InDepth InterView: Idina Menzel Talks GLEE, WICKED, RENT, TV Special & More
Today, we have perhaps the biggest Broadway star of the modern era, having appeared in the three most iconic theatre-related enterprises in entertainment in each of the last three decades, having lead roles in the original casts of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 rock musical RENT, a Best Actress Tony Award for her work in Stephen Schwartz's megahit WICKED, and now a recurring role on Fox's hit 2011 Golden Globe-winning musical comedy series GLEE - the amply gifted and endearing Idina Menzel. In this exclusive interview we discuss her US concert tour with Oscar-winning maestro Marvin Hamlisch - as well as what she will be singing in their NY Philharmonic performance on February 5th - as well as new motherhood, new music and what she would like to do on the future - on Broadway, on GLEE and beyond! Plus, what does she think of TV daughter Lea Michele taking on her signature RENT tune coming up on GLEE?
Idina With An I
PC: What a thrill it is to speak to you today! You are the most popular Broadway star on the site. You're the top!
IM: (Laughs.) I'm the top? That's so cool!
PC: Do you go online to see what people say about you? You have so many fans.
IM: No, I'm scared! (Laughs.) I mean, I'll go on BroadwayWorld and see what's going on, but I won't go on the chat things because when I've gone on them I've got really burned.
PC: What happened?
IM: For every five beautiful things someone says, there is always one negative thing and then I just obsess about it.
PC: So bad reviews stay with you?
IM: Of course. Are you kidding? Yeah. Now, it's just like I don't go near them. It's like: you read something bad and then you spend another twenty minutes surfing finding something good to go to sleep with on your mind. (Laughs.)
PC: On a high note.
IM: Yeah, it's so good to know the positive stuff, though.
PC: What's the nicest thing you've seen?
IM: Oh, the nice stuff. There's so much nice stuff. (Pause.) There's so much more nice stuff, but it's just the negative that sticks out the most. (Laughs.) You always remember the criticisms unfortunately.
PC: Especially when you always try to reinvent yourself, as you do.
IM: It's so amazing to have this wonderful rapport with an audience - the younger fans especially. I mean, I hear from them about their personal lives and their personal stories and I meet them backstage all the time. They tell me how they've been inspired by a song of mine or a character I've played or something like that and how it really resonated with them - and that's really why I do it. That's why I do this.
PC: The fans make it all worthwhile. They are your inspiration, then, as a creative artist - as a songwriter - too?
IM: Yes. (Pause.) I don't quite know how to put it into words, but I feel for the audience that I have. I know them. I recognize that it's something special to have this. I think it's also probably that the type of characters that I've played strike a chord with people in a certain way...
PC: Three iconic roles.
IM: Therefore, all of their love of the characters bring them closer to me. Then, when I do concerts I am pretty personal and intimate with them about my own life and feel like I can and should be open and genuine with them. I have a responsibility.
PC: That's your goal, to continue that relationship.
IM: Yeah, and it's this relationship that's building, ever since RENT, actually. It's a tremendous responsibility to my young audience to keep up with them and to... keep in tune with them.
PC: "Stay in tune," indeed.
IM: (Big Laugh.) Aww, that's so so bad! No pun intended!
PC: You have been in the cultural theatrical milestone of each decade: RENT, WICKED and, now, GLEE. What do you think of that legacy?
IM: Wow, I never thought of it that way. What I have always felt the most fortunate about is having been a part of original musicals and originating roles - as well as the creative process that goes along with that and how rewarding that all is. You know, I set the bar high because I don't what to do just any other show just to keep working, I want to do something special that means something to people and speaks to them. Those kinds of opportunities don't come along all the time!
PC: You are the only modern actress who has found three properties like them!
IM: You just have to keep working and keep training and hope there will be another role that can endear yourself to people like those have.
PC: My favorite performance of yours was in your follow-up to WICKED: Michael John LaChiusa's SEE WHAT I WANNA SEE. That's one of the best musicals of the twenty-first century - and what an unexpected choice after WICKED.
IM: I always want to do things that are different and challenging and work with composers and directors that I've always wanted to work with. That show was a very special experience - working with Michael John and Ted Sperling and being at the Public, that was my first show at the Public.
PC: You really got into The Actress in the 2nd Act.
IM: Oh, The Actress with the "Coffee" song.
PC: Was it hard to get into that role?
IM: No, it wasn't too bad - the first act was harder. The second act, I could do it. (Laughs.) I could channel my neuroses into what would, essentially, look like a coke addict. (Laughs.)
PC: What do you think of the new age of naturalistic musical theatre actors - you, Alice Ripley, Raul Esparza.
IM: You know, it's a delicate balance. When you are in a big theater like the Gershwin and you have all those people in the audience and you have to get your voice out there, there's a fine line between bringing the audience to you and feeling like you have to go out and get them. I think that what I've learned is - even with the Wicked Witch or a huge, larger-than-life character - you have the music and all that to really enforce it and make it all come out. Then, there are those times and those scenes where, if you are really connected to your fellow actor onstage - people will come in to you. They will get that much quieter and get that much closer and you don't have to push.
PC: How did you learn that process? Trial and error?
IM: I've learned a lot from my husband, actually. I've found to be a really naturalistic actor - really easy. I've actually watched him and taken a lot of notes. (Laughs.)
PC: Would you like to do something on GLEE with him?
IM: Oh, that would be so much fun! I would hope that he would have his own GLEE moment, though.
IM: Oh, really? Oh, I'm honored - please! We keep regenerating with every generation and we keep introducing new flocks of kids to these musicals and this music and the themes that are explored in these musicals - and it's all a big compliment any time it's on the show.
PC: Tell me about working with Marvin Hamlisch - he spoke so favorably of you when I interviewed him after your White House appearance together. What's your relationship like?
IM: Oh, I'm in love with Marvin. We're infatuated with each other. I don't know if it's the two jews in the Catskills or what. (Laughs.) I just worship him and I'm so happy he does these shows with me. I learn so much from watching him conduct the orchestras, and all the amazing songs that he has written. Mostly, he has the best sense of humor and the greatest stories and he and I really have a nice rapport onstage. He relaxes me. I can bounce things off of him and he's always right there and we really have a great time getting to know each other.
PC: You've been on tour together for a while now.
IM: I'm extremely excited that he's doing this New York Philharmonic show with me because it's my debut. It is going to be nerve-wracking in the first place, so it's going to be nice to have the constant of Marvin there.
PC: First Liza with a Z and then BARBRA: THE CONCERT and now IDINA WITH THE NY PHIL. What do you think of Liza and Barbra?
PC: Have you ever done "Queen Bee"? I'd love to hear you do that?
IM: Oh, isn't it called "Black Widow"? (Sings.) "The black, black widow / Is sitting in the middle..."
PC: You have to do it in cocnert!
IM: You know what? Maybe I will! I love that song.
PC: And FUNNY GIRL? Your performance of the title song was so great on GLEE - so unexpected. Who chose that song?
IM: That was Ryan Murphy all the way.
PC: I would have never chosen it - but, then, after it happened it was like it was the ideal expression.
IM: Yeah, it was one of those things that hit you afterwards.
PC: What about doing "Poker Face"? That was the song of the year.
IM: That was another one where Lea and I were like, "Why are we doing ‘Poker Face'?" You know?
PC: Another at-first-glance oddity.
IM: We really didn't get it, at first, so we just trusted him. So, it turns out that it's heavily downloaded and people dig it. At the time, it was really a lot of fun for us but we were kind of like, "Is this really about a mother and a daughter?" but we went with it and it seems like everyone really likes that one.
PC: Are you going to do the new Lady Gaga song, "Born This Way"? With that title, I have to ask...
IM: No, no, no. I didn't know they were doing a new Lady Gaga song, that's so cool!
PC: Alan Menken was recently telling me about how much he enjoyed working with you on ENCHANTED - do you plan on revisiting that song?
IM: It was a great song but I haven't done it - I don't know why. Since my character ended up not singing - at least not the first movie - I sort of just let it go. Maybe I should go back and take a look at it.
PC: I mentioned to Julie Andrews the notion of a duet with you in ENCHANTED 2 - would you like to do that?
IM: No way! Julie Andrews knows who I am? (Laughs.) You know, that would be great, because in the second movie my character is in the animated world, so maybe I can do a song in that world and we can do something together.
PC: Can you tell me any news about that project?
IM: Not so much, I just know that it's in the works. Amy [Adams] just had a baby, so I'm not sure how far along they are with that.
PC: How do you juggle new motherhood with your busy concert schedule and GLEE appearances?
IM: You know what? It's great, because I have a routine. Like this weekend; I have a show in St. Louis, so I'll fly out late Saturday night after I put him down to sleep, so I'll only miss a couple hours on Sunday and be back on Sunday night. So, I get that time on the plane to myself and the time to be onstage.
PC: That's a pretty sweet deal.
IM: If I'm going to be there more than one night, I always bring my baby with me. And, that's great, because he gets to stand in front and watch the orchestra during rehearsal and he loves music so much. Somehow I'm balancing more than I ever have in my entire life and I feel more inspired and more motivated. I don't know if it's because you a better manager of your time when you're a mommy and you only have so many hours to do something for yourself so you just have to get it done or what it is.
PC: What changed when he was born?
IM: I think it's that I feel better about myself because I like who I am as a mother. It's so much joy that spills over. (Pause.) I just feel more fulfilled than I ever have in my career and in my private life.
PC: What's your biggest inspiration right now?
IM: Walker and my husband are inspiring me the most - just sort of watching your family blossom. You know, taking a nap with the three of us together in bed - that's heaven.
PC: And your concert series will continue?
IM: Standing in front of an orchestra or a symphony is the most glorious feeling.
PC: What else?
IM: There's a couple of other things I'm working on. I'm trying to develop an original piece for the theatre and a TV thing.
PC: Motherhood comes first, then music... then whatever you can fit in.
IM: (Laughs.) Yeah, I just sort of have a lot of balls in the air. Between changing diapers and touring pre-schools, I'm still getting some other stuff done. Another thing I've become involved with is a new foundation I started.
PC: What's its purpose?
IM: It's called A BROADER WAY. Our first initiative is a performing arts camp up in the Berkshires for girls who come from underserved communities. The goal at the end of the ten days is for the girls to write a piece that is inspired by work that each of the girls contributes. Jeanine Tesori is heading up the creative side and we are going to put on a fundraiser in New York after the camp with them. So, I'm really excited about that. My friend from college galvanized the project and got me involved and it's really exciting. At the end of August we are going to start it.
PC: At what age did you know that theatre was what you wanted to do?
IM: Umm... Well, I was a big ANNIE wannabe when I was little. So, my parents brought me to see ANNIE and DREAMGIRLS.
PC: How do you compare that great Michael Bennett era with CHORUS LINE and DREAMGIRLS and all the Sondheim shows - especially compared to now, with SPIDERMAN.
IM: Well, that's going to extremes. That was a golden era, but now we have next to normal and SPRING AWAKENING and shows that are groundbreaking and that are out there raising the awareness of the theatre to people. So, we still have that good stuff, but it just ebbs and flows. For me, it's just about trying to nurture original work and letting composers get their work out there.
PC: How can you help enact that?
IM: If it means standing at the piano with someone while they figure out what key the song can be in, or if I can be some kind of muse in any way is the biggest gift to me.
PC: To be a part of the process.
IM: Yeah, exactly. Meanwhile, I'm standing here in LA with my baby and my husband has his TV show out here so I can't get back this minute to do a Broadway show. So, to be a part of developing something from its very early, embryonic stages is what I am really living for right now.
PC: Or doing a DVD version of a show that will exist forever - like CHESS. What does that feel like, to be a part of that legacy?
IM: Oh, God. That was just a lot of fun for me. (Pause.) I just fell in love with London when I did WICKED and made a lot of friends for life there. So, when they asked me to do CHESS, it was all about hanging out and working with Adam [Pascal] and Josh [Groban] and all my friends from WICKED. Then, singing that glorious music....
PC: What a score.
IM: What a score. I was really lucky and happy to do it - just to walk in Elaine Paige's footsteps for a minute and get to meet her.
PC: She said she loved recording the duet with you. Did you have fun? The album just went platinum.
IM: I heard that! I had so much fun. I loved doing it. It was one of those surreal moments where you are just sort of like, "Yeah, here I am recording with Elaine Paige - she originated this, that and the other roles - and Phil Ramone." You just have to sit back and appreciate them - those moments.
PC: Or standing on the stage at the Royal Albert Hall.
IM: You just have to take a breath and take it in and try to appreciate those moments.
PC: Do you feel motherhood grounds you after those highs? Aren't those highs sort of overwhelming?
IM: Yeah, it is overwhelming. I think that's why being a mommy keeps you in the moment more. You can't really think too much about other stuff because you have life happening right in front of you - you have to feed him and change his diapers and play with him and read to him. He's just growing every day right in front of you and you have to keep up.
PC: Or catch up.
IM: It really helps me stay in the moments and focus on what I really enjoy.
PC: Such as?
IM: Like, when I leave him this weekend for the night to sing in St. Louis I will really enjoy that period of time where I can think, "Wow, I'm flying to this other city and people bought tickets to see me in St. Louis and I don't even know anybody in St. Louis!" (Laughs.)
PC: That's hilarious.
IM: It's so cool. It really is. I can really appreciate all that while I'm sitting on the plane by myself, then I come back and I have my baby and husband and reality waiting for me. All that balancing of stuff is really challenging, but I feel more alive than I have in a long time.
PC: You seem very well-adjusted and have it under control.
IM: It wasn't easy this year because he was a rough sleeper, but he has such a great sense of humor and every day is a new sense of discovery. And, you get to relive your childhood when you have a baby and you see these toys and these books you read when you were little - the innocence that you are able to maintain because you have to find that again in order to connect with your child keeps you in a special state of mind.
PC: Will with there be a Walker Part 2 in the future?
IM: (Laughs.) Another child? Yeah, I would love Walker to have a sibling. I believe in that. I think that would be nice. Of course, I turn forty in a couple of months so we will see what the universe has in store for me. Right now, I am enjoying him so much that I just want to focus all my energy on him. Who knows, maybe in a year I will feel differently. I am a little conflicted right now.
PC: What roles do you want to play in the future? EVITA?
IM: (Laughs.) That would be nice, but they are bringing that in with the woman who played Evita in London I think. I also used to want to do FUNNY GIRL, but I kind of think that time has passed. Keep it to Barbra - it's probably gone long enough without being revived so maybe we should keep it that way.
PC: What about GYPSY? She's only supposed to be forty.
IM: Yeah, that's a great role. There have been some pretty awesome women who have done a pretty incredible job there. I'd rather put my energy into original stuff in the future, though. There might be a few obscure things I might want to revisit if we could look at them with the writers, but I like the original stuff. We'll see.
PC: SUMMER OF ‘42? I loved your "Keeping Track of Time".
IM: Oh, I forgot about that song - I loved that song. I should go dig that out.
PC: What will you be singing at your concert coming up? "The Way We Were"?
IM: (Laughs.) No, I will not be doing "The Way We Were", but I do a little bit about it!
PC: No way! What do you say?
IM: It was a song I did at this talent show and I tease Marvin a little bit about it. But, we will be doing "What I Did For Love".
PC: What else?
IM: We do songs from the shows that I've been in and a few standards and a Cole Porter song. And, the music director orchestrated one of my original songs from my I STAND album for the eighty piece orchestra so that's really exciting.
PC: Eighty pieces!
IM: Yeah, and it's going to be an eclectic evening.
PC: And electric, I'm sure.
PC: You are known for picking surprising songs sometimes. Do you enjoy the element of surprise in concert?
IM: Well, I don't try to be too surprising, but I do try to do things vocally that are surprising - things that people haven't heard me do before and using parts of my voice that maybe people haven't heard me use. All of that is fun for me. Also, it's important to me to pick songs that mean something to me. If I can share a part of my life with an anecdote and a story and a certain song maybe I can allow the audience to have a little window into my soul.
PC: What's on your iPod right now?
IM: Old Terrance Trent Darby. I was just dancing in the kitchen with Walker to "Wishing Well". We love the new Sade album, too.
PC: Have you heard the Kanye West album?
IM: Taye's been playing that a lot! I listen to his music by default. (Laughs.)
PC: What's next for you after the NY Philharmonic show? Back to the studio?
IM: Yep, back to the studio to record new songs. And, we're looking to document these concerts in some way, whether with PBS or a live performance thing. I'm in a holding pattern with a TV thing loosely based on my life.
PC: What's your favorite movie musical?
IM: Probably WEST SIDE STORY or MY FAIR LADY.
PC: Define collaboration.
IM: Why do you ask that?
PC: The essence of theatre is collaboration and this is a theatre column. But, it's really about any collaboration - with the song, with the songwriter (living or dead), with the director, whatever.
IM: Oh, right. That's brilliant. Well, for me, collaboration is what it's all about. It can be in any medium, any art form - in the theatre, with a composer and a director and your fellow actors; or, it could be in a recording studio where it's more solitary with just you and a songwriter or a producer. But, what is the most beautiful thing about collaboration to me is when I feel like I have met my soul mate for that project and they can just reach inside of me and understand what makes me tick and what I am feeling and put it music or put words to it or put lyrics to it or give me a character that speaks to me in that special way. There is no better feeling than knowing you are in good hands with someone that truly understands you.
PC: This was so awesome. Thank you so much, Idina.
IM: OK, baby. Thank you for this, it was so so wonderful. I'll be talking to you soon. Bye bye.
Photo Credit: Monica Simoes