‘If/Then’ parallels Menzel’s personal life
No matter what happens in Idina Menzel’s career, there will probably never be anything like what she went through last year when she was riding atop the pop culture wave.
Professionally, “Frozen,” for which Menzel supplied the voice of Queen Elsa and sang the breakout song “Let It Go,” was all the rage, and the song was nominated for an Academy Award. She was also about to return to Broadway, where she had triumphed in “Rent” and in her Tony Award-winning role as the Wicked Witch of the West in “Wicked.”
Her new musical was “If/Then” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, Pulitzer Prize winners for “Next to Normal,” and Menzel was playing a 40ish woman at a crossroads in her life, much as Menzel was at the time. Her 10-year marriage to Taye Diggs, a co-star in “Rent,” was coming to an end, and she was facing the prospect of being a single mom to their then-5-year-old son, Walker.
With “If/Then” about to begin previews on Broadway, Menzel flew to Los Angeles to sing “Let It Go” on the Oscar broadcast, and John Travolta’s bizarre introduction of her, “Please welcome the wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem,” set off a thousand memes.
Things have calmed down some since then, and after an international concert tour, Menzel is touring with “If/Then” to a few select cities, including San Francisco as part of the SHN season, along with her fellow original Broadway cast members Anthony Rapp (who co-starred with Menzel in “Rent”), LaChanze and James Snyder.
Looking back on that tumultuous, Dazeem-y March 2014, Menzel says what kept her sane was working on “If/Then.” That, she jokes, and antidepressants.
“I was going through a lot of personal stuff, and for me the theater was my home,” she says from a Los Angeles recording studio where she’s working on a new album. “I was surrounded by a lot of love and support there. I was able to enjoy the success with ‘Frozen’ because my wonderful friends and family wanted to celebrate it. I didn’t have to worry about hiding in any way for fear of alienating anyone.”
Menzel had to fly from New York to Los Angeles to perform “Let It Go” on the Oscars (where the tune snagged a statue for best song), and though it was exciting and nerve-racking, she says it was a different experience because she had the cast and crew of “If/Then” waiting for her.
“That really helps you keep your perspective,” she says. “I was in good voice because I had been singing in rehearsal every day. I got out there, did my thing and didn’t have time to overthink things, which is something I can definitely do.
“I can equate it with being a mom. As crazy as that can make you, as sleep-deprived as you can be, it levels everything. I’ve got a son who needs me. Yeah, the Oscars are cool, but I’ve got to get out there, get back and make a paycheck.”
When it came to touring “If/Then,” which received mixed reviews in New York, Menzel said she wouldn’t do it without her original co-stars. “I have a love affair with LaChanze and James and Anthony and our director Michael Greif and so many other people,” she says. “We take such pride in the show. We really felt a sense of ownership and wanted to get it out to more audiences. Yeah, it’s been hard, and I’m tired. I spent the summer on tour, doing my own thing. But I felt compelled to get out there and let people see this show.”
In the contemporary musical, Menzel plays Elizabeth, a New Yorker whose life is tracked through two parallel story lines involving different life choices. In one, she’s known as Beth, and the other as Liz.
“What I love about this show and what makes it personal for me is that it says we’re not stuck,” Menzel says. “We have control and the power to change the course of things, our journey in life. Whether you believe in fate or you don’t, we can at least make choices that help us to evolve. We can wake up, make a choice and start again.”
If Menzel had her own parallel story line going, she’d be a major Broadway and movie star in one, and in the other she’d be a rock ’n’ roll star performing in venues large and small across the land. That said, she doesn’t take her success for granted.
“These days, I try to find the time to celebrate the wonderful, exciting things in my career, take them in and embrace the moment,” she says. “Keeping your balance is important because things don’t stay too long. I don’t take it too seriously. I’ve learned in my career that it comes and it goes. You stick with the people you know, keep them by your side and know they’ll be there no matter what happens.”
As soon as her stint in the “If/Then” tour is over in January, Menzel heads back to Los Angeles and full-time parenting. “My son is 6, so he’s in school,” she says. “I look forward to taking him to school and picking him up and just taking a much-needed break.”
She has a TV show in development, and then there’s the prospect of revisiting Queen Elsa in “Frozen 2,” which is still in the early stages of development. “I’m pretty sure I’ll do it if Disney will have me,” Menzel says with a chuckle that sounds just the slightest bit wicked.