It’s not everyday that the Houston Symphony has an attention-starved, bisexual, green-faced, adoptive wicked mom who prefers to fly by broomstick on the Jones Hall stage. These are just some of the characters that have made Idina Menzel a household name just about everywhere.
The men love her. The gays want to be her. And the ladies drool over her husband Taye Diggs (have you seen the abs?)
Menzel’s rise to the ranks of celeb began with her 1996 Broadway role as Maureen Johnson in the original Rent, the musical that updated the story of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme and made numbers cool via the song “525,600.” She received a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.
Ironically, it was Menzel yelling “fuck” emphatically after cackling the high note in the midst of her Wicked audition — “Defying Gravity” is not for the weak — that helped earn her a spot as Elphaba in that hit musical.
When it rains, it pours. Menzel won a Tony, three Broadway.com Audience Awards and a Drama Desk Award for the role. With her appearances in the TV hit Glee as Shelby Corcoran, now the former coach of rival show choir Vocal Adrenaline, the 40-year-old is at the top of her game.
We caught up with the busy actress, singer and songwriter when Menzel was in her car right outside the set of Glee. Over the phone while sitting in her car, Menzel gave us the insider scoop on her life and her shows with the Houston Symphony this weekend (Menzel performs with the Symphony Friday, Saturday and Sunday night).
CultureMap: I can imagine that performing on a theater stage is quite different from the television set of Glee. Do you have a preference? What feels more comfortable for you?
Idina Menzel: Technically there are a lot of differences, but there is one common denominator. As an artist and performer, whether you are on stage or on set, it’s imperative that I find the willingness to expose my vulnerabilities and connect with people.
That doesn’t change regardless of wherever I happen to be performing. So I feel it as a very similar experience even though the surroundings are quite different.
CM: In high school, did you have a favorite musical or a memorable musical experience?
IM: I went to high school in Long Island in a district that was very supportive of the arts. We did many school plays, musicals, concerts, you name it.
In 1988, we took a trip to the Soviet Union with the special honors choir. The choir was amazing. At that age, as a junior, the opportunity to see the world, meet students our own age doing the same thing in a different culture really opened my eyes.
I now know how fortunate I was to be a part of a school system that could support such a program, that had the means to raise the needed funds to send us abroad.
CM: Very important question. Who are you wearing in Houston?
IM: That’s a really good question (laughs) and it’s bit of a long story. There was a mistake made when I went to London just last week and all my wardrobe is stuck in customs. I usually wear this gorgeous white dress.
At this point, your guess is as good as mine. As soon as I am finished with Glee today, off I go to figure that out.
I never wear shoes on stage. So that’s not an issue.
CM: No shoes? Comfort? Afraid to fall over?
IM: (Laughs) It’s more of a comfort thing. One day my ankles were hurting after lifting the stroller, suitcases, running through the airport and thought to myself, there is no way I am putting those 3-inch platform heels on. So I didn’t.
It was the best show I had performed. I felt grounded, more like myself. It’s more about have the freedom to just be me out there, and that means being comfortable.
CM: And the hair? I mean, look at you. It’s amazing.
IM: My hair (laughs)? Gosh, I don’t have many tricks. I am lucky I had the time to shower two days in a row. I don’t feel very glamorous right now. My hormones are all screwed up from having a baby. My hair doesn’t know what it’s doing most of the time.
CM: So, you just celebrated the big 4-0 and Walker is now 2 years old. How do you balance between being a mom, a wife and a very active working performing artist.
IM: Good question. I am learning everyday how to do it better; I struggle with finding balance everyday. As a mother, I feel empowered. I certainly can feel when I am spending too much in my career, when I need to spend more time with my husband and my child. That’s something all working women struggle with.
I feel comforted by the thought that everyday I leave the set, I do something for myself to ensure I am a better mother, a better wife. Also, performing is part of my life, it’s who I am. If I didn’t perform, I would not be the best version of myself, which translates in being a good mom.
CM: We hear you make a mean breakfast. French toast? Any other Idina Menzel signature dishes?
IM: Yes, I make really amazing French toast. I soak the bread really well in the eggs. And it’s all about the bread you use. I try not to use too much syrup, opt for agave nectar mostly. I make wicked omelets, pancakes and organic oatmeal with bananas.
Just don’t ask me to cook dinner.
CM: What are you passionate about lately?
IM: I started A Broader Way Foundation in an effort to support young people in the arts. Camp BroaderWay took 30 young inner city girls to a 10-day performing arts camp up in the Berkshire Mountains.
It wasn’t just music activities. They participated in camp fires, hikes, bunk skits, improvisation workshops and writing projects.
The students worked in a collaboration with composer Jeanine Tesori and using their ideas, they put together a beautiful original production which was performed in New York City.
I’d like the organization to grow so I can reach out more young people. I’d like more of them to have this experience and expand to Los Angeles, perhaps other cities.
CM: First time in Houston?
IM: Yes. My visit is culminating a year-and-a-half of shows. I am thrilled to stay in Houston for three nights, discover new things, see new places and meet Houston audiences. I just need to know where to go to eat.
CM: We’ll get our readers to give you restaurant suggestions.
Joel Luks – Culture Map Houston – October 13, 2011