Get ready, Toronto, because I’m thrilled to be the one to break the news to you that Idina Menzel, the Tony Award-winning star of Wicked, Glee and Rent will be appearing at Koerner Hall on Nov. 17 & 18 with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony and these concerts are being taped for a future PBS special.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am about doing this!” enthuses Menzel from the set of Glee in California, “I’ve been honing this program for over a year and it’s full of things I love singing.”
Fans of the multi-talented performer will be glad to hear that Menzel’s favourites probably coincide with theirs and will, of course, feature songs like “Defying Gravity” from Wicked and “No Day But Today” from Rent.
“Those shows are gifts that I take with me to every city I go to,” she says of the two Broadway hits that solidified her reputation as one of the most dynamic musical theatre stars today.
In Rent, she created the role of Maureen, the bisexual performance artist who needed to have everyone fall in love with her and in Wicked, she was Elphaba, the green skinned witch who had to fight feeling like a total outsider.
“I honestly don’t mind singing sings from those shows over and over again, because my approach to music is to find something different in it every time, something that never occurred to me before.”
The New York-born Menzel turned 40 this past May and feels that “life couldn’t possibly be treating me better than it is.” She’s been in love with her husband, Taye Diggs, since they first met on Rent 15 years ago and their first child, Walker, was born in 2009.
But things took a while to get on the right track. Young Menzel was a powerhouse singer from the age of 5, but 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.”
Her growing up got kick-started further at the age of 15 when her parents divorced and she wound up working as a wedding singer to pay the bills and earn her independence.
She kicked around the fringes of the N.Y. theatre scene for a while and then “a boyfriend at the time who worked for an agent submitted my name (to the Rent producers) under the table. I was like ‘whatever,’ but I went in, sang ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and got the gig. But I never knew what it was going to be like.”
It turned out to be life-changing for everyone connected with it, especially when its author, Jonathan Larson, died at the age of 35 after the final dress rehearsal.
“I learned from that experience to stay in the moment, to understand and appreciate what’s happening to you today, because there might not be a tomorrow. I was lucky in the middle of all that sadness to be able to extract the beauty from it.”
She pauses for a moment. “Jonathan and I didn’t really know each other all that well, but I remember walking with him through Tompkins Square Park one day on our lunch break, just so we could discover what we were both like.
“I remember him telling me he had finally given up his job as a waiter at the Moondance Diner in Tribeca, because he thought he could finally be a writer full-time.”
And what about the last time she saw him?
“You know, it’s strange, but as we were leaving that night, I suddenly told him how much I admired him. If I had known it would be the last thing I ever said to him, I would have tried to say even more….”
When Rent moved to Broadway, Menzel went with it and got a Tony nomination for her kooky creation of Maureen, but that’s not the major prize she thinks she won from the show.
“For me, Rent was all about coming out of myself, finding out who I was, learning the power I could have as a performer.”
She laughs. “And Wicked was about harnessing all that strength.”
Although the role of Elphaba was to win her stardom, a Tony Award and millions of fans, she still recalls how close she came to not getting it.
“I went in and sang ‘Defying Gravity’ for my audition, but I cracked on the last big note. I don’t know what came over me, but I yelled out ‘F–k!’ as loud as I could. Then, instead of crumbling, I looked at the accompanist, he hit a chord and I sang the note again. And I nailed it.
“Later on, (director) Joe Mantello told me I got the part then. Not for when I sang the note right, but for the fury I unleashed when I sang it wrong.”
That number is so closely rooted to Elphaba’s character in the show, that I wondered how Menzel was able to do it out of context in a concert setting.
“It means different things to me on different nights. Sometimes, I’m thinking about my son. Sometimes, I’m being Elphaba again, and some nights, it’s just about singing a great melody.
“And some nights, I think I’ll be in Vegas when I’m 80 and some little guys will be pumping green smoke around me as I try to sing it then.”
She does a hysterical imitation of an aging Menzel, her voice shot, speaking the lyrics and letting the long notes drop, the way some singers past their prime whom we could (but won’t) name do on their trademark numbers late in life.
But Menzel won’t wind up like that, because she’s no one-trick-pony. Her albums blend in all different styles of music, not just Broadway and she’s become known to a whole new school of fans thanks to her work on Glee.
She showed up in the first season as Shelby Corcoran, the coach of rival team Vocal Adrenaline and the birth mother of Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) on the Fox TV show about a high school glee club.
Her vocal work, especially a soaring duet of “I Dreamed a Dream” with Michele made a strong impression, but then she vanished for season two.
Now she’s back, and served notice as to how strongly with another killer duet with Michele to “Somewhere” from West Side Story. She’s got a new character arc and will be in many of this season’s episodes.
“My character’s going to have more depth. Not just a hard-nosed, sterile bitch coming to town. I’m going to help other people confront the issues in their own lives as well as strengthening my relationship with Rachel.”
All well and good. And Menzel feels the series is a positive force for all the kids who watch it.
“They’re learning the work ethic, they’re hearing the music, they’re seeing both the fun and the heartbreak. Broadway used to get a bad rap; now people are saying ‘Wow!’
“All these stories are focusing on kids who are misfits and trying to find a place where they belong. I understand where they’re coming from. It wasn’t that long ago that I was one of them.”
IDINA MENZEL’S FIVE FAVE PERFORMERS
BARBRA STREISAND — Hers were the first albums I ever owned.
I based my idea of good singing on her.
ARETHA FRANKLIN — She’s the opposite, but just as great. I loved how high she could belt, how she could place her voice.
MERYL STREEP — Just the all time greatest actress. I love and revere her.
BONO — I’ve never met him, but I’d love to. I think he’s so sexy and also the best lyricist. What a combination.
TAYE DIGGS — He’s not just my husband, he’s a wonderful song and dance man, but most people don’t get to see that. But hey, I get to see it at home.