BWW Australia Chats with Superstar Idina Menzel as She Heads for Oz
There are a few things you probably shouldn’t do right before you call Idina Menzel. You probably shouldn’t shuffle through the WICKED soundtrack on your iPod. You probably shouldn’t head to YouTube and watch that clip of her winning her first Tony Award for that very same musical. Or watch any YouTube clip of this actress and singer-songwriter at all really, whether she’s green-faced or fresh-faced at the time.
As you dial the number, you probably shouldn’t think about that rainy weekend when RENT was on such rotation that your friend’s husband has never quite forgiven you for imprinting the sentence “Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes” on his non-music theatre brain. And you definitely should not think about how Defying Gravity saved you a little bit, back when your heart got really broken, how you told that guy to look to the Western sky, and how it still gets you, that song and that moment. The way she sings it, well it goes right to your bones. It’s an under-skin thing, and it gets you every time.
But if you do make these mistakes, if you consequently find yourself rendered speechless when the call is picked up – because even though you are a writer and a professional, you are also human, and this is Idina Menzel you are talking to – well, you’ll just have to take a deep breath and go for it. Blurt out that you are a massive fan. Because when this happens you’ll find that Idina Menzel turns out to be some kind of wonderful. She’s like her own little planet, this one. And she’ll pull you into her orbit by being warm, and funny, and thoughtful throughout. By her own admission, she’ll be a little bit delirious too, almost as tangential as you are. After all, it’s busy times for this TV, film and Broadway superstar, who’s also Mamma to 3 year-old son Walker Diggs with her husband, a certain Mr. Taye Diggs.
We are chatting today because next month Idina will be heading to that other Oz for her first ever series of Australian concerts. She’s visited before, but this will be her first time performing here, with a concert schedule that includes Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
So has she been given any tips on what to expect from Aussie audiences? Idina references experiences with close Australian friends including her London WICKED co-stars, Adam Garcia and Helen Dallimore, and laughs.
“Knowing them, and how crazy they are, and how honest and how much fun they have while performing – I am hoping it’s a good fit for me. I have a feeling!”
Idina draws a diverse crowd to her shows, no matter the location. She has starred in two iconic musicals whose themes resonate deeply with their respective fans. The first was Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning RENT, where Idina’s turn as lesbian firecracker Maureen helped earn her a dedicated gay following.
Then of course came WICKED, the blockbuster musical of which her misfit green witch Elphaba was the beating heart. Cue the teenage girls for whom WICKED is something of an obsession. To these young girls, Idina is the nearly accessible sister-friend-mother they want to have, or the woman they aspire to be.
Her popularity and status amongst her different fan groups is something Idina clearly takes pride in, though she admits it does require some balance.
Ultimately it’s that great big voice that ties it all together, whether she is performing a late night show at London’s famous G-A-Y nightclub (“I felt like Diana Ross!” she tells me of the experience), or standing barefoot on stage with a full symphony orchestra, sharing her songs and stories.
Concerts like those she will perform across Australia allow Idina to reflect on her fans, her career, and the journey she has made from 15 year-old wedding singer to her current position as a luminary of the Broadway world.
“Sometimes I’ll be on stage and I’ll have flash backs, right there and then. I think that’s the really lovely thing about performing these kinds of concerts. They chronicle times in your life. A particular song will bring me back, and I can reflect on it even while I’m singing.”
When I ask about how it feels to sing Defying Gravity in particular, she says though it never gets old, the song has different manifestations.
“Sometimes I enjoy the musicality of it, finding a new melody. Sometimes I use it as a way of reminiscing to when I’d be hoisted up above the stage before the intermission, how incredible that feeling was. And sometimes I just have a little girl in the first row that I see has never heard me sing it live before, and I do it for that reason. It hits me in a very deep place.”
Could the teenage Idina Menzel have ever believed what was ahead of her? That the likes of RENT and WICKED and GLEE were out there waiting? Idina says the teenage girl did in fact feel destined, that the doubts came with getting older and wiser.
“The teenage Idina was very confident. She would have been like – Yeah, of course it’s going to be me! It’s the girl who went to college and came out and struggled, who did weddings and bar mitzvahs, and started to get her heart broken by guys … all of a sudden the older you get the more human you feel, and fallible.”
“Actually,” she adds, “The more success you get, you start to be harder on yourself or more afraid of the looking glass. You have to learn to build a thicker skin because people are paying more attention. The teenage girl had a dream and really believed [she] could achieve that dream. As you get older you have to work to maintain that confidence.”
Celestial though she may seem, Idina Menzel is working it out like the rest of us. Maybe that’s what we can hear in a voice like hers – in a voice that moves us. Not just the magnificent tone and belt, but the heart too, full or chipped away at, depending on the day. Maybe that’s the under-skin thing, and why it gets you every time.
It’s certainly why I shuffle right back through WICKED the moment our phone call ends. It’s why I’ll be the one crying from the stalls all through her show at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. And why, ultimately, this fangirl is glad she got the chance to tell Idina Menzel that what she does – well, it hits us in a very deep place too.
Something wicked this way comes, Australia, and I for one can’t wait!