If the themes of Idina Menzel’s songs resonate so well with her female audience members, it may be because she’s been there herself.
The 43-year-old star with the shake-the-rafters-voice, the emerald eyes and the cascade of chestnut hair has pulled off a trifecta of relatable songs that any actress would envy.
First, there was Elphaba, the odd-green-girl-out from Wicked, who declared her independence with the clarion call of Stephen Schwartz’s “Defying Gravity,” a number so potent that — as Ana Gasteyer once said — “every woman I know has wept over it while on the Stairmaster.”
Then, for a slightly younger demographic, she delivered the goods in Disney’s Frozen, launching Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s Oscar-winning hit “Let It Go” like it was a melodic guided missile.
And now, back on Broadway, she’s bringing all the generations together with a powerhouse number called “Always Starting Over” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which brings the house down every night in the powerful new musical, If/Then, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
So how does she feel about hitting the bullseye so many times in a row?
“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” she laughs from her dressing room, between a matinee and an evening performance. “I’ve thought about it myself. It’s not that I’ve been so successful that I can just sit at home and wait for the perfect project with the perfect song to come along. Sometimes, it’s all about taking a job and paying the bills.
“But I do believe that you’re given things in your life that you need, things you can explore that are going to teach you something about yourself. Every role or character or song can come at a time in your life when it relates to what you’re going through and you learn how to use it.”
Born in 1971, she grew up on Long Island, the daughter of Stuart and Helene Mentzel. (“I finally took the ‘t’ out, because it made everyone pronounce my name wrong,” she explains.)
Young Idina was a powerhouse singer from the age of 5. In high school, she kept getting cast as the older woman with the killer voice instead of the ingénue she felt she was inside.
“When I played Elphaba, I never realized it at first, but I was tapping into a lot of stuff from my teenage years,” she says. “The one who tried too hard, the outsider, the oddball. Yeah, that was me.”
While other kids were working as camp counsellors or pushing sandwiches at the local deli, Menzel dressed up in a black cocktail dress and sang for her supper.
“I was a wedding singer. Honest. Weddings. Even once I started at NYU, I kept doing it, because you made pretty good money. Except during January and February. Those were the slowest months. Not many weddings.”
That was a good thing, as it turned out. Because in late 1995, it meant she was fully available when a show called Rent was auditioning. Not only did the modern rock musical version of La Bohème launch her career, but it introduced her to cast member Taye Diggs. They became romantically involved and got married in 2003, having a son in 2009 and separating late in 2013.
She laughs, low and throaty. “My favourite memory is taking a lunch break early in rehearsals and asking (co-star) Anthony Rapp, ‘What are we doing? Is this going to be anything?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I know for sure in my heart it’s going to be an event.’”
And it was. Fuelled by the tragic death of playwright Jonathan Larson after the show’s final dress rehearsal, it went on to change the face of musical theatre.
But despite the strong impression she made as the bisexual heartbreaker Maureen, her career spun its wheels for a while, with Broadway replacement gigs, off-Broadway shows that didn’t quite land and recordings that failed to make an impact.
Menzel admits now that “during those years I built up a lot of anger, a lot of resentments towards people who promised you things and then didn’t deliver, or someone you thought had your back who really didn’t.”
So by the time she got cast as Elphaba in Wicked in 2003, she was ready to unleash some fireworks.
“I had always been ashamed of my negative feelings, but by the time I started working on Wicked, I needed to learn that my power and my anger and my temper were actually something good and beautiful. I just needed to learn how to harness it.”
She won a Tony Award for her performance, took the show to London, where she triumphed again, and her career was on a roll, except for the brief time she took to give birth to her son, Walker.
But things were going wrong with her marriage to Diggs and, she tended to blame herself for everything.
“I’m one of those people who puts their shortcomings out there. I like to say things about myself before somebody else can. It’s a protective thing, me being in control. I deal with a lot of insecurities of my own.”
It was during just this period that “Let It Go” was brought to her, with its angsty lyrics: “Can’t hold it back anymore … Turn away and slam the door.”
She chuckles ruefully. “I guess that really was the universe giving me a kick in the tush. God, I can really be paralyzed by my insecurities.”
And then came If/Then. A stylistically daring musical about a woman approaching 40 and questioning all her life choices, Menzel was working on its workshops and out-of-town tryout in 2013 just as her marriage to Diggs was coming apart.
“This amazing show came along at a time when I was finally splitting up from my husband. I have to go it alone now. I have to rediscover my identity now without the man that I had been with for 16 years.”
As everything reached a climax during the Washington tryout, Menzel admits that a kind of artistic paralysis overtook her for a while, until she finally realized “that I had to trust blindly in (producer) David Stone, (director) Michael Greif and (authors) Tom and Brian. And they always came up with enough moments that gave me chills.”
They also gave her an 11 o’clock number, “Always Starting Over,” that not only leaves the audience cheering at every performance, but shone a light into the tunnel for Menzel with its message that “We’re always starting over and over somehow . . . my new life starts right now!”
Menzel speaks softly. “I learned that you have to wake up every day and try to rewrite and rediscover things inside you. I’ve got a place now to really analyze all my choices and think about where I am today.”
One of the things she did during this period of turmoil was record an album of seasonal tunes, called Holiday Wishes.
It does a lovely job of balancing sweet and sad songs in the time-honoured tradition, but Menzel admits “I had a hard time pushing positive songs to even it out. My association with the holidays isn’t a good one. My parents split up on Thanksgiving when I was 15.”
But she stuck with it and delivered the goods splendidly, as she always does.
One thing is missing. She’s a nice Jewish girl, so why is there no Hanukkah song on the album?
“Barbra Streisand didn’t do one on her Christmas album,” she teases. “Barry Manilow didn’t do one on his.”
“In the end, the numbers I picked are all beautiful songs for me to sing and that’s what makes me happiest.”