Idina Menzel offers girls A BroaderWay
As a Broadway veteran, Idina Menzel is accustomed to working large audiences. But she can be intimidated by smaller ones.
During the past four summers, Menzel has spoken with groups of girls ages 10-14 from underserved urban communities who attend summer camp through her A BroaderWay Foundation.
“Sometimes I get up in front of them and speak about self-esteem and confidence and taking risks, and my heart is pounding,” says Menzel, 43, while preparing to perform at a fundraising event, where several campers would be present. “I feel more responsibility, and more nerves, talking to them than I do getting up onstage to sing.”
The camp program, which accommodated 30 girls from New York City schools in its first season, will this year bring 60 to Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in the Berkshires. There, for two weeks, they’ll swim, go rock-climbing and study creative and performing arts with theater pros — among them A BroaderWay’s co-founder Taye Diggs (Menzel’s ex-husband) and veteran composer Jeanine Tesori, currently a Tony Award nominee for Fun Home.
Most of the campers likely know Menzel — who’s being honored for her charitable work by USA TODAY’s Make A Difference Day — as the voice of snow queen Elsa in Frozen, or from her appearances on TV’s Glee. Perhaps their older sisters know her as Wicked’s original Elphaba, a role that earned the singer/actress a Tony in 2004.
“I think that the girls are sometimes surprised to hear that someone who has this big voice can have trouble finding her own voice sometimes,” Menzel says. She attended summer camp as a child in upstate New York and “it was a sanctuary for me — a salvation.” She didn’t always love where she went to school, so “I love the idea of camp being a place that you can rediscover yourself, reinvent yourself, make new friends.”
She wanted to focus on “girls that could really use the escape, to get them out of the cacophony of the city and give them a safe place to discover who they are, to really find their voices.”
To recruit campers, Menzel says, “We just go to different schools and after-school programs and ask if there are any girls they think would really benefit from this. They don’t necessarily need to be able to kick their leg up to their nose or sing. What we’ve found is that they do a lot of amazing writing. We journal with them, and the poetry and storytelling that comes out is incredible.”
The campers draw on that material to put together a 30-minute show, performed at the end of their stay. “It was important to me that since we’re using the arts to help these girls find their creative selves, we don’t just put on Guys and Dolls or something,” Menzel says. “They write their own futures and wishes and dreams, and they’re really surprised by what they’re capable of, and moved by it.”
Menzel’s goal now is to “grow the camp,” and eventually establish programs for other cities. A BroaderWay also offers campers trips to New York shows. Graduates saw Menzel perform in her most recent Broadway outing, If/Then, while campers took in a performance of Wicked. There are also annual reunions, and other events exposing girls to art and dance outside camp.
“I feel like we have to keep tabs on everyone, make sure they’re doing OK,” says Menzel. “The more connected you get, the more involved you want to get, with each girl’s particular needs.”