Idina Menzel on coming to PBS & Ravinia Festival
When you hear the name Idina Menzel, you might think of Shelby Corcoran in “Glee,” or Elphaba the witch in “Wicked,” or Maureen in “Rent.”
Menzel has memorably played all three of those women. But in her upcoming PBS concert special and at the Ravinia Festival this summer, Menzel will show fans who she really is—glorious voice, bare feet and all.
On July 8, Menzel will make her Ravinia debut, performing in concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Marvin Hamlisch, the festival announced Friday. Fans can get a taste of what might happen this summer on Monday, when “Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony” debuts at 9 p.m. on WTTW.
“It’s the culmination of a year and a half of touring with orchestras, symphonies all over the country—the world,” she told me during a phone conversation Thursday from L.A. “PBS wanted to support us and document the show, which is such an honor.
“I always wanted to have one of those concerts on PBS … And we’re going to release a live DVD and CD that goes along with it. So it’s an exciting time for me, I’ve never made a live album before.”
It’s turning out to be a year of firsts for Menzel, which is kind of surprising considering the powerhouse performer has been wowing audiences on stage, screen and in recordings since her Broadway debut in “Rent” in 1996. Menzel also will spend more time in Chicago this year—another first—when she visits the WTTW studios Monday during the telecast and pledge drive. (Hint for fans: She just might offer tickets to the Ravinia show, and copies of her live DVD and CD, for your pledges.)
Filmed at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall in Toronto, “Barefoot at the Symphony” has Menzel performing Broadway classics, her own songs and new spins on contemporary tunes. Saying she wants to keep “some element of surprise,” Menzel wouldn’t list any specific songs that she performs in the special (and most likely will at Ravinia), but she did confirm she does perform songs from “Rent” and “Wicked.”
That means we’ll hear Elphaba’s signature “Wicked” song, “Defying Gravity.” I asked if she ever gets tired of performing the song that she first sang for the role that won her a Tony Award.
“Honestly I do not,” she said. “It’s such an honor to have a song like that; it’s such an iconic song that people are waiting to hear. In your lifetime if you have one song like that, you’re just so lucky.”
(I couldn’t nail her down on her concert songlist, but I did get her to list a few of her favorite songs that she’s performed on “Glee” and other performers she and husband Taye Diggs enjoy. You can check out the playlist I made at Spotify by clicking “Idina Menzel Playlist by Show Patrol”)
Now, about the “barefoot” in “Barefoot at the Symphony:” It may sound like a gimmick, but that’s exactly how Menzel prefers to perform. She had been singing in three-inch heels during her tour, but carrying her son around in the heels messed up her back, she said. So one night she decided to go barefoot.
“That just changed me,” she said. “From then on I just felt like I was just so much freer. I felt like I was funnier. You can feel so stiff up there when you have a conductor and you’re in these fancy halls—and that’s not me.”
Menzel talked more about her musical theater experiences, her concert tour and what’s coming up for Shelby on “Glee.”
I want to get the gushing out the way first. You’re responsible for two of my favorite New York theater experiences. I saw you in “Rent” and “Wicked” on Broadway. So thanks.
Oh, wow, thank you. Thanks, that’s so great.
And the night I saw you in “Wicked,” Britney Spears was in the audience.
Yes, and she got up before you were finished singing before the intermission.
And she left? She didn’t leave the show because she didn’t like it—
No, she left because she didn’t want to get mobbed.
Oh, right, right. Now it’s coming back to me a little bit. Oh, my God, that’s funny.
Was “Rent” a big life-changing experience for you?
Yeah, I met my husband and it was my first professional job.
Oh, I didn’t know it was your first job.
Yeah, it was. And it taught me everything about how to really discipline yourself [while] doing eight shows a week and all that kind of stuff. And also, the biggest lesson was to really appreciate every moment and not take things for granted and all that kind of stuff. Having been working with Jonathan Larson and in rehearsal and then losing him. You’re familiar with that story?
Right. So that was surreal and also just a life lesson for all of us to sort of stay grounded and to remember that every night you’re on stage and you have a new audience and you have to communicate the message and the beautiful music … So that really was life changing.
I wrapped up a record deal; I thought I was going to go sell millions of records and then I got dropped from the record company and had to start over. I didn’t work for a while, but that’s the business, the ups and downs. I had to come back. I turned down so many opportunities in Hollywood, like TV things and film things, because I really wanted to make my music. I ended up sort of cutting off my nose to spite my face because I sort of missed the boat on that. Then when I got dropped from the label and everything, I just had to start over and so I went back to the only place that I felt the most comfortable, which is the theater.
And did terrifically well again. Now when you get comments or questions from fans, or are recognized by them, is it more for “Rent,” “Wicked” or “Glee”?
Oh, I don’t know. I guess it’s still the theater more than the TV, although TV obviously helps sell more tickets and introduces me to a wider audience and all that. It still feels like it’s “Rent” and “Wicked,” because like you said, when you’re sitting in the audience of a live theatrical performance, there’s nothing like it. I’ve had that experience, and you know that you’re seeing a show that just, whatever happened that night was special and unique for that evening and for whatever it makes you feel.
The shows that I’ve been in are for young audiences as well; my fans are young and it helped them really deal with maybe exploring their sexual orientation or with [being] the outcast or somebody that was being alienated and made fun and all that kind of stuff. So I feel like those issues really helped connect the kids to me.
Right. When you first started on “Glee,” I wondered if a lot of viewers maybe didn’t even know about your theater experience.
Yeah, I’m sure there was. I hope there was, because that means that I was making new friends, let’s say.
You know, and that’s the name of the game. But it’s interesting, that whole thing is just so interesting, because I do get recognized more now, ever since I’ve been on “Glee,” and yet when someone comes up to me and approaches me, they don’t talk about “Glee,” they talk about “Rent” or “Wicked.” So I’m trying to figure that out; [I’m] not sure why. Maybe they just didn’t know what I looked like without green make up and they’re like, “Oh, that’s the girl that we saw in ‘Wicked.’” [Laughs.] I don’t know.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly.
Let’s talk about your PBS concert special coming Monday.
It was this incredible year and a half of really having this great balance on stage between performing with a thrilling, magnificent orchestra behind you and also trying to maintain an intimacy with the audience that I feel is important to have. I didn’t want to lose that by standing in front of 80 musicians that all of a sudden dwarf me in some way and take away the personality or the connection that I feel like I have with an audience. So it was tricky, but it ended up really working and ended up being just such an incredible experience…
And so they just asked and set it up and then filmed and recorded the shows?
We went to Toronto and we did it for two nights so we could take the best from both nights. There’s a lot of spontaneity in the show and each show is very different; my dialogue and my rapport with the audience is different. I wanted to make sure I caught the best moments.
Marvin Hamlisch is conducting; which he’s one of my new best friends and I love him very much. He did a bunch of shows with me throughout the year and we’ve just become very close and I just feel more comfortable having him back there. He did the show with us for PBS and I have to say, I’m really excited about it.
It’s called “Idina Menzel Live, Barefoot at the Symphony” because I never wear shoes. And it was my way of staying grounded, because like I said, you can be swept away by all of that sound and the musicians and theatricality and the drama of the situation. I wanted to make sure that I still was talking to everybody. So it’s called “Barefoot at the Symphony.”
And that’s why you don’t wear the shoes when you perform?
Yeah. Well, I was wearing high heels for a little while and the gowns and the whole thing, because I felt like, “OK, I’m with the New York Philharmonic tonight, I have to dress the role,” you know? But I found that I didn’t move the same way and I wasn’t as comfortable … So I wanted to make sure that even though we have that glorious sound and these huge, wonderful arrangements and everything that I still keep talking to the audience the same way I did when I would go out with a five-piece rock band, you know?
I’ve worn heels before and it ain’t easy, so.
[Laughs.] Right, Curt.
Do you ever get tired of singing “Defying Gravity?”
Honestly I do not. I’ve changed the arrangement. I change it here and there to keep it fresh for myself, but I wouldn’t really have to do that either. It’s such an honor to have a song like that; it’s such an iconic song that people are waiting to hear. In your lifetime if you have one song like that, you’re just so lucky. And the response I get, as soon as I open my mouth for the first word is always so incredible that I enjoy it. And now that I’ve not been in the show for so many years, it’s nice to sing it and sort of revisit that moment in the show for myself and have that kind of muscle memory and just remind myself what an incredibly magical moment that was in the show, or just how incredibly emotional or intense it is for people when they hear it. It’s just so powerful that I don’t get sick of it.
What’s coming up for Shelby on “Glee”?
They keep all of that stuff so quiet that I have no idea. Honestly, I swear to you I’m not lying, I have no idea.
You have filmed more episodes though.
I don’t know how many I filmed. I haven’t been there in a couple weeks, which is great because I needed some time to spend with my son, but so I have no idea what’s coming up, I really don’t.
All right. I’ll let you off the hook.
I would assume, for sure, I’d be spending more time with Leah’s character, and singing more duets with her and obviously, hopefully resolving the Puck issue, but they skip around there a lot, so I don’t know.
All right. Well, thanks and I look forward to seeing you this summer in Chicago.
Thank you so much.
You like hanging out in Chicago?
I haven’t spent that much time there, so I’m looking forward to it.