A snow queen to melt our hearts
She’s got the biggest voice on Broadway – and now leading musical actress and Glee star IDINA MENZEL is flexing her vocal cords in the Disney Christmas blockbuster. Lina Das is spellbound
When it comes to fanbases, Idina Menzel certainly possesses one of the most proactive in the business. The sultry Broadway superstar with the glossy hair and big, big voice bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Lea Michele – one of the lead actresses in the TV series Glee – and when, around three years ago, the show’s producers were casting around for someone to play the mother of Lea’s character Rachel Berry (a girl similarly bountiful of hair and voice), Idina’s fans lobbied hard for her to get the part. Which she duly did.
It was, says Idina, ‘so cool, because my husband and I were already Glee fans before I even got the part – even though I like to say I’m more of a big sister than a mum!’ she laughs. ‘But the show is great and has really garnered respect from audiences for [showcasing] all kinds of music. They celebrate Broadway divas, rock stars, everyone, which is wonderful.’
We’re in a studio in New York, where Idina is in the middle of the YOU photo shoot. Her husband, the actor Taye Diggs, is there too, as is their gorgeous four-year-old son Walker, busily dancing along to the Michael Jackson tracks playing in the background. Though he loves to dance, says Idina, he really is ‘a storyteller. He likes us all to tell a story one line at a time, but then he’ll interrupt and force his ideas on us. Maybe he’ll become a writer one day and write parts for me when no one will hire me!’
Frankly, the chances of that happening are pretty slim. Glee certainly helped to put Idina, now 42, on the map as far as TV audiences are concerned, but she is also one of the biggest musical theatre stars of the modern age. She made her Broadway debut in the popular 1990s stage musical Rent, then went on to star as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the phenomenally successful production of The Wizard of Oz retelling Wicked (both on Broadway and in the West End) – a performance which won her a Tony Award, not to mention a legion of fans in the process.
In addition she has released four solo albums (encompassing everything from pop to Broadway musical covers), performed at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, not to mention at a tribute concert for Barbra Streisand (‘her thank-you card is right next to my Tony in the living room – it has equal weight!’), and starred in films such as Walt Disney’s 2007 Oscar-nominated hit Enchanted with Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey.
Ironically, it’s her very versatility which may have left some audiences unsure of how to define her musically, but Idina’s most recent project is bound to win over a whole new set of fans. Frozen, Disney’s latest animated film, is a fantasy musical loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.
It stars Kristen Bell as the voice of Princess Anna and Idina as her elder sister, the Snow Queen Elsa, whose magical powers of creating ice and snow have unwittingly trapped their kingdom in an eternal winter. When Elsa banishes herself in order to spare everyone from more harm, her sister Anna goes in search of her, hoping not only to set the kingdom free from its wintry spell, but also to recapture the closeness she and Elsa once shared. It’s a beautiful tale, stunningly told, with Idina’s voice – invariably described as ‘powerhouse’ by critics – used to startling effect, particularly when she sings the film’s showstopping number ‘Let It Go’.
Moreover, despite the presence of a handsome prince (voiced by Santino Fontana) and a buff mountain chap by the name of Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a clever twist towards the end ensures that Frozen isn’t necessarily the romantic fairy tale one might imagine. ‘Frozen definitely isn’t about a man,’ says Idina, ‘but about the relationship between two sisters. At different times in our lives we find ourselves either more connected to or disconnected from the people in our family, and I think audiences will really be able to relate to that.’
During her self-imposed exile from the kingdom, and free from the worry that she might harm others, Elsa starts to revel in her powers, creating extraordinary structures out of snow and ice. ‘She finds herself and accepts who she is and she’s very vampy,’ says Idina. ‘She’s quite sexy for Disney, I have to say – they’re pushing the limits there a little bit! But there’s a gleam in her eye and a supermodel walk that goes with it and, for me, it was fun to be a blonde because I’m not in real life.’
In the original tale, the Snow Queen is essentially the villainess of the piece, ‘but Elsa isn’t your typical Disney nemesis,’ explains Idina. ‘She’s powerful and initially misguided but finally accepts herself and what makes her special. She’s a complicated person. I tend to have a pattern of playing misunderstood characters.’
This was certainly true of Idina’s most memorable stage creation – Elphaba in Wicked, one of the most successful musicals of all time. The tale, told from the perspective of the witches, provides the backstory of how Elphaba became the Wicked Witch of the West – the hated villainess of The Wizard of Oz – starting out as a young woman with an innate talent for sorcery, who is misunderstood by those around her.
‘There’s something very similar about Elphaba and Elsa in that, as young women, they have huge powers but don’t know how to harness them properly,’ says Idina. (Both Elsa and Elphaba tend to use their powers when they’re feeling emotionally cornered.) ‘I think Wicked appealed to multigenerational audiences because it’s the story of the underdog who finds a way out. With young people, I always say, “You’re not doing anyone any favours by withholding your power.” As women, we do that a lot because we are afraid of being misunderstood or perceived as too strong. But the older I’m getting, the more I realise you have to let that go.’
It’s a sentiment that has a certain amount of resonance with Idina herself. Growing up in New York with her younger sister Cara and parents Stuart (a pyjama salesman) and Helene (who later trained to be a psychotherapist), she knew by the age of five that she wanted to become a performer. Yet being blessed with an extraordinary vocal talent did at times separate her from her peers. ‘I think I hid my singing talent from a lot of my friends at school,’ Idina admits, ‘because I didn’t want to alienate anyone. If everyone was singing along in the car to a Madonna song, I didn’t join in because when we’re younger we’re afraid of sticking out or showing off, when in fact we should own those things that make us really unique.’
Her parents were, says Idina, ‘really supportive and sent me to singing lessons, but weren’t supportive of me working as a child professionally – I had to go to school.’ Yet by the time she reached 15, her parents had already started going through a divorce and so, to bring in some extra money, Idina started working as a wedding singer.
‘It was where I started to find myself,’ she admits. ‘It taught me a lot about music – about my tastes and how to interpret music – but it also taught me how to carry myself in those environments. Sometimes the crowds would be very sexist and misogynistic so I had to learn to deal with that, but I also had such a sense of pride that I was making money as a singer. I grew up fast.’ Did her parents’ divorce also make her grow up somewhat quicker? ‘I think so, yes,’ she replies. ‘You just get in the middle of your parents and you want to figure it out for both of them, support one or the other. But,’ she shrugs, ‘what can you do?’
She studied drama at New York University and then came her big break – the part of lesbian performance artist Maureen in the 1996 rock musical Rent. The show was a big hit with the critics (with Idina going on to secure her first Tony nomination, and the musical itself winning a Pulitzer Prize) and while it certainly propelled her career forward, it had the additional benefit of introducing Idina to her future husband Taye, who played the show’s opportunistic landlord Benjamin Coffin III.
Was it a case of love at first sight? ‘More lust at first sight, I’d say,’ she laughs. ‘He wondered if my boobs were real and I thought he was really taut and beautiful, but we didn’t like each other that much. We took a walk around the block to [suss] each other out,’ she adds, but says that ‘it wasn’t till five months into the experience that we all became really close, so we became friends first and then let down our guard.’ Idina and Taye – the African-American star of films such as How Stella Got Her Groove Back and TV series such as Private Practice – quickly became one of Hollywood’s hottest couples.
Yet at one point they received hate mail, reportedly threatening Taye with physical harm because of their mixed-race relationship. ‘It was when I was in Wicked, so it was a long time ago [Idina began her Broadway run in 2003], but that kind of thing was quite rare. I don’t know if we get any more [threatening letters] because we have someone read stuff so that we don’t have to read it ourselves, but it was scary. We had a bodyguard for a week. But our industry is so welcoming of all kinds of people, which is why it was shocking. It was weird.’
The couple have been together for almost 18 years, married for ten, and have forged a long relationship in an industry not exactly renowned for them. So how have they managed it? ‘We don’t always, you know,’ Idina admits, ‘and we have our ups and downs. We have to work really hard but we’ve grown up together and I think the friendship is a common denominator. We truly care about each other’s wellbeing too and like to laugh together and be silly. But we don’t pretend to be perfect… ‘We have a pact to try and stay in the same city as much as possible [they are based in New York] and if we can’t, we try not to let more than two weeks go by. Now we have a child, neither of us wants to be away from him either, so it takes a lot of work because you have to really keep the other person involved in the projects you’re doing, even if they’re not a part of them, otherwise it starts to isolate you.’
‘I have a pattern of playing misunderstood characters’
And they both love Glee. Idina had already worked on the New York stage with Lea Michele, who plays the show’s ferociously ambitious performer Rachel (now a college student and formerly the star of her school’s glee club New Directions), before she took on the role of Rachel’s biological mother Shelby Corcoran (initially the coach of New Directions’ rival show choir Vocal Adrenaline).
Lea had, of course, been dating fellow Glee star Cory Monteith just prior to his death earlier this year from a drugs and alcohol overdose. ‘I haven’t spoken to her a lot,’ says Idina. ‘I’ve been giving her space, as she has family and friends who are closer to her. But I’ve sent several messages to let her know I’m around if she needs me. It was just so devastating. I didn’t get to know Cory that well, but he was totally cool and sweet and worked really hard too. It was a real shock.’
Glee cemented Idina’s popularity among younger viewers, many of whom were already fans thanks largely to her role in Wicked, and she’s rightfully proud of helping to introduce a whole new generation of youngsters to musical theatre. ‘I do take a lot of pride in that and it’s a real gift to meet young people and hear about how these productions that I’ve been involved with have changed them and maybe helped them.’
Three years ago, she and her husband started A BroaderWay Foundation to help support young people through the arts. ‘It’s a summer camp for inner-city girls and the idea came from my love of my own days at summer camp. I really found myself more when I escaped to camp and could reinvent myself, so we wanted to give these girls an escape from the city. In addition to sports and singing and dancing, we put on a concert and the girls are authors of their own show. I think they’re pretty astounded to see what they’re capable of.’
It’s close to 11pm and, though Taye and Walker have long since gone home, Idina has stayed behind to make sure we have everything we need for the interview. One wonders how, given the tightness of her schedule (she is currently in rehearsals for the new Broadway musical If/Then), she manages to juggle the demands of work and family life.
‘Well, I let myself off the hook more nowadays,’ she says, ‘and I feel that motherhood has helped that. There’s only so much you can do when you have a young child and only so much sleep you can get, so if taking more red-eyes [night flights] means I can put my son to bed and read him a story, then I’ll do it. All those years of vocalising, and sleeping as much as I needed for my voice to sound just perfect…well, I can’t do that any more,’ she admits. ‘But there’s a liberation in being able to get on stage and say: “This is what I have and this is going to have to be good enough tonight.”’ And, given Idina’s majestic voice, ‘good enough’ for her is still more than enough to knock the socks off the rest of us.