Idina Menzel Brings Her High Energy To Bushnell
‘Wicked’ Star Credits Her Success To Early Wedding Circuit Days
By OWEN McNALLY
With her Broadway triumphs in the celebrated musicals “Rent” and “Wicked,” her heralded appearances on Fox’s mega-hit show “Glee,” acclaim for her standing room only concert tours and her yard-long list of theater credits and forays into film, TV and recordings, the singer, songwriter and actress Idina Menzel is sitting pretty in the showbiz world.
Actually the word “sitting” is a most inappropriate description of this dynamo diva, a perpetual-motion performer who brings her new, high-energy concert tour of North America to Hartford next Sunday, Sept. 30, at 6:30 p.m. at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.
Although she’s a drama graduate of the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and was informally tutored in more recent times in the ways of show business by her good friend and mentor, Marvin Hamlisch, Menzel credits her success as a versatile, resourceful performer to her early years as a young singer plying her trade on the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit in the greater New York City area. A real-life testing ground, the experience, starting when she was only 15, presented challenges, both musical and psychological, unimagined within the sacrosanct walls of a cloistered conservatory.
“I frowned on that experience when I was younger, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized what great training that was on every level from the idea of learning music to just growing a thicker skin,” she says by phone from her home in Los Angeles, acknowledging that a “thicker skin” is an invaluable survival attribute to have in show business.
On a short break from her new tour, Menzel is at home with her husband, the noted actor Taye Diggs, whom she met while they were in the cast for “Rent,” and their 2-1/2 year old son, Walker Nathaniel Diggs. Little Walker just woke up from a nap and doesn’t think his mommy should be wasting time on the phone right now, thank you, but his famous mom continues anyway.
“I still always use the word ‘gigs’ just as I did on the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit, which might sound funny for someone who sings in beautiful performance halls with symphonic orchestras. But I still do think of my concerts as gigs because it’s still me just standing up there having to win over an audience. I still think of myself as a chick wedding singer,” she says.
If so, then Menzel, a 41-year-old Queens native who grew up on Long Island, is, more than likely, totally unlike any “chick wedding singer” you’ve ever heard or seen.
The light years in difference between the multi-talented Menzel and the wedding singer you might have heard just last weekend isn’t due merely to her powerful pipes, which are right up there in the Ethel Merman league. It’s also due, among other gifts, to Menzel’s quick sense of humor that illuminates her anecdote-packed, between-song patter.
Sometimes her remarks are seasoned with a bit of funny, earthy material that doesn’t rise to even a PG or PG-13 rating. After all, her diverse demographics include a huge young fan base fueled by her appearances on “Glee” and her role as the wicked witch in “Wicked.”
In other moments on stage, her humor, which is always good-spirited and never mean or witch-like, modulates to amusing, self-deprecating material, as when she imitates her younger teen self singing with an accentuated Long Island accent.
Perhaps as a positive lasting effect of all those countless wedding gigs, the deep romantic strain that flows naturally through Menzel’s heartfelt renditions of Broadway and pop songs is sometimes tempered with a deliciously edgy side to her delivery. Subtle and swift, that edge glints just long enough to let you know that she might be sweet but never saccharine.
And although she’s sometimes patronizingly categorized by killjoy critics as “a belter,” there is a softer, gentler side to her expressive range as well, a sense of dynamics with shadings in feeling accented by the genuine warmth and emotion in her phrasing, even now and then an endearing vibrato vibrating with vulnerability.
Since she first started buying and devouring albums as a kid, Barbra Streisand, has been her supreme idol and role model. Years later, as an adult and successful entertainer in her own right, Menzel even got to sing to her childhood superhero at the Kennedy Center ceremonies.
Performing in front of Streisand, she acknowledges, was “more terrifying” for her than even the rather intimidating time she sang at the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama sitting upfront.
“The president and first lady were sitting so close to me that I was scared that I’d accidentally spit on them when I was singing,” she recalls.
Her act is a force of nature that never quits, not even in the grueling demands of the uninterrupted, 90-minute new show she’s ready to unleash at The Bushnell with Broadway and pop classics to her own original songs and material not presented on her famous Symphony Tour.
Even people who aren’t familiar with Menzel’s acclaimed Broadway skills or have somehow never heard of “Glee,” might well be charmed by her recent release,” Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony,” a DVD and accompanying CD that preserves her PBS concert special filmed in November, 2011, at Toronto’s prestigious Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory, under the direction of Marvin Hamlisch, with key support by her music director/pianist, Rob Mounsey.
Hamlisch, the famous composer and conductor, (who has died on Aug. 6 at age 68), banters with Menzel during the recorded concert, participates in a number and is rewarded with adulation from the divine diva herself before she sings a romantic duet with her husband, Taye Diggs.
The CD and, even more vividly, the DVD capture her essence as a fearless, savvy singer/performer as she soars over songs ranging from Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” to her own amusing fusion of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and the rock classic Police song, “Roxanne.”
With a couple of mild, periodic interruptions from little Walker, Menzel recently talked to The Courant about everything from “Glee” and why she went barefoot on stage on her sold-out Symphony Tour to such less gleeful matters as staying in shape and balancing the pressing demands of being both a busy performer and a full-time, loving Mom.
Q: Tell me about your experience on ‘Glee.’ What has that been like for you?
A: I feel really lucky to be part of that show. I’m proud of what it says and how it resonates with young people. Honestly, when I first got the gig 2 ½ years ago, I just had my son and I was happy to be working and was trying to figure all of that out. It was little bit of a whirlwind.
Q: What were you figuring out?
A: I just had the baby and was completely tormented about leaving all day to go shoot ‘Glee.’ And yet I knew it was something I should be excited about, and wanted to savor the moment.
Q: What, among all your varied associations, would you say was your greatest role or success?
A: ‘Wicked’ afforded me the most opportunities. I think what I love the most is the connection that these pieces that I’ve been a part of, like ‘Rent’ and ‘Wicked’ and now ‘Glee,’ is the connection that they’ve had with young people. That’s something that I didn’t foresee and that I don’t take lightly. I like the idea that people, because of these shows, feel that they can share their stories and their lives with me. Whatever it is about those shows I’ve been in, it seems to make me accessible to them.
Q: I know that you admired Marvin Hamlisch as a friend, a colleague and even as a mentor. What are your thoughts on his recent passing?
A: It’s not so much thoughts as it is just feeling sad. He really made me believe in myself. I loved him. I adored him, and I loved being on stage with him. I loved soaking up everything that he had, his talent, his stories and his music. He was just a sweetheart of a man. I didn’t know him that long, but we really got very close. I’m actually in a little bit of denial in getting up on stage and doing some of these shows without him.
Q: How do you manage to find a balance between being an in-demand performer and a full-time Mom?
A: It’s really difficult because you know you want to be your best self and set an example for your son so he can see his mother at being her best self. Being her best self sometimes means doing her art and having her creative outlet. And that sometimes doesn’t leave as much room for your child.
I spend a lot of time with my son, and I bring him everywhere with me, having him travel with me to London, or all over on a tour bus this summer. With all that, though, I wonder if, although I’m with him more, he wouldn’t be better off at home in his own bedroom with his toys every day. It’s a constant inner struggle for me. I just have to face it that it’s going to be okay, see how happy he is and that I’m doing an okay thing.
Q: Walker doesn’t have an inkling yet of how famous his Mom is for her singing and acting career outside the family circle?
A: No. Actually, he can’t stand it when I’m singing. He asks me, ‘Are you done yet? I don’t like you to go sing.’
Q: He’ll get it eventually, right?
A: I brought him on the tour bus with me, and he had his own little bunk bed and he really enjoyed it. I think a year or two from now, he’ll enjoy it even more because then he can bring a friend with him.
Q: You’re so high-powered on stage, a one-woman show even with a giant orchestra playing behind you. How do you keep that energy level up, exercise, diet, or what?
A: I’m in a good phase right now, working out and I’m healthy. Sometimes I abandon that and just try to get as much sleep as I can. But when I had the baby, sleep went out the window. I don’t know how to answer that question, but I think it’s due to sheer passion and my love for what I’m doing.
Q: Just before you go on stage, what’s going through your head?
A: It depends. When you’re doing something new that you haven’t done that much before, you’re going over the lyrics. Or you might focus on an overall feeling of what you want to achieve, or just appreciate being out there, enjoying it and not letting little mistakes get in your head. Or I could be texting to my husband right until the time I come out, making sure he gave Walker his dinner or changed his diaper.
Q: Your husband, the celebrated theater, film and TV actor, does diapers?
A: Oh, yeah, he grew up with little brothers and sisters, so he’s never had a problem with that.
Q: Standing ovations have become a regular response, virtually a repetitive ritual on your touring concerts, night after night. What does it feel like to connect with your audiences in that way?
A: There’s nothing like that feeling of standing in front of an audience that is on its feet. It quite often brings me to tears. It makes me think about back when I was singing at weddings and I would stand on the bandstand with some couple on Long Island, or I’d be singing at a bar mitzvah and no one was listening.
Q: How do you keep you splendid pipes in shape, by practicing or warming up every day?
A: I’m pretty rigorous about that. I take time off when I know I have a bunch of shows coming up. I get into my training stage like an athlete or a marathon runner. I have to get my vocal cords ready so they’re not surprised by a 90-minute show, or by nerves, or by no sleep or flying on planes or with struggling with car seats or strollers. I try to get them prepared for that. I’m pretty anal about my preparation, although I’ve gotten more laidback ever since we had Walker.
Q: Who were your heroes when you were growing up?
A: Barbra Streisand was my first. The first album I ever owned was ‘A Star Is Born’ in the ’70s. I would just sit in my room on the floor and listen to her albums and her voice and try to emulate her.
It wasn’t until later on when I started singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and you had to know all kinds of songs and styles, that I started listening to Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. When I decided I wanted to be a songwriter and began writing music, I studied Joni Mitchell. It was all about whatever I was exploring musically.
Q: Where does your sense of humor come from, your funny kind of Bette Midler take on things, with maybe a touch of Joan Rivers’ quickness or Jerry Seinfeld observational humor?
A: I think it’s just some kind of Long Island, Jewish girl humor I have. And the rest of it is having paid my dues and having sung in front of so many different kinds of audiences. I think it comes from being more comfortable on stage and not being afraid to be more transparent.
Q: What do you mean by transparent on stage?
A: I’ve gotten to understand that as a performer the more you show and reveal of yourself, the more you are going to connect with the audience, and they’re going to feel something when you’re singing or speaking. I know the more open that I am, the more people are going to appreciate what I’m doing. I don’t know how to do it any other way.
Another thing I learned from weddings is to avoid shtick, you know like those silly wedding bandleaders who would do Elvis shtick or their silly introductions to a Frank Sinatra song. It used to make my blood crawl!
I couldn’t stand it. So I always try to find a way to make performing not shtick, keeping it fresh and alive so that people don’t feel like they’re hearing the same thing every night.
Q: What was the story with your deciding to perform barefoot on your symphony concert tour?
A: It was because my back was hurting so badly a few years ago when we were traveling with Walker on planes. So I just kicked off the heels. I had no choice because, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to sing or standup.
Q: Did you think that was a bit incongruous to be elegantly dressed, except for no shoes, playing in posh performance hall settings with a symphonic orchestra behind you?
A: I just didn’t have any choice if I wanted to do the show. Nobody was offended. I get my toes done. I get a nice pedicure.
And, no, I never hurt my feet on stage. That was the good thing about those performances not being rock ‘n’ roll gigs. The stages were very clean.