The actress who is Frozen’s Elsa
Broadway stars are not typically known for their modesty: it takes a certain amount of self-belief to stand on stage, eight times a week, and hold an audience. And Idina Menzel has been doing that for two decades, ever since she got her break in the original production of Rent, through her award-winning, career-making role in Wicked, and now in If/Then, a year-long run of a show that was written for her.
As big a star as musical theatre has ever seen, she has over the past year become a bona fide star of the screen as well – after a fashion. Menzel is the voice of Elsa, the magical, ice-powered princess in Frozen, the most successful animated film of all time. Which means she is the voice of Let It Go, the girl-power anthem that roared, topping charts globally, inspiring YouTube tributes galore and winning an Oscar for best song.
And all of this means that she is suddenly the worldwide heroine nonpareil of little girls everywhere – even if they may initially be confused that a girlish, blonde Scandinavian royal is actually a 43-year-old raven-haired Jewish Long Islander.
“It depends on their age,” she says, asked whether many young Frozen fans understand who she is. “But more than you’d ever think. I remember some of those classic Disney songs from movies, and you knew the character but you didn’t know the person behind the song. But this is different, this is weird. All the little girls love Elsa but they also want to meet me. I think that’s because of social media, and their parents say, ‘Watch this, this is the girl at the Oscars.’
“I’ve been trying to understand why it’s helping me so much, personally. But then I think, ‘Oh, I should give myself some credit – maybe it’s the interpretation of the song that I gave.’”
You don’t need to spend much time with Menzel to see that she has some confidence issues. It’s also apparent that, unlike many a stage diva, she is not in the least bit grand. Far from it: she is warm, forthright and self-analytical to a fault. It’s late on a Friday afternoon, a few hours before she is due on stage in If/Then, and she is barefoot and curled up on a sofa in a New York hotel suite, tucking into a chicken club sandwich, batting away my concerns about whether she is talking too much on a show day.
“I do have a discipline and a routine, but I used to be more precious. Once I’d had a baby,” she says, referring to Walker, her five-year-old son with the actor Taye Diggs, “I started to relinquish some of that control because I just couldn’t get as much sleep, or things would come up and I’d have to go on stage tired. So I sort of lowered my expectation of myself, and actually ended up singing better most of the time because I was more relaxed.”
Lately, however, Menzel is doing anything but lowering her expectations. Over the past few months she has been pulling double shifts, capitalising on her heightened profile by recording an album of Christmas songs. And while her career is on the up, life has been far from easy, because all of this success has come in the wake of her divorce from Diggs: a couple since they met on Rent, they announced their separation at the end of last year. Menzel is still adjusting, and confesses to feeling a need to overcompensate with Walker.
“Exactly. Yeah, I’ve totally f— him up now, he’s going to have divorced parents,” she says wryly, with a shade of sadness. “But I had a parent-teacher conference yesterday, and it was very positive. They said what a wonderful child he was. So that has helped me a bit: ‘OK, let me take that in, you’re doing OK.’
“It’s hard. It was even when I wasn’t single. Just being a working mom is so complicated, because we want our children to grow up seeing the best version of their mother. And the best version of their mother is going to be a woman that’s fulfilled and doing what she loves and teaching her children that they have to go after their own passions and dreams.
“And yet, I want to be home. I want to read [to him]. I missed putting Walker to bed last night. All that kind of stuff. It’s constant. And I always feel guilty. I’m trying to let myself off the hook lately.”
She is loth to go into detail about the separation, but before the split when she was asked about how they had managed to maintain both their marriage and two, often conflicting, showbusiness careers, she admitted that it wasn’t always plain-sailing. “We have our ups and downs. We have to work really hard but we’ve grown up together and I think that friendship is a common denominator.” Today she says they are focused on co-parenting their son, and after If/Then finishes, Menzel thinks she will move to Los Angeles for a couple of months, where Diggs is filming a television series.
Rather than tipping her over the edge, the new album was, she insists, just what she needed. By fluke, If/Then touches on themes obliquely analogous to her own life: she plays a late-thirtysomething returning to New York after a divorce, navigating singledom while rebooting her career. Christmas Wishes, by contrast, is pure escapism. It features perennials such as When You Wish Upon a Star and Silent Night; River, the Joni Mitchell classic included as a tribute to one of her childhood heroines; and Baby It’s Cold Outside, a playful duet with Michael Bublé. It was recorded in a series of short sessions at a studio near the theatre.
“I just was in heaven,” she says. “It was a way to break up the monotony of doing the show every day at the theatre. I had fun, and I didn’t over-listen to myself or second-guess myself.”
It’s her fourth studio album, and the hope is that this is the one that achieves the mainstream pop success that (with the exception of Let It Go) has so far eluded her – a problem that often bedevils stage performers attempting to cross over. Can a talent with a belting voice adept at lifting the rafters in a 1,400-seat theatre night after night be, in Menzel’s words, “stripped of my sound” to make a pop album? The former requires power and theatricality; the latter usually requires something cooler, hipper and, often, more restrained. “Sure, I’d like it to be successful,” she concedes, but insists that she no longer obsesses over finding the right project. “Once you stop worrying about being so results-oriented, it’s very liberating.”
That liberation, it seems, is powered in no small part by the continued, snowballing success of Frozen. A word-of-mouth sensation and a meaningful one, too, it centres on two strong female characters, where the happy-ever-after isn’t predicated on the girl finding true love with a handsome prince.
“It’s women depending on each other; it’s a bond between them, not with a man,” says Menzel. “So often they pit us against each other, two powerful women. So it’s hard for people to believe that those two women would love and support each other. It’s easier to play the angle of them not liking each other.”
She has been overwhelmed by the response to the film, and particularly the video tributes it has inspired. “Recently someone sent me one of a girl with autism singing Let It Go. And I love the one with, I think it’s twins, and one of them’s yawning in it. And there’s one where the song’s been put in famous music scenes in movies: The Shawshank Redemption, where all the prisoners are looking up and listening to the opera. Or Rocky, when he’s running up the steps…”
Frozen has just been rereleased theatrically, and the filmmakers have made a new six-minute short that will play in cinemas in the coming festive season. There are also rumours of a sequel and a stage musical. What can Menzel tell us of those plans?
“That they’re all in the works, ha ha!”
Is she signed up for them all?
“Ah, yeah sure… Not the stage show – I don’t know what will happen with that – but the movie hopefully. We’ll see. I’m just going along for the ride,” she says.
Like Elsa, Menzel is belatedly learning to love her powers. As a child in Long Island (her father was a children’s pyjamas salesman, her mother a housewife who later trained as a psychotherapist), she found her vocation at the age of eight when a trip into New York to see Annie turned her head. From her mid-teens she performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs, singing show tunes, power ballads and Whitney Houston anthems. The weekly gigs paid her way through college, and helped hone her performance skills.
But they also meant Menzel had to endure drunk, ignorant crowds, while battling fears that her dreams of escaping Long Island would never come to pass. All the while, she hid her talent from her friends. “I didn’t want to stand out. I didn’t want other girls to be envious of me – or not to like me. So, yes, I would hide that.”
That wasn’t the only thing that she hid. “I come from a Long Island Jewish family. We curse and we talk and we argue. We fight big, and we make up big. When I left my [family] house in my twenties, and started to juxtapose myself with other ‘normal’ people in the world, I realised that not everybody communicates in that way. So I actually started to get really anxious, and embarrassed, or ashamed, of my anger, my temper, my…” She stops and frowns. “I was afraid of being too big and too loud. So I went inward. If you ask people that know me, even now, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, she’s so shy when you meet her.’ But I’ve come back around in my early forties to not being ashamed of being bawdy and maybe a little bit rough around the edges. And not caring about what people think as much of everything that I said. And understanding that my voice and my big presence are OK. That’s who I am.”
Menzel’s parents separated when she was 15, and “to be completely honest, I’m a little ashamed because I always said I wouldn’t get divorced. I wouldn’t let that happen because it was so upsetting to me. But,” she inhales, on the point of tears, “it is what it is. And he’s got two great parents, who are committed to co-parenting.”
Next summer Menzel – who for now is single – will be embarking on a solo tour performing the songs that made her and the songs that she made, from Wicked’s Defying Gravity and If/Then’s climactic power ballad Always Starting Over, to numbers popularised by another of her all-time icons, Barbra Streisand. She is heartened by the size of the concert venues she has been able to book.
“This is such a mercurial, unsteady, fragile industry, where you never know what’s going to happen,” she acknowledges. “It feels really good to be in control of your own career; to know I can show up at a theatre and people will buy tickets. As a woman who wants to be independent no matter what man she ends up being with, it felt good to know I can make a living doing what I love to do – singing – no matter what.”
Before I leave, she gives me tickets to see If/Then that evening. She lifts the rafters: she is sensational, front and centre in the exuberant, talky show for two hours and 20 minutes. And at the end, it is the audience who lift the rafters.