An Interview with Idina Menzel

By: Feb. 26, 2008
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The release of I Stand, the long-awaited and highly anticipated Warner Bros. Records debut of Idina Menzel, took place back on January 29th and hit the Billboard charts at #58, the star's first solo album to do so. Featuring 9 songs written by Menzel, I Stand, is produced by Grammy award winner Glen Ballard, brings Idina Menzel to another chapter of a star-studded career that includes a Tony Award for her star turn as the green witch Elpheba, in Wicked as well as a Broadway debut in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent. Menzel recently performed the National Anthem for a TV audience of many millions before the start of the now legendary Giants / Patriots Super Bowl Game, played in New Jersey.  

Menzel appears TONIGHT, February 26, 2008 in conversation at the 92nd Street Y. Click here for details.

Let's start at the beginning of the journey for I Stand. When did you begin working on the album? 

I got signed to Warner Brothers toward the end of my Wicked run, and as soon as I got signed, I started to think about collaborators and people I always wanted to work with. Glen Ballard was at the top of my list, although I didn't think it would be possible. Thankfully, I begged the label to set up a meeting and we hit it off. From there I spent the next year and a half writing music with him and a couple of other people as well. Mostly, I sat with him, especially for the first half of the process, to really try to zone in and find the right sound.

As many of your fans know, you've been writing your own music for a while now. Where did the songs for I Stand come from?

I've been writing since I was a teenager, and always just writing music, trying to get the songs demo-d, trying to get signed to a record label and gigging around downtown New York City, when I was in college and doing that whole scene. Then along came Rent, unforeseen, and I got that role and that sort of took me on a slightly different path.

Many actors who perform solo note that it's much more frightening to appear as "yourself" rather than behind the mask of a character. Was it the opposite for you...or the same? 

Performing as yourself, and especially your OWN music, is much more frightening (laughs). The reason being that just singing your own words and putting yourself out there for everyone to embrace or to's a very scarifying thing...and yet, it's the most rewarding thing in the world. 

I will be forever indebted to the likes of Stephen Schwartz, Jonathan Larson and all the other composers that I've worked with, because it's an honor to sing their music. There's just something different about doing your own thing.

What's next for you after the the release of I Stand? Are you planning more solo work immediately or back to the stage, or...?

I hope to do it all. I will never leave the theater. My heart is there and I love being on stage 8 times a week. It just so happens this is also something that I love. I've spent a lot of my life trying to figure out which one was more "me" and trying to decide, trying to make, trying to focus on one thing...left me thinking that I couldn't' have it all. I feel like now I realize that it's OK to be versatile and multi-faceted and it's great to have a balance and that, as long as you find a cohesive way of presenting your ideas, you can have it all.

Wicked is known for "tweens" making up a large percentage of the audience. However, I Stand feels like a more "mature" album. Was that intentional? 

I didn't set out to do anything but try to be true to myself and be "in the moment" and work with Glen...and to just kind of sing and write about my experiences and my life.

I find that the young theater fans that I've attracted from Rent and Wicked are very sophisticated, very intelligent people and so I just did my own thing, and all I wanted to be sure that I did was use my range and my music and use all the emotion and expression that I have in my voice. I think that's sort of the common denominator in singing and in the theater...and that way, I thought I would maintain my theater audience without alienating them and also make some new friends.

Those new friends will be joining a legion of existing ones both online and off...

It's a huge variety of an audience. It's young, it's young kids, it's kids out of college, it's a gay audience, and it's their parents and the regular theater crowd. I kind of recognize how unique it is and how fortunate I am, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to my fans and that made the job even harder, through the week, because you never want to miss a never want somebody from Nebraska coming to see you and you're not there. 

I remember one day actually having had a stomach virus and I was throwing up 1/2 hour before the show, but then you get out there and you may not give your best show or reach your highest notes...but I just found it to be so important to be there. I got to know some of these younger people and how much they connected with me and the music and the story and Kristin (Chenoweth) and you don't get an opportunity like that very often...and I feel fortunate enough to have had 2 of those types of shows in my career so far and so it's really important that I don't alienate my theatrical audience. I just hope that they'll sort of take this little ride with me and let me make this little departure.

Do you ever see yourself donning the green makeup again?

Well, I went back already, I went back to the West End and did it in London. I went a year and a half after I left New York, I went back, I went to London and did it and that was one of the best experiences of my life. I completely fell in love with the city and the people. I made friends for life there. I loved re-discovering the role, having had a little bit more experience and a little bit more confidence gave me the freedom to try new things with the role. So as an actress, it was completely liberating and then what it did was it gave me a lot of inspiration to come home and write some more songs.

As to going back to the show again, you never know. But, for now, I've done it twice and as an artist you've got to keep yourself moving and challenged in order to get better and better at what you do. And .. but it will always be in my blood and I will always come out to support that show. It's changed my life.

Speaking of other new projects, what was the Enchanted experience like for you?

That was great. It was the first time I was offered a role. I know it might sound funny to some people but most of us have to audition for everything that we get and to actually be offered something…(laughs) it's such a relief! That was really exciting to me. And then to be quite honest, everyone expected me to sing, but I read the script and the character didn't sing and I was kind of honored that someone was hiring me for my acting chops without me being a singer!

So, it was kind of nice, and it was great to work with Patrick Dempsey and James Marsden and learn how to waltz with them and be around Susan Sarandon, who I idolize -- it was an incredible experience.

It must have been a treat to see yourself animated as well!

Yeah, it's a milestone to be in a Disney film, and then actually be animated as well...that I can show my kids one day and it's like the first Jewish American Princess Disney movie!

What's coming up next for you?

I'm rehearsing my band and we're doing "in-stores" and a lot of promotion (for the record) and then we'll hopefully be heading toward a tour...not sure exactly when. The time's got to be right and the need for it be out there. But I'm so excited to have this time to focus on this one thing and sort of pour my whole heart into it. I'm not great at multi-tasking, so when I do one thing...I like to do it 100%. I have a lot of support from my "peeps" on my side saying, do this, go for it, don't worry about anything else right now. And so I'm really enjoying it.

With these accomplishments in music and film...Are you still considering yourself a New Yorker or are you now basing yourself out of LA? 

We have a home here in New York and we're renting some place out in L.A., because Taye's got a T.V. show, so we've been out there a lot. But right now I'm in New York because of the promotion and it's kind of nice to go back and forth. I saw a little snow yesterday which is great because I was getting tired of the same sunny weather every single day in Los Angeles. 

That's funny, most New Yorkers would probably tell you they'd rather be in Los Angeles! It was announced a few weeks back that Rent would be closing this summer. What was your reaction about hearing the news?  

I felt great sadness. I certainly didn't see it coming, but I wasn't thinking about it either and then when I heard about really made my heart kind of sink and I realized just how much that show meant to me. I met my husband in that show and I made all of those friends...and I knew Jonathan Larsen who gave us a foundation to work from. I feel, for the rest of my life. 

The idea that life is so precious and you have to embrace the moment and I feel like ever since that time when we would get up on stage and sing his lyrics every night to new audiences, while he was not there to share it was a gift and something that I try to remember when things are getting crazy and lots of great stuff is happening. I try to enjoy it while it's going on and not lose sight of it and keep grounded.

Thinking forward to more theatre, are there roles from the "classic canon" that you'd love to take on someday?

I've been lucky enough to originate roles which I think is such an honor. And I'm very lucky to have that, so I'm constantly looking for new things. You know, I would love to play Funny Girl or Evita, but I idolize the women who have played those parts. I don't know if there needs to be another version of those shows (laughs). 

I'm always searching for something brand new and I love being a part of the developmental process of a new musical. I love being involved with it 3 years earlier and standing at the piano with the composer and then adapting and sculpting ideas to your voice and your keys and your personality. There's something so special about that and if I'm lucky enough to kind of have another experience like that, then that's what I would choose to do.

You will be playing the part of Florence in Chess in Concert, (in London with Josh Groban, Adam Pascal and Kerry Ellis), is that right? 

Yes. I'm very excited about that. First of all to get back to London and see my friends. And to be on stage with Josh is very exciting for me and he's a really terrific guy. I'm excited that the music is beautiful and it's going to be a challenge because you only have a couple of days to rehearse and then you're up there running. But I think it'll be a lot of fun.

How familiar with the show are you (or were you before being offered the part) ?

I had heard a lot of it in the past, I remember when I used to take classes at NYU, a lot of people used to sing from Chess, but that's really all I have, experience wise...I never got to see it. So I was doing a lot of research and seeing what I find on YouTube. I kind of get my feet wet with it and do some homework. But it's really hard because this week is so busy. But give myself a couple weeks, get the album out and then I'll sit home and do my homework.

Thanks so much for doing this interview. If there's one thing that you'd like people to come away with after listening to the album, what would that be? 

I'm constantly trying to work on the person that I am and work on my shortcomings and I guess I want people to know that it's ok to be a work in progress, as long as you keep trying to figure it out. But that search and that discovery is what makes life kind of rich and it's what makes life rich...period.

I also want to thank my audience for coming on this journey and understanding that this is an expression of who I am at this point in time. I am so grateful to the fans for their support and that I hope they'll sort of give me this chance to kind of explore this different direction and know that I'm coming back to the stage as soon as I get a chance!

For more information on Idina Menzel, click here to visit her official web site. To purchase I Stand, click here.