Q&A: Idina Menzel
Dallas — It would be difficult for Idina Menzel to top the two major Broadway experiences of her life so far: originating the role of Maureen in the groundbreaking musical Rent, and then originating Elphaba, and winning the Tony, in the mega-hit Wicked. But that won’t keep her from trying.
Since Rent, she has crafted a solid recording and concert career, including an early album of songs that she wrote. She has also become a reoccuring character on the TV show Glee, playing Rachel Berry’s mother.
That’s a role she has also taken on in real life, with her now two-and-a-half year old son with husband and actor Taye Diggs, who she met in doing Rent.
She’s currently touring, doing 25 concerts in 30 days, including a stop in Dallas at the Music Hall at Fair Park on Wednesday, presented by Dallas Pops. She has her own musicians and then adds more in each city to be accompanied by a 26-piece orchestra. You can count on showtunes (including material from Wicked and Rent) and some pop material—on her last live album, Barefoot at the Symphony, there’s a cover of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, which she sang on Glee.
We talked to her about the concert, touring with her son, the influence of Glee and the memory of Rent creator Jonathan Larson. At the end of this interview, you’ll find instructions for a ticket giveaway to the Dallas concert.
TheaterJones: What songs can we expect at your concert?
Idina Menzel: It’ll be a few things that people will expect, but I’m trying to do some new material because I’ve been doing that for almost three years already. The PBS special was a culmination of all that and I’m trying to explore some material.
Can you give us any hints about the new songs you‘re doing on this tour?
I want to keep them surprises. There are some songs that come from my teenage years that I always loved but never tackled, and new theater songs, the things from the shows that I’ve been in. I want to try some of this material on the road and then I’ll take a break and get back in the studio.
Are there plans for a return to Broadway?
I’m involved in a few things in the early stages that are really exciting to me, but out of respect to the writers I can’t talk about them yet, but I’m really dying to get back to New York and do theater and be part of the community. It really feels like a little black hole for me.
Do you like the eight shows a week of the Broadway grind?
I love it. I love having my dressing room and being with my cast, I love getting that feeling of pride on Sunday afternoon or evening when you finish eight shows. When you can accomplish that, something about it is very rewarding to me.
How did you feel when the producers of Glee asked you to play the mother of an actress who, if she was your real daughter, you would have had as a tween?
It wasn’t the best time of my life, but I was excited to be on the show. I had just had a baby and I was feeling heavy and not so attractive, and they asked me to be the mother of an actress [Lea Michele] who’s really 25 years old. But you have to check your ego at the door.
It came at the right time. I’m a mother now, and my life has been about how to balance that. I do my work, create this character, I enjoy what I’m doing there, surrounded by a talented group of people. Then I come home and want to get to my family.
You have always sung pop songs, but did working on Glee affect how you think about arranging pop songs for your concert performances?
No. I’m 41 and I’ve been singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs from the time I was 15, and singing whatever pop song was popular, [work by] Madonna and Whitney Houston. I’ve been listening to singers for years and trying to emulate and learn from them, and I put out my own stamp on my music. So there’s a lot of things I’m proud to say I learned from being on Glee, mainly how incredible Ryan Murphy is as a risk-taker. And the conversations he’s presented to the country and the world to explore socially. The only annoying thing about Glee is that every time you want to do a song, they’ve already covered it.
Were you versed in many styles of the pop canon, from rock to pop to R&B?
If you’re going those parties and weddings, you have to know Motown and classic rock and jazz standards and bossa novas, everything from Aretha Franlkin to the Stones.
Are there certain styles that are harder to arrange for your concert performances?
There’s nothing you can’t do especially if you have a great arranger. I love to take these pop songs and arrange them for orchestras, they become such different creatures and I can really make them my own. Poker Face I started doing because I thought people would request it from Glee, but it became a whole storytelling device for me.
Is it easier to focus on work now that your child is not an infant anymore?
The more they start to speak the more they can tell you they don’t want you to leave. But he’s on the road with me. He has a little ukulele, he’s going to jam with the band.
Take us back to the early days of Rent, of moving to Broadway and then having the show‘s creator, Jonathan Larson, die? How did that affect you emotionally?
It was an incredibly emotional, bittersweet time. It was my first Broadway experience, but all of that excitement around the accolades was marred by the loss we were feeling. We channeled all of our energy into putting the best show we possibly could, so we could do it justice in Jonathan’s eyes. That became our goal and our healing technique. I like to sing songs from Rent to remind me how fleeting life is and to enjoy the moment. Jonathan gave me that gift.