Broadway’s Idina Menzel turns Smith Center debut into intimate evening
For those of us who know Idina Menzel only from her star-making performances in Broadway’s “Rent” and “Wicked,” her Sunday night Smith Center concert was a revelation. We expected the electrifying belt in songs such as “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “Defying Gravity,” but who knew she is an artist of extraordinary depth?
Her two-hour presentation (backed by about two dozen onstage musicians from Las Vegas and New York) included a lot of personal stories, including a criticism she once received as a student at New York University. She had begun singing for her teacher Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” but got out only a few bars before he stopped her.
“Do you have any idea where this woman is coming from?” he asked. “She lives on the street. She doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from. She’s desperate.” It was apparently an epiphany for Menzel. She proved how well she learned that lesson by interpreting the number with the skill of a veteran actress.
Whether tackling Joni Mitchell or Stephen Sondheim, she communicated a sharp affinity for lyrics.
Her program was filled with what you would expect, as well as little-known pop songs and ballads. She exhibited an easy rapport with the audience.
After sharing “Rent’s” “Take Me Baby or Leave Me,” she went down into the house in search of duet partners. It seemed every teenage girl rushed to be by her side. By the time she invited them onstage, so many began running to her that she yelled, good-naturedly, “Oh my God! No! Stop!” Many of the kids, as it turned out, were fine vocalists. And they were not shy about showing it.
Menzel’s formal look – a shoulder-baring white evening gown with elegant earrings – was offset by bare feet. She explained she had been wearing appropriate shoes, but they were uncomfortable. “So, I said, screw it, I’m taking them off.” She then flaunted her physical freedom by gliding about the stage like a child in a sandbox. She came across as a down-to-earth chummy girl-next-door.
The 41-year-old Queens native shared touching stories about Jonathan Larson, the composer of “Rent” who died at age 35 just after the show’s first preview.
“We were really young, and the show was taking off at a time in our lives when it could have made us lose perspective. (After his death) the cast felt a responsibility to communicate his work.”
She also noted the irony of her “Broadway diva” concert running the same night as the Tony Awards, with all of us theater buffs having to miss the broadcast. She shared her own experiences about the anxiety of having been nominated and winning.
But her singing was always the engine of the evening. She demonstrated not only overwhelming, bring-down-the-house power, but a softness and vulnerability in music, speech and manner that transformed her concert debut in the huge Reynolds Hall into an intimate get-together.