A Conversation with Idina
Broadway superstar and Tony Award winner, Idina Menzel, has had a busy year: a recurring role on the hit TV series, Glee; moving to a new house; and learning the ropes of motherhood. This month, another first: her Cincinnati Pops debut. I caught up with Menzel at home in Los Angeles where she’d spent the morning watching 1-year-old son, Walker, defy gravity by running laps around the house.
You’re a songwriter as well as a singer. Will we be hearing any of your own works on these concerts?
Yes, I’ve had two of my songs orchestrated, which is so fun for me. They’re songs that I’ve lived with a long time, and it’s nice to hear them blossom into this glorious sound with all the musicians.
Was songwriting something you tried your hand at early on?
I’ve written songs since I was a teenager. It’s part of who I am.
You started singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs when you were a teen. What is the most outrageous thing that ever happened during one of those gigs?
I was singing on the bandstand at a wedding when someone on the dance floor had a heart attack. My bandleader insisted that I keep singing but then the bride came up and began screaming at me for being insensitive. I thought, I’m going to band hell for this.
Singing in front of a symphony orchestra is so different than being accompanied by a pit orchestra in a show. What is it like to have all that sound coming at you from behind?
It’s hard to put into words. It’s thrilling. It’s glorious and very emotional for me. I’m used to having the conductor in front of me, so it’s different in that way. Because my back is to him, it’s almost like a telepathic experience.
The mediums of TV, film, and stage certainly have a lot of common ground, but as a performer you have to make adjustments when you go from one to another? Is there one medium that requires the most from you as a performer?
I think it’s always going to be doing an eight-shows-a-week musical. Whether it’s Wicked or some of the other shows I’ve done that audiences might not be as familiar with, it’s always such an emotionally charged and taxing experience as well as vocally challenging.
How do you keep yourself in shape and energized?
It’s really about learning how to pace myself. I’ve always been pretty ritualistic about my vocal warm-up, which I finish half an hour or 40 minutes before a show. Then I steam and warm up some more in the shower. No alcohol when I’m performing. Getting enough sleep is important, although now that I have a child, that’s gone out the window. But I have to be honest, it’s kind of liberating, because my priorities have changed. I think my singing and attitude are actually better. I’ve been enjoying everything more.
Let’s talk about you and your husband Taye Diggs’ son, Walker.
He just started walking without holding on to something. He and my mom will be with me in Cincinnati.
Is your house in New York or Los Angeles?
Because of my husband’s TV show [Diggs plays Dr. Sam Bennett on ABC’s Private Practice], we finally caved and bought a house on the West Coast. It’s an adjustment because I’m a lifelong New Yorker, but I’m trying to embrace it because with the baby, we now have some grass, and good weather, and a nearby park to take him to.
Do you and Taye sing to Walker?
We sing to him ad nauseam. When he starts talking, he’s probably going to tell us to shut up.
Does he have a favorite song?
Well, it changes all the time. We have a bunch of original tunes we compose on the spot, but one of his favorites used to be “You Are My Sunshine.” Right now, it’s “The Wheels on the Bus.”
I was lucky enough to see you and Taye in the original Off-Broadway production of Rent in early 1996. Did you realize then what a groundbreaking show you were a part of?
No. In rehearsal, we knew there was a great bond happening with the cast and that we were communicating something special, but we had no idea what the magnitude of the show would be. It wasn’t until [playwright/composer] Jonathan [Larson] passed away [the day before opening night] that everything got surreal. I learned a lot of amazing life lessons because of that experience. When you’re young and have that kind of success, you can loose sight of what’s important. If anything good came out of it, it taught us all what’s important.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your role as rival choir director, Shelby Corcoran, on Glee, another groundbreaking show you are a part of. In a world where you already have a pretty high profile, has it changed your life?
To be honest, it might sell a few more tickets, but I’m not a regular on the show. I love the show because it celebrates musical theater people, but as for changing my life, not really. My son has changed my life.
One final question: Do you think you and Glee’s Lea Michele look alike?
When you see us together, I think it’s more the essence than looking that much alike. We’ve both got that Jewish-Italian-singing thing going on. Besides, she’s got smaller boobs and weighs a lot less than I do.