Idina Menzel Gets Symphonic (And Barefoot)
Thanks in part to her creation of two iconic and much-loved roles — Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked — Tony Award–winner Idina Menzel is a gay fan favorite whose powerful voice is always in demand on Broadway and the concert stage. In the new Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony — filmed at Toronto’s historic Royal Conservatory of Music and airing on PBS Saturday, followed by an album, DVD, and digital download available Tuesday — the fabulously chatty belter (and wife of Private Practice star Taye Diggs) reaches back into the amazing musical repertoire that she’s spent over 20 years putting together.
The Advocate: Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony features lots of songs that fans would expect you to perform as well as some surprises. How did you choose the material?
Idina Menzel: The idea of having this magnificent, thrilling orchestra behind you is incredible, and yet it can be daunting, so I wanted music that would live and breathe but also strike a balance and maintain an intimacy. It’s an eclectic mix. There’s a lot of theatricality, but then there are moments when I talk to the audience and get personal, so it sort of came from that. I knew I wanted to share certain aspects of my life, so I figured out which songs would chronicle that.
When doing a concert like this, how involved are you in the musical arrangements?
I’m very involved. I sit with Rob Mounsey, my MD [musical director], at the piano and we strip things down to just piano and vocal and talk about where we want to be adventurous.
For your signature songs, is it important to rework them?
Yes, but I have to be careful. A song like “Defying Gravity,” which I’ve sung so many times, in the past I’ve tried to mess with it too much. This time around, with the orchestra behind me, I decided to just sing it. My goal was to evoke that amazing moment in the show [Wicked], so I went back in that respect and really didn’t shy away from the drama and the theatricality of that moment.
Speaking of “Defying Gravity,” why do you think so many people respond to that song?
At some point in our lives, I think all of us feel that we’re weird or different. I know I can be very self-conscious about who I am and how I’m perceived. And it’s at that moment in the show that [Elphaba] decides, “I’m going to do this differently now. I’m gonna stop caring about what people think and just embrace who I am. Fuck what anybody else thinks.” She’s our hero because she stands up and does it. There’s also the other aspect that as a woman, it’s sometimes hard to be really fierce and strong. You want to be kick-ass, and yet as women we’re sometimes afraid we’ll be perceived as a bitch. The song is that character’s way of harnessing her incredible power and using it to change the world and influence people while not fearing her strength. I’m so thankful that I had that show because I could live in her world and be as powerful as I wanted.
Was it intimidating singing “The Way We Were” accompanied by its composer, Marvin Hamlisch?
It wasn’t. But that’s a testament to him. He has that kind of personality where he’s so happy to just be playing the song and sitting at the piano and making music with someone he cares about. He’s not intimidating in that way.
Why exactly were you barefoot at the symphony? Were your shoes confiscated while going through Canadian customs?
[Laughs] Yeah, right! The truth is, I’m more comfortable singing barefoot. When I dress up and put on heels, it’s one aspect of my personality, but I’m more comfortable being a bit more bohemian-like. And because I was playing with these huge orchestras all over the place, I thought OK, I have to wear the gown and the heels and get rid of my truck driver mouth and rise to the occasion and make people proud. [Laughs] And I was doing it. But I was also bringing my 2-year-old with me. And one day I woke up and my back was killing me from moving all the luggage and the stroller and him, and there was no way I could put on those four-inch platform heels. So I took a Motrin and went onstage without them. It was the best show I’d ever done. I felt completely grounded and my physicality was different. Even my notes came out better. From then on I said, “I’ll wear the gown. But not the shoes.”
Your song “Gorgeous” from your last pop record [I Stand] is a perfect anthem for marriage equality. Was that in your mind when you were writing it?
It totally was. It’s inspired by one of my best friends in the whole world, who moved to Rotterdam, Holland, to be with his boyfriend. It also fed into my own marriage — an interracial marriage — and the idea that it drives me up the wall when people don’t just mind their own business. We should be able to be who we are and live our lives — and the song was my response to feeling frustrated about that.
When did you first become aware of the battle for gay rights?
Probably when I was cast in Rent. By playing Maureen I was educating myself on …
What it was like to be a big, bad lesbian?
Yes! [Laughs] No, more about the experiences of the gay community. After seeing the show, young kids would write me letters saying they saw themselves in these characters and how grateful they were that we were celebrating them. This show gave many of them permission to be who they were. Wicked sort of carries on in that same tradition. It’s not necessarily about whether or not you’re gay, but it’s about finding who you are and celebrating that. So, while it wasn’t something I was necessarily planning on, I really took notice and understood that these people confiding in me was a gift, so I want to be as vocal as I can be for all of those who sat in the audience and made me feel so good.
You’ve talked a lot about your time as a wedding singer. Other than plenty of hilarious anecdotes, what did those years give you?
An education, really. People always ask, “What are your influences?” I didn’t have an older brother or sister that introduced me to cool songs when I was little. I was introduced to them because I had to learn all kinds of music for these gigs. To be a good wedding singer, you need a good repertoire. And when I started these jobs at 15, I had one song in each category: I knew a bossa nova, a song from Flashdance, I knew “Evergreen,” and “Stormy Weather” was my jazz. I had to act quickly and learn hundreds of songs so people could rely on me. Plus I was working with great musicians who would say, “Your voice is amazing — you should listen to Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin.” Or “Go listen to Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.” I feel so grateful for that shotgun kind of education because it made me so versatile and gave me such a spectrum of interpretation, which I think it made me a richer, more interesting singer.
And now you’re giving back. The A BroaderWay Foundation, which you and your husband established, has generated some positive buzz in the theater community. Where did the idea come from?
It was a dream of mine. I was fortunate enough to go away to camp every summer when I was a kid. And because I struggled with where I fit in in school, the summers were where I came alive and felt the most comfortable. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that every kid doesn’t get that experience, so it wasn’t enough just to create a terrific camp for kids, it had to be for those who wouldn’t necessarily get that opportunity. It’s a huge endeavor and we’re taking it slow. Last summer we took about 30 girls to the Berkshires, and Jeanine Tesori and I helped them create a show inspired by their lyrical ideas, their poems, their choreography, and their stories. It’s much more than I ever dreamt it was going to be. I love the name A BroaderWay because it’s not just about extending the opportunity to people who wouldn’t necessarily have the chance, I actually believe it’s taught us — the counselors and some friends who helped out — more than we’ve taught the girls. We’re excited to do it again this year. I get passionate about it. I want kids to feel they have a sanctuary where they can be themselves and discover who they are. And the arts are the greatest instrument for that.
Here’s my super-dorky question: I loved Ask the Dust…
…And I have to know: What’s it like to kiss Colin Farrell?
So funny you asked that. I hadn’t seen him in years — since I disrobed for him in that movie. [Laughs] And I just ran into him at an Oscar party. My husband brought him over to me and he was as sweet as could be. But the kiss was actually very nerve-racking. First of all, the context [is that I play] this crazy alcoholic woman with burns on her legs. She just takes her clothes off and stands there, asking him to kiss her. It wasn’t the most sexy of moments. Second, it was really early in the morning when we filmed it. The camera goes down my back, and then all of a sudden it hits my tush and the wounds on my legs. They told everyone to leave the set so I could feel comfortable, but Colin just walked on without thinking. When everyone went “Colin! Get out! Idina needs her privacy!” he was like, “Oh, come on, the last thing I need right now is to see some prosthetics on an ass.” [Laughs] I was just like, “Why don’t we roll right now since the humiliation factor will be perfect.” It was so not glamorous at all.
Will we get to see you in new stage musical soon?
I hope so. I have a couple things percolating that I’m really excited about. Unfortunately, I’ve decided that I really want to put my energy into originating roles in new musicals, and those things take time. Wicked took years. You have to put in the time to develop them and do readings. But yes, I’m desperately trying to get back there. My husband and I are trying to put our energy into — once Private Practice is over — maybe migrating back to New York City. So much has to do with the fact that we have a child, and we’ve learned that the success of our marriage relies on us being in the same city. Whenever we’ve split ourselves up for too long we’ve had our hiccups, so we know now that we have to stay as a unit. As soon as there’s a window when we can all get back to New York and I can dedicate that time, I will. In the meantime I’m working with composers and hopefully acting as some sort of muse so that something special comes out of that.comes out of that.