No Day But Today : Diva Idina Menzel’s career has defied gravity, with a trio of pop-cultural phenomena and a new concert tour
Gay men wish they could be Idina Menzel for two reasons: First, she’s got a killer voice, and acting chops to match — notable on Glee, in Rent and her Tony Award-winning role in Wicked, where she got to defy gravity. Second, she’s married to breathtaking heartthrob Taye Diggs — we so want to be able to come home to him.
And Menzel knows it. Though sometimes there’s a twist that surprises even her.
“Lately, when we’ve been stopped on the street together, people will come up to him and say, ‘I love you but I love your wife even more.’ Often that’s even the boys.”
That’s the mark of a diva: Even a gay guy would put Taye Diggs second to praise you.
It’s not something that happens overnight. Menzel was in her early 20s when she first came to prominence on the surprise Broadway hit Rent, which won the
Pulitzer and the Tony and became a phenomenon. But after that, she met with hardship.
“My career has ebbed and flowed,” she admits. “After I left Rent, I did an album that did not sell well. I got dropped from my record label; I was the third replacement on Aida when I entered it.” She wondered if lightning would strike twice.
It did, with Wicked. Menzel won a Tony as the misunderstood green-skinned witch of Oz who gets to belt out some of the best recent Broadway songs, including “The Wizard and I” and “Defying Gravity.” And Menzel knew she was lucky.
“The experience of Rent was like no other, because we were young and lost our leader,” she says, referring to the unexpected death of composer Jonathan Larson just days before the show opened. “That grounded us in a way other 20-somethings would not be. It was a reminder every day what was most important to us, in our personal lives and onstage. We were passionate; being in the moment and appreciating what we had, that stayed with me. So once Wicked came I was so grateful, because I know how fleeting this all is.”
Lightning struck yet again when Menzel was cast in a recurring role on the TV show Glee — a weird meta-experience, considering that the characters on the show talk lovingly about the B’way diva Idina Menzel … while her character is something of a villain.
“That’s Ryan Murphy for you — there are no limits. Thank God,” she says.
Being on Glee is refreshing in another way: It’s a bit of Broadway in Hollywood.
“It’s terrific. It’s a very unusual setting for a TV show in L.A., because there are so many theater people. The community and the discipline are great.”
With Broadway on a roll, with gigantic hits like Wicked, Jersey Boys, Porgy & Bess and others still packin’ ‘em in, and the movie musical even making a comeback, from Enchanted to the upcoming Rock of Ages and Les Miserables, it seems like the oft-lamented musical is still alive and well. But there’s one aspect of the renaissance that she finds especially gratifying.
“One thing that’s different is the acceptance of the television [musical,]” like Glee and Smash. “For years and years, if you tried to develop [a TV musical format] people would laugh at you,” she says. Call it The Cop Rock Effect. “But it was something I always wanted to do, so I could combine all my skills in one medium.”
Menzel doesn’t have a favorite medium — she’s just as happy nowadays touring the country in concert promoting her recently released CD Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony. She brings that show to Dallas on June 13. The show includes showtunes, but also Lady Gaga. That’s because Menzel doesn’t have a favorite style of song, or even favorite composer.
“I grew up singing so many different kinds of music. I was a wedding/bar mitzvah singer from 15; that was my education. I was studying classical and choir music during the week, but on the weekend I’d be singing Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan and Billie Holliday and Madonna,” she says.
As for composers, “I love Stephen Schwartz, who has a contemporary feel, but I like to challenge myself with Sondheim. Different composers can expose different sides of who you are. It’s nice when you work with Michael John LaChiusa, who puts me in these keys that make me sing like a soprano, which no one ever asks me to do.”
Still, Menzel respects the love she feels from audiences who so identify her with a trio of pop culture phenomena: Rent, Wicked and Glee.
“I feel fortunate every day to be involved in three of these Zeitgeist shows,” she says. “I am well aware of that, and do not take it for granted, especially the relationship with young audiences. When I am on tour, the way people feel they can confide in me and share their lives is wonderful.”