. There is talk of it so we will see.
D: What other projects do you have cooking that we can keep an eye out for?
IM: Other than touring I am developing a television show that is kind of hard to discuss since it hasn’t been finalized yet. I will be producing the show if it happens. I have been writing a lot of music and there is a musical that is in its very, very early stages with me in mind. Mostly, the rest is just being a mommy and getting my kid accepted into preschool in a couple months.
D: Of all your roles you seem to be enjoying the role of Mom more than any of them. Is that the case?
IM: It’s the most fun and the most rewarding. As a woman having to do it all it can be tricky figuring it out. There are days that go by when I spend a lot of time in the recording studio and then I feel guilty that I wasn’t home. Then there are those days when I am at home with him and I realize I need to get out and sing or write some music. People always talk about how really hard being a working mother is but I never quite understood it until now. I am trying to be at ease and resolved in myself when I am in both worlds so I don’t feel like I am letting people down when I can’t give 100%. I am learning to let myself off the hook and telling myself I am giving what I can give right now. I spend a lot of time trying to arrange my schedule so I can be great in both places.