Still, She’s Not Still: Idina Menzel is Here!
I had the ultimate privilege of talking with Tony Award winner Idina Menzel on the telephone Friday, October 24th, 2008 at 2:45pm. Born in Long Island, New York, Menzel made her Broadway debut as Maureen in the Original Cast of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent. Following the success of the show, she released her first album Still I Can’t Be Still with HollyWood Records. She returned to Broadway as Amneris in Aida and performed with her husband Taye Diggs in the off-Broadway production of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party in 2000. In 2003 Menzel created the role of Elphaba in Stephen Schwartz’s musical Wicked, co-starring Kristin Chenoweth, for which she won her Tony Award. In 2004 she released her second album Here on Zel Records, and following the success of Wicked, she appeared in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical See What I Wanna See at the Public Theatre in New York. She reprised her role as Elphaba in Wicked in London on September 7, 2006 and then played Florence in the 21st Anniversary concert of Chess at the Royal Albert Hall in London until May 13th, 2008. She also recreated the role of Maureen for Chris Columbus’ film version of Rent (2006). Her third solo album, I Stand, was released on January 29, 2008. The album debuted at #58 in the Billboard 200, making it the first solo album by Menzel to make the charts. For more information visit www.idinamenzel.com. Idina has been quoted as saying, “I love being an actress, but the hardest thing to do is totally be yourself, singing your own songs with nothing to hide behind. It’s exhilerating, exciting and terrifying- but ultimately rewarding.”
Her one-night only solo concert is at the Danforth Music Hall Theatre in Toronto on November 7th, 2008 at 8:00pm. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.ca.
Amanda Campbell (AC): Hi! Thank you so much for making some time to talk to me.
Idina Menzel (IM): Hey! No problem. Thank you!
AC: Um, well, my first question, is, I know you’ve done a series of touring concerts, especially recently to promote “I Stand”. What made you decide to include Toronto in your tour?
IM: laughs Um, well; first of all, I love Toronto. My husband Taye was there filming Kevin Hill and I used to fly in on weekends and we did back and forth a lot when I was on Broadway in Wicked. It’s a beautiful city. And secondly, so many of my fans in Toronto were writing in saying that they felt left out, and so I felt like I owed it to them to come. Also, I know, it’s a really great theatre city, so I’m hoping for a really great, supportive crowd.
AC: I got your first album Still I Can’t Be Still when I was thirteen and I immediately connected to it-
IM: Oh really? Wow. Thank you.
AC: You’re welcome. It was really a staple of my growing up and I wondered, did you have any artists that you felt were inspiring to you who wrote their own songs, or were you writing because you didn’t have anyone to connect to in that way?
IM: No- I- well, early on… my influences were just great singers- like Aretha Franklin… Billie Holliday and Chaka Kahn, people who didn’t write their own music- well- who didn’t usually write their own music- but then I started to listen to people like Joni Mitchell, and Annie Lennox…. You know, Sting and Billy Joel, it depends on which period in time you were talking about… I don’t know why I started to write… it was just always the way I chose to express myself. I would always sit down and clunk out chords at the piano- I’m not very good- but melodies always came easy to me.
AC: Hang on one sec; I’m trying to write down every word you say.
IM: (laughs) You can try to make it more cohesive.
AC: I’ll try. Actually, what am I saying? You’re saying everything perfectly. Um, so I know Still I Can’t Be Still was a pretty small record, and Here was a little bit bigger, and now I Stand is doing really well. It must be a dream come true for you. What’s that like?
IM: Yeah, I feel really lucky, I have a lot of great people supporting me and this sort of record affords me a lot of opportunities, like I went to the UK to promote the album there, they’re releasing- they just released it- there. You’ve got to keep moving, that’s what I’m learning, you have to keep doing the work, there’s no finish line. And I get to go on tour, which is the best part for me. I get to connect with fans that way, and I get to rediscover my music. I love the live performance aspect of it, so getting to go up and sing the songs live is great. I also like throwing in new songs for the band to learn at sound check, and just being able to keep the show fresh, because then the audience feels like they’ve really seen something special.
AC: That actually ties in really well to my next question. I’ve heard from my sources- actually I’ve been listening to bootlegs…
IM: That’s okay.
AC: I’ve heard that you sometimes do improvised freestyle rap at your concerts. Can we expect any of that in Toronto?
IM: I haven’t done that in awhile! I think I’ve lost my confidence in it. Yeah, well, I’ve always been confident in getting a beat and a melody and being able to come up with lyrics on the spot. Well, I’m usually confident, laughs, it sometimes depends on the size of the room and the audience. So, if I’m feeling courageous on the day then I’ll do a little flow. …I’ve lost my confidence in that… I’ve lost my mojo. I haven’t done it in awhile.
AC: I also know that you’ve sung “I Have a Love” from West Side Story in your concerts-
IM: I haven’t done that in a long time either! I’d forgotten about that!
AC: I was wondering if you’d ever consider doing a revival of a Sondheim show?
IM: Ummmmm… Yep. Sure. I’d do anything he asked me to! laughs. I’m just not sure what role I’d play. I’d have to think about it. I mean, not West Side Story because I can’t dance… and Anita would have to dance. But, I mean, sure… maybe… Into the Woods–
AC: Yeah, I’ve heard people say maybe the Witch?
IM: laughs Yeah, that’d be a stretch.
AC: I think you’d be great- well… and I think it would be really interesting to see you in Sunday in the Park With George…
IM: Oh, I’d love that. But… we have that in New York now don’t we?
AC: I think you do. Yeah.
AC: You have performed with some of the coolest people in American musical theatre. Kristin Chenoweth, the whole cast of Rent, Taye-
AC: Norbert… is there anyone left who you are dying to work with?
IM: Oh sure. Yeah- musical theatre people?
AC: Yeah, well, no, anyone really…
IM: Hmmm… I would love to work with Patti Lupone. And Bernadette Peters.
AC: That would be Amazing.
IM: I- god- there’s so many people- I want to sing a duet with Bono one day.
AC: I remember that from your song…
IM: Yeah, the dream still hasn’t happened.
AC: Not yet. You still have lots of time! There’s a theatre company here in Toronto, led by this incredible twenty-six year old producer, whose mandate is to bring contemporary musical theatre to new, young, audiences. How important do you think it is for theatre to be accessible to young people?
IM: Oh geez. Well, my whole career has been based on shows that younger people can connect with- smart shows that don’t condescend to young people and that they can relate to. They are the future of musical theatre, and I am a huge advocate for that. I’m always trying to find pieces, new material that can be turned into plays. That’s my whole process, because I’ve been so lucky that I’ve been able to work on developing new shows, and I got to see how magical it can be and how they really can change people’s lives. So I read a lot of books, and I Google (laughs) famous women just looking for ideas for things that can be turned into a play. I just keep brainstorming. Because there’s nothing wrong with taking a movie and turning it into a musical, but I try to find as many original sources as I can.
AC: I think that audiences really want to connect- especially to musical theatre- especially younger audiences-, which we saw with the Renthead phenomenon. How do you handle the challenge of connecting to your fans when your fan base explodes?
IM: Uh- yeah, the Internet’s a good thing, I have a website so it’s a good way to connect with fans. I still try to get out as often as I can after the show to meet as many people as I can. I also try- even in a big theatre- to make my shows as intimate as possible so that I can connect to the audience, and to ask them to be participatory—sometimes they take advantage of that and get out of hand (laughs). You just do the best you can. And I have the greatest fans, who want the best for me, and they’re flexible, as they move from one genre to another with me. It’s hard, especially when you’re a singer, because you need to protect your voice so you can’t go out and talk a lot after the show. You want to go to sleep early. You want to be able to give 100% to the audience of the next night too. But, the people understand. And the Internet is great. I can receive emails and I like to know what people are thinking and feeling.
AC: My last question is, Rent just closed on Broadway, and I was wondering what you think the biggest legacy it has left behind is… I’m sorry, that seems like a gigantic last question…
IM: No, that’s okay. Ummm… I think it’s Jonathan Larson and his lyrics “No Day But Today”. He reached out to people who didn’t feel like they belonged and he validated artists. He taught people- no, he reminded people that we can’t take anything for granted, we have to live in the moment and not take life for granted. At least, that’s what I took away, personally.
AC: Thank you so, so much for answering all those questions.
IM: Thank you. It’s been great talking with you.
AC: I’m looking so forward to the concert!
IM: Yeah! Me too. You’re great. I hope to see you there.
AC: That would be a dream. Have a great day!
IM: You too. Bye!