Idina Menzel and her voice defy gravity at the Mann
For much of her Broadway and film career, Idina Menzel – who, amazingly, is on her first major solo tour – has been a star, but a star at a certain remove.
Her first professional theater gig, the 1995 sensation Rent, was an era-defining, bare-bones musical with frank talk about AIDS. That got more ink than Menzel’s big solo, “No Day But Today.”
When she got to Broadway again as Elphaba in 2003’s Wicked, with its soaring signature song, “Defying Gravity,” the “full-volume soprano” (as the New York Times’ Stephen Holden called her) was a witch, her beautiful face hidden behind thick green makeup. Her role in the epic Disney flick Frozen and its omnipresent anthem, “Let It Go,” was via voice-over. She couldn’t even get out there at the 2014 Academy Awards before John Travolta memorably messed up her introduction, calling her “Adele Dazeem.”
But Menzel, speaking from Seoul, South Korea, just before her tour began, said that no matter what she does, what character she plays, or through which medium (she was great on Glee as Lea Michele’s mom), “it is me out there in the spotlight.”
Having just played Atlantic City’s Borgata Casino over the weekend and the Sands Bethlehem Event Center on Tuesday, she hits the Mann Center on Thursday evening.
“It’s a big deal, I know it,” Menzel said. “I feel insane doing such a big tour. But you – I – have to take a risk and be vulnerable. Whether I’m doing this as me or as someone in costume and green makeup, it’s all still me. And it’s exciting.”
Menzel said that although “my deepest roots are on Broadway, always will be,” a tour such as this frees her from being the sole property of Broadway-only fanatics who treat her as a reigning vocal queen. And, she said, “I’m not afraid of the hard work.” She’s a veteran of the theater world’s grueling regimen of eight shows a week, and the athleticism required of the professional singer/dancer (she trains intensely to maintain her immense vocal capacities).
Some singing actresses have careers mostly confined to the stage – names such as Bernadette Peters or Christine Ebersol come to mind. But “Let it Go” and other successes “keep me from the stereotype: the theater singer.”
Composer Robert Lopez, coauthor of the songs in Frozen (as well as The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q) said in a 2014 interview that when “a scene needs a song, and that the song that it needs is a moment,” he crafts something audiences have never seen before.
“Let It Go” is a tune of empowerment “for girls and boys rising against the pressures of society.” What gave it singular strength, Lopez said, was Menzel’s grand and soaring soprano voice. “That song and I,” Lopez said, “were very fortunate to have Idina behind it all the way.”
“It was a really beautiful song when I was learning it,” Menzel said, “but I certainly didn’t know it would be a phenomenon with such implications.”
In her present solo show, Menzel does songs from Rent, plus a medley from the booming Ethel Merman songbook – “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything Goes,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” – and the Barbra Streisand classic “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from Funny Girl.
You’d think doing Streisand might be forbidding, since so many expect Menzel to be another Streisand. But as with “Defying Gravity,” Menzel seems willing and happy to tackle grand, graceful songs of empowerment and the extraordinary: “I like the idea of not hiding what makes us different or that which sets us apart from one another and makes us special.”