The reigning queen of Broadway, Idina Menzel, is on top of the world and she isn’t letting it go anytime soon
Idina Menzel has the billion-dollar voice – that is billion with a “B.” It is in no small part because of that voice singing the hit song “Let It Go” that Disney’s Oscar-winning animated musical Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time with a $1.2 billion worldwide box-office showing. Menzel’s powerful vocals in Wicked also began that Broadway musical’s ascension over the billion-dollar mark, which it crossed in 2016, only the third time that feat has been accomplished on Broadway.
The Tony-winning Broadway icon released her fifth studio album, Idina., in September 2016, starred in Lifetime’s remake of Beaches and will soon begin recording the voice of Queen Elsa for the much anticipated animated sequel, Frozen 2.
You’d think with all of that she would take some time to kick back and relax, but Idina ain’t got time for that! Menzel has taken to the road with her band on a 50-city, worldwide tour, and that tour is bringing her to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater May 25. Her majesty held court for a few moments with us in-between gigs to take a stroll down memory lane.
You are full steam ahead on a 50-city world tour right now. How’s it going?
It’s going great. We went to Japan recently, which was incredible. I’ve been there before and I love the country and the audiences so that was wonderful. We just did big hometown gigs; one in Long Island where I grew up and another in Los Angeles, and those are high pressure gigs, so it’s good to have those out of the way [laughs].
Do you prefer doing concerts like this so you have a lot more influence on what you get to sing or performing on Broadway where they give you the songs and let you what to say and what to sing?
I like everything, because each one has something the other doesn’t. I like that I get to do all of it and I can balance it out. I can go out and do eight shows a week with all of the excitement and camaraderie with a cast but then it gets a bit exhausting. It’s a grind and it gets hard doing it every week, so after that, I go into the recording studio and get a little more solitary and then, when I get lonely enough, I go back out and do maybe a movie of TV show, or I go on the road with my band and I get that camaraderie again, so it’s nice to be in a place where I can go back and forth like that.
I was lucky enough to see you perform in 2010 in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center with Marvin Hamlisch. What was that experience like?
I miss Marvin a lot. That was an amazing time. It was a great connection between doing a more orchestral gig and keeping my more spontaneous, earthy band type of gig because he came from both worlds as well.
Was it nerve-racking performing with him? It’s one thing to share a stage with some of the biggest voices in the world, but you must feel some pressure performing some of the world’s greatest songs with the songwriter right there on stage with you.
Marvin was such a warm and supportive person and we connected in a very deep way. He would treat me like another daughter, so I felt that paternal connection with him, so that made me feel very comfortable on stage with him. Now put me at the Kennedy Center a couple of years before that, when I had to sing “Don’t Rain on my Parade” for Barbra Streisand, that was a whole other thing. That was terrifying.
Many of Broadway’s greatest performers can be tied to a particular role they brought to the stage and owned it. You have two. The first one was Maureen in RENT. How did you get involved with that show?
I was struggling in New York and I was going on auditions. I also had my own band and was writing music and just doing what I could do. I got an audition for RENT and I wore my colorful, suede patchwork skirt that ended up being part of the show’s wardrobe, and I sang “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” and then I got the call back and it has changed my life forever.
It wasn’t just a great musical, but it was also an important show because it drew attention to the AIDS epidemic and what the gay community was dealing with. A lot of people in the community didn’t feel like anyone was listening and then RENT comes out and made people look. What did getting to work on a show like that feel like?
It was an emotional, sad, traumatic, exhilarating, thrilling time in my life; there was just so much going on. The beautiful thing about that whole experience was that a lot of kids our age, if they had gotten so successful and got to be on the cover of all these magazines, they might lose perspective of what really matters, but because of our relationship with [RENT‘s writer and composer] Jonathan Larson, we had to get on stage every night and do his music justice. It was much bigger than us, so we had to get up there and keep going, keep performing. [Larson passed away the morning of RENT‘s first preview performance Off Broadway of an aortic dissection]. I carry Jonathan and that experience with me everywhere I go. I actually sing “No Day But Today” in every concert that I ever do, because for me it’s a really good reminder of what’s important in life.
Your other Broadway role that you’re connected to is, of course, Elphaba from Wicked. Maureen and Elphaba are very different characters but you envelop them so wonderfully that it’s like they were written just for you.
I think because they were both original pieces when they came to me and I was with them from the beginning so I was in [Wicked’s composer] Stephen Schwartz’s studio when he would say, “I rewrote this song, come here and sing it,” or Jonathan would say, “I reworked the duet with the girls,” so as they get to know you and get to know your voice and inflections, it becomes kind of like what came first? The chicken or the egg? And you start feeling them and they start feeling you, and before you know it, it’s this organic thing that’s happening, and you come out the other side and the character actually is written for you. I would much rather work that way than try and follow in someone’s footsteps in a big, iconic role on Broadway! It makes my life easier.
It’s also an honor to be there, with them, during their creative process, and have them thinking about you while they’re writing. They hear you sing something and they are like, “Oh, I like that. Let me rewrite this so I can fit it to that.” It also works the other way, too. I step up and sing a song they wrote and push it to this spot where they were thinking it should go. It is definitely a give-and-take kind of relationship.
You and your Wicked co-star Kristin Chenoweth reunited last year and blew up the internet with a video of the two of you singing “For Good” from Wicked. Separately you both are iconic, but a special kind of magic happens when you both are together. Have the two of you ever discussed doing a tour together or teaming up for a project again?
I would love that. I don’t know of a project right now that the two of us could do together, but if we had it, we would definitely entertain the idea. We have talked about performing here and there together because it was really nice to reunite with her and be in the same room singing that song. It was kind of like riding a bike, and it was very emotional of course, because we’ve come a long way in those years and we’ve seen Wicked grow. It’s been preformed all over the world and these characters really effect so many people, and we are both proud that we had a part in creating that, and the song itself is a song that brings people together. So, yeah, I think we both felt when we did [the video], we thought we need to do this more often.
Now my nieces would not forgive me if they knew I had you on the phone and we didn’t talk about Frozen.Huge successful film, not just the highest grossing animated film worldwide but FrozenMania swept the country. It was everywhere. Did you think it was going to be as big as it was?
Just being asked to be a part of a Disney film was an accomplishment in my eyes, being a part of something like that. I had no idea it would be such a phenomenon, but I knew it was important for me to be in the room with these writers and artists, so that’s where my head was while we were making it. My thought was there is nothing bad that can come from doing this, only good.
Something that came out of Frozen that was different from other Disney Princess films was this idea that a princess doesn’t have to be saved by – and end up with – a prince at the end of the film. It was empowering for girls to see, but it also empowered LGBTQ youth who saw Elsa as being different like they are and stories came out that Elsa could possibly be the first gay Disney Princess. Did you see any of that subtext?
I don’t get any say in Disney writing, not until I get in the studio and start to put my voice down, so the trajectory that that character takes isn’t up to me, and whether they choose to take the character that way or not I don’t think anyone should read into it in any way, it’s just what’s the best storytelling. Now, if they did decided to go that way I think it would be a wonderful thing. I would be so proud to stand behind that character. Either way I think what’s important with Elsa is that it wasn’t about a man, Prince Charming, saving the day. It was about these two sisters coming together and celebrating the love between them. I think Elsa will always be the kind of girl who stands up for herself and doesn’t have to rely on anyone else which is extremely powerful and brave. So we’ll see what happens, but of course I would be an advocate for that, but I don’t have that kind of clout at Disney.
You recently released a new album, and you are coming to Ruth Eckerd Hall next month. What can we expect to see from the show: more original songs or more Broadway classics?
It’s a real eclectic show. There are the songs you would expect from my past, songs that I’m really proud of from the shows I have been in, maybe a new arrangement of some of those songs. I have a few surprises in there, too. Because I’ve been playing with the same band for so long, I think we have a really good approach that makes it all seem seamless. It’s like one big, long story that we tell going through different phases in my life. I love it and I’m really proud of this show. I didn’t mess with the stuff that people want to hear – too much [laughs] – I don’t think they will be mad at me, but they will hear what they came to hear, but I’m also going to take them on a journey in some new directions.