Eager to connect with her fans, Orlando-bound Idina Menzel is no ice queen
Nearly 20 years ago, Idina Menzel hit it big on Broadway as an original cast member of the musical “Rent.”
Then, covered in green makeup, she shot into the musical-theater stratosphere as the original “Wicked Witch” Elphaba in the megahit “Wicked,” for which she belted the anthem “Defying Gravity” and collected a Tony Award.
A recurring role on “Glee” introduced her to a television audience. She sang for President Barack Obama at the White House.
And in 2013, she rose into the international pop-culture pantheon with another power ballad, “Let It Go,” in a little movie you might have heard of — Disney’s “Frozen.”
Menzel, 44, will perform Saturday, July 25, at Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts as part of a world tour that has stretched from the Netherlands to the Philippines. Now she’s crossing the U.S., with a final stop in October at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A.
The New York native, who sang the national anthem at last year’s Super Bowl, is taking her success in stride.
“It’s very important to me that even though I’m perhaps on a different level and my profile has gotten bigger because of things like ‘Frozen,’ that I’m still able to connect with every single person in the audience,” she tells reporters during a conference call. “That’s challenging to do, the bigger the venues get. But I think it’s possible. I think that if I continue to try to be really honest and authentic, and allow for spontaneity, and I stay in the moment that we can still achieve that.”
At this point, Menzel is used to big audiences at high-profile events.
More than 40 million Americans watched the 2014 Oscars telecast, in which presenter John Travolta famously mangled her name. She and Travolta laughed it off and appeared together at this year’s awards.
Menzel’s still laughing: “We make a lot of jokes behind the scenes,” she says.
Not so funny were the social-media jeers last December after she ducked out of the highest notes in “Let It Go” during an outdoor performance in freezing conditions on ABC TV’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”
“Occasionally, if I have to endure criticism because I miss a high note … in the middle of winter, then as much as that hurt my feelings, that’s what I have to do,” says Menzel, who graduated from New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I’m not going to stop singing. And I’m certainly not going to lip-sync. … When people come and see you live and see what you can really do, they get it.”
She does her best to avoid the online sniping.
“It gets to me. I try not to read the stuff,” she says. “Once in a while, I cave and then I do and I read something hurtful. I try to focus on my family, my son, things that are much more important in my life.”
Menzel’s son, who’s nearly 6, is touring with her. She and his father, actor Taye Diggs, were married for a decade before their divorce in December.
Traveling with her son has taught her not to sweat the small stuff onstage, she says.
“Things go wrong all the time,” she says. “Everything from my boobs coming out of my bra in front of everybody at Radio City Music Hall, to forgetting words, to somebody yelling something out of the audience that strikes me in a funny way.”
Post concert-tour, she’ll return to her theater roots and “If/Then,” the new musical that netted her a Tony nomination this year. Her Broadway background helps keep her on track, she says, even as she tries to make each concert unique.
“Being a creature of the theater and eight shows a week, you embrace those things that keep things fresh and keep you on your toes because that’s what gets you through,” she says. “I enjoy that. Plus I want every city and every show, every audience, to feel like they got something that was particular and specific to that evening alone.”
One thing fans can count on at every concert is a mix of show tunes and tracks from her albums.
“Although ‘Let It Go’ is my only quote-unquote hit song, hit radio song, in my career … I sort of consider songs like ‘Defying Gravity’ and songs from ‘Rent’ to be my other hit songs,” Menzel says. “My barometer for that is, if I can put the microphone out and the audience can sing every word, then that’s a hit song. So I make sure to include those songs that I think people would really want to hear.”
She knows her fan base varies widely in age.
“Each defining project and role that I’ve been a part of has garnered a very young audience, between ‘Rent’ and ‘Wicked’ and even ‘Glee’ and now ‘Frozen,'” she says. “So I’ve always had to figure out how to negotiate, navigate around a wide demographic. Which is obviously a very lucky thing, a gift, but it also can be tricky.”
Sometimes she slips.
“I all of a sudden curse or swear about something and then I realize that’s a mom in the front row with her 8-year-old daughter!” she says. “But I have to be myself, too. That’s a challenging thing, how to reconcile all that.”
“Let It Go” is a crowd pleaser for all ages, as anyone who has watched dads, grandmas and toddlers all singing together at Walt Disney World’s “Frozen” stage show can confirm.
“I knew it was a beautiful song when they sent it to me to learn, but I had no idea it would have this effect and become this kind of phenomenon that it’s become,” Menzel says. “The beautiful thing about it is that as much as it speaks to young people, it also speaks to me as a woman and as a reminder for myself of the things that I think are important and things I need to learn.”
Her words come stronger and faster as she explains how the song’s lyrics inspire people — especially women — not to hide what makes them extraordinary, to embrace what makes them unique, to find their own voice.
“When a role or a song or a project has such reciprocity that you’re putting out all of that and getting back so much, as well,” she says, “that’s when you feel truly grateful.”