Interview: Idina Menzel
Whatever type of music or theatre you’re into, chances are you’ve heard Idina Menzel‘s voice. She was part of the Broadway revolution that was Rent in 1996, was the first to immerse herself in green make-up and iconic Stephen Schwartz melodies in global hit Wicked, and more recently joined the talented and charming misfits of Glee on the small screen – and that’s not even scraping the surface of her film work and songwriting. Currently on an epic US tour, Idina is heading to London on the 6th of October to appear at the Royal Albert Hall in a special one-off concert. Lucy Thackray caught up with Idina to talk gigs, motherhood and ‘weird’ first jobs…
We are so looking forward to having you in London.
Not as much as I’m looking forward to it!
What can your fans expect from the show? I know you’ll have the Royal Philharmonic with Marvin Hamlisch conducting…
It’s basically me standing in front of a symphony and singing all the music that I love, in a city that I love very much. It’s a nice combination of thrilling orchestra meets very intimate performance, and I’m just really excited about coming over.
So is it similar to the material you’ve been doing on your US tour?
Oh yeah, I’ve been honing the material from my tour so that I can return to London and do a really good job. It’s songs from the shows that I’ve been in, which most people would expect, and some that they wouldn’t expect. There’s a selection that I’ve done on Glee, there are original things I did on my album, there are standards, Cole Porter – loads of stuff.
What do you love about being on stage alone, as yourself?
That’s a good question. You know, it’s that feeling of performing that I’ve had since I was a little kid, of being in front of a live audience. It’s hard to explain what it is; it’s just something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. There’s something really exhilarating about getting in front of a bunch of people and making yourself vulnerable to them, opening up your soul and using your voice to do it. And hopefully connecting to people, in this case in another country. That’s the gift that I get from putting myself in these situations. It’s the scariest, most terrifying thing but usually it’s very rewarding.
You have one of the most distinctive voices in musical theatre. Did you train in any specific technique to allow you to hit the sort of notes you hit in Wicked, or have you always had that belt?
Yes, I have a teacher I’ve worked with for twenty years now. Mostly it all comes from the approach of your singing being an extension of your speaking, so that it’s always coming from a real place and the way you put out words and vowels is as true as possible. As far as the range, I’ve kind of worked like an athlete, like I’m running a marathon. I’m always singing double the amount that I’m actually going to be expected to do on stage, so it’s not too tiring. People always say, ‘What note are you hitting here?’, and I’m flattered that people think of my range like that, but I think what’s more important to put out there – especially to young, aspiring performers – is the idea that they should be connected to the emotion of the song. It doesn’t really matter how high you sing as long as you’re trying from a real place.
You’ve released three albums and wrote many of the tracks yourself. Do you collect ideas for songs while touring or filming?
It depends; I’m not a great multi-tasker, so I either have to be in that world where I’m working on an album and the ideas start to flow, or I’m working on a TV show and I’m very into that territory. Being the mom of a two-year-old, I can only multi-task so much, you know? But occasionally melodies come to me and I put them down on my iPhone or I’ll sing them into my voicemail.
You created two iconic musical theatre roles, Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in Wicked. Are you proud that these are still the parts that female performers dream of playing?
Oh, yeah. One beautiful thing about doing concerts and singing the songs from these musicals on a regular basis is that it’s a constant reminder of getting to be part of these shows, how poignant and powerful they are and how they resonate with young audiences. I feel a real responsibility to those roles and how they become role models for young people. It’s not a thing that I take lightly. Even now with Glee, to have been part of three projects that are so groundbreaking is something that I’m incredibly grateful for.
Rent was your first job out of drama school. Did you know there was something special about it when you auditioned?
No, I thought it was weird at first! I don’t know if you’ve ever read the musical on the page, without the music going along with it, but it can be very strange. It wasn’t until the first day of rehearsal when we all sang Seasons of Love together that I thought, ‘Oh, wow, there’s something really special here.’ But you never know how big something is going to be; you’re just happy to have a job and be doing something that you feel really close to.
I think the film version of Rent is one of the best screen adaptations of a musical. Did you have fun having that sort of reunion?
Thanks, I’m surprised that you said that because people are usually so hard on that. I had a great time. It was 10 years later that I got to reprise that role and that’s usually unheard of, so the whole time I was just trying to stay in that moment and appreciate it. I met my husband [Taye Diggs] in the original cast and he was in the movie as well, so we were back in our old costumes and everything! It just felt really wonderful being with most of the cast again. Getting to approach the role again with more experience was a gift and a curse, because you can approach it with the technique and the process that you have cultivated over the years, and yet what was beautiful about that show was that we were all real and fresh and raw, and we didn’t want to lose that.
You and Taye seem like such a lovely couple; what’s the secret to such a mutually supportive marriage?
We’ve been through our stuff just as much as anyone else has, but we obviously have such a great respect for each other and believe in each other. We’ve learned that long distance sucks, so it’s important to be in the same city, to stay connected and put each other first, especially now that we have a baby [Walker Nathaniel.]
How are you enjoying being parents?
We’re loving it, really loving it. It’s really nice to see your husband in a new light, as a father, that’s a really wonderful thing. So now it’s about family first and then career. Once you give over to that it’s actually quite freeing.
I noticed that the two of you now have a foundation called A BroaderWay…
Yeah, we just had our inaugural summer this past August. We took about thirty girls from Harlem and the Bronx up to a summer camp in the mountains in Vermont for ten days. They sang and danced and played tennis and volleyball and swam, and we had some incredible composers from the Broadway community come up and actually write songs for them and with them, based on their own lyrics and poetry and choreography. Then we put on a concert back in New York on the eleventh day of camp. So it was very successful, we’re really excited about it and we made a promise that they could come back next year, so now we have to figure out how to get it all done again.
You’ve recently been back working on Glee; what part does your character Shelby play in the third season?
Well in season one we found out that she is Rachel’s mother, so she’s coming back to work on her relationship with her, and she also adopted the baby that Puck and Quinn had, so she has to confront that relationship. I’m singing some great songs; there’s one duet in particular I’m doing with Lea that I’m excited about, from West Side Story. Other than that, I don’t really know that much more about the plot because they keep it so secret.
Do we get to meet Rachel’s dads?
I don’t know! That’s a good question, I was thinking about that the other day.
Was it weird when people started pointing out the similarities between you and Lea Michele?
No, we had heard that before Glee, in our little theatre community back in New York. I’m flattered because she’s much younger than I am and very pretty, so if people think I look like her I’ll take that as a plus.
You were one of the first Broadway stars to get involved in the show; how did you come across it?
It was serendipitous really; my husband and I were huge fans and we loved the show, we put it out there in the universe that we’d be interested and I think over in LA they were thinking it too, so it all came together real easily. I had just had a baby back then, so just to have a job and fit into my costumes… [laughs] – it was very exciting for me. This time around I was able to enjoy it even more because I didn’t have a newborn, I can really appreciate where I am.
Glee is all about being inspired by music. Who inspires you?
As a singer? Many people. I grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan is a huge inspiration for me – I was a wedding singer when I was about 15, 16 years old, and you have to learn every song in the book. Everyone from Whitney Houston to Aretha Franklin, to the newest Madonna song or the old standards, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. So as frustrating as being a wedding singer can be, it also gives you a terrific education, influencing your different musical tastes. In terms of songwriting, I love Annie Lennox, Joni Mitchell – there’s a bunch of people.
What’s next for you after the tour? Filming, theatre, recording or all three?
Well, I’ll be back and forth in Glee all throughout the season, which I’m very excited about. Also, I’m developing a new musical for New York that is still so early stages that I can’t mention more than that, but it’s something I’m very excited about and means that I will be getting back to New York, thankfully, in the next year or two. I guess my biggest project is still my son Walker and his daddy, and trying to figure out how to balance motherhood and career and all that kind of stuff.
You’ll be such an inspiration to him though, career wise.
Thank you. He likes to come up on stage when I’m doing sound check with the orchestra; he’s not overwhelmed by it at all. He’ll start dancing or trying to touch the violins!
Is Walker coming over to London with you?
No, I wasn’t sure until a couple of days ago, but I made the executive decision to leave him home. I haven’t been away from him for more than two nights, so this is going to be really difficult for me.
Do you have any other plans while you’re in London, seeing any shows or sights?
I hope I’ll get to see some theatre; like I said, I’m coming in and out really quickly because I don’t want to be away from my boy for too long, but I opened in Wicked there… how many years ago? Oh five, right, because it’s the anniversary. I’m missing the anniversary by a few days which is very sad. But I might actually go to the theatre and say hi, that would be something high on my list. I’d like to go see some other theatre, I have a bunch of friends that I’d like to see, and my mom’s coming with me so I might show her around, take her to the rose garden at Regent’s Park or something like that.
You worked with producer Glen Ballard on your album I Stand; have you heard any of Ghost: the musical, that he co-wrote?
I haven’t seen Ghost, but I love Glen very much and I remember when he was setting out to do it and it was his first foray into musical theatre, and being so proud of him. So I’m really excited for him.
The lead character Molly is quite a powerhouse, Idina-esque role. Are there parts out there you’d still love to play?
There are some, but it’s more the unknown that I’m really looking forward to. My most gratifying moments have been in shows that were original and took years to develop, and that I was fortunate enough to be involved in from the early stages. It’s just a process that I really, really enjoy, being in a room with the composer and director for a couple of years and really nurturing the character. So it’s more about finding that new, original show that I can bring something to and being a part of that.