Free of her green ‘Wicked’ makeup, Idina Menzel shows her true colors
The videotaped footage must be in thousands of homes, stashed away with other 1980s marriage memorabilia: Idina Menzel singing the latest Madonna single, classic rock hits and other wedding reception standards.
Yes, the Tony Award-winning actress, known for originating the Broadway roles of Maureen in “Rent” and, most famously, the green-tinged witch Elphaba in “Wicked,” used to be a wedding singer.
Not surprisingly, at her own 2003 nuptials to actor Taye Diggs — a fellow “Rent” cast member and current co-star of ABC’s “Private Practice” — in Jamaica, Menzel said she made the leader of the wedding band, one of her best friends, “swear she would not ask me to get up there and sing.”
“A few champagnes later,” however, the friend dragged Menzel onstage to belt out “Respect.”
Throughout her career, Menzel has garnered plenty of R-E-S-P-E-C-T — even at weddings and bar mitzvahs, when people would actually stop eating the free buffet food to listen to her perform.
Menzel (pronounced men-ZELL), 37, who won the 2004 Tony Award for best actress in a musical for “Wicked” and received a Tony nomination in 1996 for “Rent,” has branched out beyond Broadway. She’s starred in several films, including the 2005 screen version of “Rent” and the 2007 Disney musical “Enchanted” (she played Patrick Dempsey’s fiancée). She’s also recorded three pop solo albums since 1998. Her latest, “I Stand,” was released in January.
“I Stand,” with nine of the original tunes co-written by Menzel, marks her debut on the Warner Bros. Records label. As part of a tour to promote the CD, which reached No. 58 on the Billboard 200 chart, Menzel will perform a solo concert Wednesday night at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. Also, in April, she taped a concert at New York’s Rose Hall, including a duet with Josh Groban, for a PBS special scheduled to air this month or in July.
For the Santa Barbara show, Menzel will sing tunes from the new album as well as Broadway hits.
She won’t have far to travel for the concert. Although Menzel and Diggs’ home base is New York City, the couple are renting a house in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles while Diggs works on “Private Practice.” You might have spotted Menzel around Ventura County, too: She celebrated her birthday (May 30) with a weekend at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.
Taking off the green mask
Menzel, a force in several entertainment fields, said in a phone interview that she’s “happy being able to fluctuate between” stage, film and solo music projects.
“It’s really a privilege to go back and forth; it keeps me fresh and challenged as an artist,” she said. “I used to think I had to choose one; now I want to do what makes me happy.”
During a recent ABC radio interview with Menzel, a reporter suggested that piping pop tunes must be easier than performing complicated Broadway numbers, but Menzel didn’t agree.
“It’s harder to sing your own music because you can’t hide behind any green makeup, or any costume or character,” she said. “It’s my own words; I’m putting myself out there for everyone to embrace or to completely rip apart. It’s a terrifying thing to do, but I’m exhilarated and excited about it.”
Brave’ stance on I Stand’
Helping her through the terror/excitement of recording “I Stand” was veteran producer Glen Ballard, who produced Alanis Morissette’s Grammy-winning “Jagged Little Pill” and has worked with Annie Lennox, Celine Dion and other vocal heavyweights.
“Glen really understands musicians and provides the perfect environment for creativity,” Menzel said.
The album’s power ballads swell with determination, including the title tune, “I Stand” (“I stand for the power to change”), and “Brave” (“If this is my rite of passage that somehow leads me home/I might be afraid but it’s my turn to be brave”).
The entire album “is very personal,” Menzel said. “With this album, I’m trying to figure out and rediscover who I am and what I want to contribute — to my marriage, the day, the world.”
She hasn’t figured out all the answers and is just fine with the ambiguity. “It’s OK to be in the process,” she said. On the CD, “you’ll hear a work in progress, a lot of soul searching going on. I learned it’s OK to make changes in your life.”
Practice, practice, practice
One change that Menzel hasn’t made is giving up voice lessons. She continues to work with the same teacher she’s had since college, Tanya Travers, who’s taught Menzel crucial endurance skills.
For “Wicked,” “it was singing all that music eight times a week,” Menzel said. “Now, it’s about doing a 90-minute concert all by myself. I want to keep my range strong.”
Her tendency to sing her heart and lungs out led Menzel to voice lessons in the first place.
The singer grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where she sang in school productions, adored Barbra Streisand and became an “Annie” “freak” when she was 8. After seeing the Broadway show, she said, “I used to try to sing all the songs at the top of my lungs.”
Menzel recalled in a Broadway.com interview that a voice teacher told her, “Whoa! I’m going to take you just because you’re screaming your head off and I don’t want you to lose your voice forever.’”
As a teenager, she starred in school musicals and began singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs at age 16. She received a degree in drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1993 and continued on the reception circuit until 1995, when she was cast in “Rent.”
Menzel, soft-spoken in person, is still known for her powerful voice, especially from her stint as Elphaba from 2003-05.
(“Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit,” a spoof of Broadway productions, even includes a song that changes the lyrics to “Defying Gravity,” Elphaba’s signature song in the show, to “defying subtlety” and “I am the loudest witch in Oz/And no one’s gonna turn/My volume down.”)
The Santa Barbara concert will feature a few “gems” from her Broadway career, Menzel said. “But I fit them cohesively with the rest of the show. It’s more like an evening with me. I share stories of my life, and the music underscores things.”
Will Menzel reprise her roles in “Wicked” or “Rent”? Well, actually, she would be “re-reprising” the roles because she’s already played Maureen in the “Rent” film and starred as Elphaba in a 2006 London production of “Wicked.”
Menzel said she wants to collaborate with composers developing new works. “I’m not opposed to revival. But I want to be constantly developing something original.”
Elphaba and Maureen “were incredible characters,” she said. “It’s interesting when you have more confidence how enjoyable rediscovering a role can be.”
Menzel recalled watching a bootleg video of her Broadway performance in “Rent” after she wrapped up the movie.
“I had cleaned up a lot of the raw qualities of the character; there was something so unique and unabandoned and exhilarating about being up there. Now I’m a little more sculpted, clean,” she said.
In her view, sculpted isn’t necessarily better than unrefined.
“It’s a life lesson, to know that where you are at a certain time is OK, and that you’re giving what you’re supposed to be giving,” Menzel said.
Even if it’s champagne-fueled “Respect” at a reception.