Five questions with singer-actress Idina Menzel
With original cast credits that include the free-spirited Maureen in “Rent” and the misunderstood witch Elphaba in “Wicked,” Idina Menzel has helped to launch two of the biggest Broadway successes of the last 20 years.
She may be preparing to launch a third, but she won’t offer much in the way of details. The 41-year-old singer-actress will say only that she’s “in the workshop phase of an original musical, which is what I love to do most, what has brought me the most success, so I’ve made myself available in this project from the very early stages.”
In the meantime, she is hardly twiddling her thumbs. In between raising a child and making regular appearances as a glee-club coach on the hit TV series “Glee,” Menzel is appearing in a one-woman show that’s a live version of her recent PBS special titled “Idina Menzel: Barefoot at the Symphony.” It stops Wednesday at the Detroit Opera House as part of a 30-city tour.
The show finds the raven-haired performer backed by 26 musicians. A four-person rhythm section travels with her, but the other orchestra members at Wednesday’s show will be Detroit-area musicians who will rehearse with her in the afternoon before the 8 p.m. performance.
Menzel’s eclectic song choices for the show nimbly leap from pop hits like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” to Broadway standards from Cole Porter. (Coincidentally, her “Wicked” costar, Kristen Chenowith, performed a similar show at the Opera House earlier this month.) Menzel spoke last week with the Free Press about what audiences can expect.
QUESTION: How much is off-the-cuff and how much scripted in this one-woman show?
ANSWER: There is some structure, and then I mess with it. I’d like to say that there’s a lot of spontaneity in my show, but when you’re working with an orchestra, you can’t throw them into a tizzy by changing the order of things too much.
Q: How did the idea of performing barefoot come about?
A: When I was performing with symphonies, I felt that I had to dress up more, put on the gown and the 3-inch heels. Because I travel with a kid and my back was killing me, I decided one time that I didn’t have to wear those heels. I had the best show. I felt more comfortable in my body and my voice. And since then, I haven’t gone back.
Q: How do you pick the songs to perform?
A: It’s more like the material chooses me. Sure, some are expected of me. Or sometimes it’s a song that chronicles a time in my life that I want to share with the audience. Others are ones I’ve always wanted to sing that challenge me in some way.
I do this medley of Cole Porter songs and then it goes into Sting’s “Roxanne.” That came about because when I was in college, I was working in an interpretation class and the teacher wanted me to work on the song “Love for Sale.” Then one day, I woke up and thought “Roxanne.” They’re both about prostitution. So that just kind of fit and people really like it.
“Don’t Rain on My Parade” I do because I had to sing that for Ms. (Barbra) Streisand (who originated the song in “Funny Girl.”) at the Kennedy Center. There’s a funny story that goes along with that song that I tell during the show. I do a lot of talking between songs.
Q: The two shows you are best known for, “Rent” and “Wicked,” have attracted massive cult followings. What makes a great modern Broadway musical?
A: First, it doesn’t have to be modern to this era to be modern. Like any successful work of art, it just has to be completely authentic and honest. It has to make people feel like they are being represented in that art form. Whether it’s a rock ‘n’ roll musical or more traditional, it has to speak to their soul.
(With Elphaba in “Wicked”) what I connected with was the idea of being a woman in this day and age and the challenges that come with it. It’s challenging to be a powerful, confident woman without feeling alienated or ostracized in some way. … I was on the same journey as the character of Elphaba, learning how to harness my power and not be afraid to shine, so to speak, and not be afraid to be powerful — and that is something that as women we’re not taught innately.
Q: Your recurring role in “Glee” has introduced you to another generation. The show has also introduced kids to Broadway music they might not otherwise have been exposed to. Do you find hope in that?
A: Of course I do. It makes people appreciate all kinds of music and listen with different ears. To make Broadway music a bit more mainstream is obviously good for people like me. But what I love most about it is the way it celebrates these young people and their individuality. And I appreciate the dialogue it is having between younger and older generations, the conversations that it brings to dinner tables all across the world.