Idina’s New Voice
“There is a relief in not waking up every day and having to test whether I can hit a high note,” Idina Menzel says with a laugh, one of the many changes the award-winning, 47-year-old actress/singer is currently experiencing in her life. Last year, the Syosset, New York-born Menzel married Aaron Lohr, an actor whom she met over 15 years ago on the film set of “Rent,” and they are raising Menzel’s 8-year-old son, Walker, (by first husband Taye Diggs), in Los Angeles.
Menzel first captured the imagination of New York theatergoers in 1996 with her powerful performance in the Broadway musical “Rent.” Seven years later, she was catapulted to fame as Elphaba, the green-skinned woman-turned-wicked-witch in “Wicked” at the Gershwin Theatre. Since then, she has bounced back and forth between recording (releasing several albums), television (“Private Practice,” “Glee”) and as the voice of Snow Queen Elsa in the 2013 animated Disney megahit, “Frozen.”
Menzel has recently returned to New York for her first straight play, Joshua Harmon’s provocative “Skintight,” at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. In this bracing work, Menzel plays Jodi, an uptight, middle-aged lawyer who surprises (unhappily) her super-famous fashion-designer father, Elliot, for his 70th birthday. The result is a long, often painful weekend dealing with him; his twentysomething gay lover (and possible former porn star), Trey; her own unhappy 20-year-old gay son, Benjamin; along with her own insecurities and personal misery.
I spoke with Menzel about the play, why she wanted to do a non-singing role, the challenges of motherhood and the joy of being back onstage in New York City.
What attracted you to the play and the role of Jodi?
For me, at this point, accepting any job is about working with people who can teach me and challenge me no matter what, and I know that’s true of both Joshua and Daniel Aukin, our director. I love pieces that are original and new, and I was blown away by the role. Jodi is exploring a lot of issues I do, on a day-to-day basis, such as coming to terms with aging and fighting to keep one’s relevance in this world.
Is that what you think the play is about?
It’s about many things. First, I think it reminds us to be honest about what we need to be loved, whether that be physical or emotional. It also talks about the universal need for family and the need not to be lonely. And we also need to take stock of the amount of time and energy we spend on our appearance, and not be so hard on ourselves. In the end, we need to take the time to love, rather than spend hours making ourselves look better.
The play is set in the fashion world. Any connections there?
No. I have never gone to a fashion week, though I respect it. For awards shows, I have a stylist whom I trust, because I have this anxiety about what to wear. In a way, fashion scares me.
One thing that comes through in the play is Jodi’s sometimes overbearing maternal nature. Can you relate to that?
When you’re pregnant, they say your life will change, but they don’t tell you, for the rest of your life, you will have an aching moment in your heart every day. Because I was going out of town during rehearsals and Walker was in LA, you can be sure that I left the right list of medicines, his school schedule, everything he needed. It’s so important to me that I don’t mess up.
Did you get some of that attitude from your own parents?
Yes, my parents were definitely protective of me. My mom said nobody can mess with her children, and she meant it!
You talked about worrying about aging, your clothes and appearance. Has that rubbed off on Walker?
Actually, he’s the one who tells me not to worry about my looks. So I try not to talk about that around him. I know that not only do I want to be a good role model for him, but I want him to see me as a confident, well-adjusted mom. My mother was stunning, but no matter how great she looked, she always talked about her weight. And so, unfortunately, that became an example for me.
Speaking of Walker, is he showing signs of following you and Taye into the business?
Walker is showing some signs of being a performer, but I also think he spends more time trying to fight it than follow it. He is taking drum lessons now, and he really loves hard rock. I hear him sing in the house, and he can pick up any song and do it in tune, but whenever he hears me coming, he stops. Unlike other kids I know, he won’t do shows in the living room, not even just for me.
Is there a freedom for you in taking on a non-singing role?
My singing roles have really connected with so many people and brought me so much love. But it is important to me to stretch myself as an actress, in part, because I think there is a danger of becoming pigeonholed. And I wonder sometimes if I don’t get more dramatic roles because of my own insecurities. I think I can come off as not exciting enough when I am just acting, or I lose my shine when I am not singing. But I know I have more to give than just a great belt!
How do you think your fan base will react to this play? It’s a long way from “Wicked” [for which Menzel won the Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical] or “Frozen”?
I have the coolest fan base; they go with me no matter what I am doing. Plus, the theater audience grew up with me; it’s been over 20 years since I did “Rent” and about 15 years since “Wicked.” So, I am sure they’ll be there. In fact, one of the things I’m proudest about in my career is that I continuously evolve with my audience, and they with me.
You’re performing a couple of blocks from the Broadway musical “Frozen.” To many people, you are the definitive Elsa. How does being so close to the show make you feel?
I think it’s great! “Frozen” changed my life, and I will always be part of this big, loving Disney family. In fact, I will be playing Elsa again in the movie “Frozen 2,” once they find time to write it!