Idina Menzel talks her LI school days, ‘Frozen II,’ more
Elsa of Arendelle, the animated snow-queen to whom Idina Menzel gives voice in “Frozen” and the new “Frozen II” (which opens Friday, Nov. 22) is clearly not from around here. But Tony Award-winner Menzel is, and if you ask her what would be the Long Island equivalent of Elsa’s signature song, “Let It Go,” she doesn’t miss a beat: “Let Go Of It Awready!” she booms— even noting, “You’ve got to put in ‘awready,’ like with an ‘A-W.’ Know what I mean?”
We do. Menzel, 48, might not have been born here — “my parents lived in Queens and I was born at NYU Hospital in Manhattan,” she says by phone from Los Angeles, happy to correct the Wikipedia error — but after a brief family move to New Jersey, she grew up in Syosset from about age 3. She attended J. Irving Baylis Elementary School in Plainview and then Syosset’s H.B. Thompson Middle School and Syosset High, where she has returned a couple of times to speak to students.
While her talent was evident early on, her teachers’ encouragement still provided incentive to pursue a music career. “They told me I had something special, from a really young age,” she says. “And they rewarded me and trusted me with important solos and roles [in school productions] and influenced me and inspired me to be creative.”
She remains friends with her English teacher, Lydia Esslinger, who attends her shows — Menzel has played the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts and NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum — and the singer-actress has fond memories of the late Roz Pincus and a Mr. Roper, both from elementary school, and of the late Elliot Bean from high school, even though he didn’t give her an “A” in choir.
“He gave me a B+ once,” Menzel recalls, “because I was talking to my girlfriends too much. I think I felt comfortable in the music class and I was doing well and getting a little cocky,” she concedes. Even so, “I was mad because it was junior year when all your grades count so much, and he gave me a B+ in choir and music when I’m trying to get into colleges.”
She managed to do OK, earning a drama degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1992, eventually followed by Broadway’s “Rent” and “Wicked.” Menzel already had been working as a singer since age 15, on the weddings-and-bar mitzvahs circuit. “I was lying about my age and driving around on my junior license so I could pick up the gigs where I was working past 9 o’clock, and you’re not supposed to drive past 9:00 when you have your junior license.”
The work could be unexpectedly dangerous, sort of. “I remember doing a bar mitzvah and the kids were all eating their ice cream and candy and they were throwing stuff at me!” she marvels. “And I finally got pissed and I threw something back and got whipped cream in one of the little kids’ hair. And I ran to the bathroom and then they stood outside the door and I couldn’t get back to the band because I was afraid to go out! I got trapped in the bathroom by these little 13-year-olds!” she says, laughing.
Now, of course, 13-year-olds of all ages love her for the empowerment represented by Elsa, who in the first film grows from pariah to self-confident queen, and from lack of control over her snow-and-ice powers to mastery of them.
“In the first film,” says Menzel, “she’s fearful of endangering the people she loves. In this one, she really starts to accept who she is, and to step into her power and embrace it.” Elsa hears the literal siren song of her powers’ origin, and with sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven, she ventures to a land of mist and myth where she hopes to find answers to her past. It’s like Ancestry.com but with rock monsters and elemental spirits.
How has Menzel herself changed since the original “Frozen” in 2013? “Well, I had just met my [second] husband,” actor Aaron Lohr, whom she married in 2017. (She has a son, Walker, 10, with first husband Taye Diggs.) “I think I’m happier, more fulfilled in my life,” she continues. “I feel more comfortable balancing and navigating the complexities of my personality, which are that I can be somewhat introverted and shy and sensitive, and also very big and loud and vocal and expressive and powerful, so I like that about myself. But sometimes it’s hard to reconcile those things.”
No problem. There’s a certain snow-queen who had three words of advice about that.