Idina Menzel brings American songbook to the Opera House
Oh, for a broomstick.
Idina Menzel, the original misunderstood green witch Elphaba in the Broadway run of “Wicked,” continues to enjoy a high-flying career. It’s just that right now, she’s crawling cross-country on a tour bus that will bring her to Detroit on Wednesday for a concert at the Detroit Opera House.
When I caught up with her by phone last week, the bus had just pulled into Little Rock, Ark., en route from a show in Austin, Texas, to the next gig in Nashville, Tenn. It was late morning. Menzel was yawning and trying to appease her 3-year-old son and tour companion, Walker.
The singer didn’t say whether she was yet wearing shoes that morning, but she did explain why she’s likely to appear on stage barefoot, as she’s been doing on the tour.
“I’m just more comfortable and I sing better,” says Menzel, who turned 41 in May. “Traveling with Walker so much, pushing his stroller, carrying him and dealing with a car seat on airplanes, I began to really feel it in my legs and feet. One day, I just stopped wearing the heels I was wearing. I’d been singing with symphony orchestras and felt I had to dress a certain way.
“Finally, I just decided, forget it. I needed to be more comfortable.”
But she’s just fine with her well-conditioned musical material. Menzel knows where her artistic heart lies, and it’s solidly in the tradition of the Broadway musical. That’s hardly surprising since she has become a key part of Broadway’s recent history.
Before “Wicked,” for which she won the 2004 Tony Award as best actress in a musical, Menzel had established her place on that pantheon as Maureen in the original production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” which brought a 1996 Tony nomination for best featured actress.
“I’ve been blessed to have iconic songs that go along with the characters I’ve played,” she says. “They’re like hit songs for me. I turn the mic toward the audience and they join in. They know all the words.”
Menzel’s fans always clamor for Maureen’s big “Rent” number “Take Me or Leave Me,” which happens to be a duet with her girlfriend Joanne. “I can’t sing it alone, so I go out into the audience to see if anyone would like to sing it with me.” What she typically gets is a chorus of volunteers.
“That’s great. I never get tired of singing these wonderful songs. It’s a gift that I’ve gotten to play those two roles. They changed my life, and singing the songs makes me appreciate where I’ve been and what I’ve done.”
As a prolific songwriter herself, Menzel also has a deep affection for the American songbook, and her concert program is sprinkled with original music as well as the pop classics she grew up singing.
“I’m a huge Cole Porter fan and used to sing ‘Love for Sale’ in college,” she says.
“I learned the American songbook from my favorite singers — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. And when you depart from the structure, you can do a lot with those songs.”
But for Menzel, the light that ever leads her on is the beacon of Broadway. Trucking about the country is fine — for a while.
“I’m determined to get back to Broadway as soon as I can,” she says, sounding fully awake. “But I want it to be an original piece. I’ve been working with several composers. I want to give them their creative space. You know, just be a muse for them, stand at the piano and let them hear their material. I miss New York so much.”