BWW Feature: VOICE LESSONS: A SISTERS STORY by Cara Mentzel
I had the privilege of conducting one of the most delightful interviews and reviewing one of the most heartwarming books I have ever read. Author Cara Mentzel gives readers a glimpse into her journey as the little sister of larger-than-life big sister Idina Menzel, the commanding pipes behind Broadway's Wicked Elphaba, Rent's Maureen and Disney's Frozen Elsa. (Their last names differ as the "T" in Mentzel" is silent and was mispronounced so much, Idina decided to drop it.)
If Idina Menzel were your sister you may have to contemplate how to compete with a sibling of such prominence. Would you bask in the edge of the limelight that encompasses her? Could you embrace her celebrity and feel proud? Would you have to face an innermost resentment that you could never verbalize? Perhaps the course by which you deal with a sibling's renown would evolve from how you were attended to when you made your own debut into this world. On August 12, 1974 the family Mentzel opened their home and their hearts to little Miss Cara. Big sister, 3-year-old "Dina", was doting and attentive. Cara was loved, cared for and welcomed by all. Two weeks later, she stopped breathing.
And so the tale of two sisters begins.
Miss Mentzel's writing style makes for an inspiring and emotional read. Don't be surprised if you find yourself laughing out loud when you read about the time in London when they got separated, leaving Idina on the platform and Cara on the train with Idina's purse and cell phone. This is just one of many stories that will have you chuckling. Grab your tissues for some of the harder moments that retell of their parents divorce as well as their own, the big fight between Cara and Idina and the approval Cara would constantly seek from her big sister. Cara describes family dynamics that touch us all. Voice Lessons: A Sisters Story is full of family memories, good, bad and ugly. Her descriptive narrative, hardcore truth and witty sense of humor draws the reader in to her private domain and allows us to witness each scenario in great detail. From the highs of opening nights on Broadway and red carpet evenings at the Academy Awards with Idina, to the depths of marital distress and a life threatening illness, readers will come to know a remarkable woman who, in the midst of her older sister's shadow, battled her own insecurities and rose to find her place, her gifts and talents and her voice in this world. And it's a voice worth listening to and learning from.
This is not a book written to glorify Idina Menzel. This isn't a manuscript directed only to those who follow Broadway. It's not a book about scandal or retribution, and it's not going to teach you how to sing. Voice Lessons is about finding your place in this world. Your voice. And these days, who isn't trying to find their way? Readers will be inspired to find confidence in themselves and perhaps salvage family differences they may be repressing. This book is about real people, raw emotions, resilience and restoration. It's beautifully written with such candor and authenticity and peppered with a brilliant sense of humor.
Miss Mentzel offered a very candid interview regarding her book and her relationship with sister Idina.
You write so well and with great humor, "a pair of rising suns in a chiffon horizon", describing your bust line in your wedding gown! And you recap explicit details that draw us in and bring your story to life. Reading your book felt almost intrusive to me, as though I were reading your diary. What inspired you to share this very personal story?
I don't think I know how to do it any other way. I've always written for my family and myself so accuracy, truth, clarity of the memory and the emotional piece is really important to catch. I write short stories but I wasn't sure I could write a book, a linear narrative. The whole reason for the book in my mind, by diving into these moments with my sister and being therapeutic for me, was I wanted people to get something out of it. I want people to know they can work their way through challenging relationships.
Did you feel you had to ask permission considering your sister's celebrity?
The book was Dee's idea. She called to tell me her agent wanted her to write her memoirs and anecdotes about the theatre. I felt a pinch inside because Dee was the singer. I was the writer. But then she confirmed I was the writer in the family and I should write the story. But she didn't want me to write her story. She didn't want me to be in her shadow. She wanted me to write my story, from my perspective. She suggested I write about being her sister and allow people get to know her through me. It developed into a story about sisters, which becomes a more significant story to tell. As the younger sibling it was a flip-flop that I would be the first to get married, have children and get a divorce. I was doing those things while Dee was enjoying professional success. Now, that I am older, I am enjoying success in my professional life.
Was your family supportive of you writing your memoirs?
Dee was amazing and allowed me total expression from my perspective. She would chime in from time to say I wasn't hard enough on her here or was too hard on her there but she wanted this to be my story. My Mom and Dad remembered so much when I was young and helped me fill in some of those blanks. I just started looking back and remembering and soon I had written almost 60 pages. What was interesting to me was I was watching Frozen while writing this book and said. "Wait a minute!" I didn't remember Dee stating the obvious parallel between Elsa and Anna and me and Dee.
You expressed how close your Grandmother was to you and the precious memories of summers with her in Florida. What do you feel she would think of your book?
I think she would have loved it. If she was alive today I could see her carrying a crate full of books and handing them out in the elevator and pool at her complex. "Here! My granddaughter wrote a book!"
How long did it take you to write Voice Lessons?
I compare writing this book to labor. When you ask a woman how long her labor was, it depends on when you choose to start counting. I would say from the time Dee and I started talking about it until I finished it, it was 5 years. It was about a year before Frozen that we had an initial discussion.
What was the most challenging part to write about?
The marriage challenges I faced, particularly feeling like I had failed, and when my ex-husband directed his frustrations at one of my sons was hard to relive that in detail.
Digging up specifics about my battle with whopping cough was difficult. I can't imagine what my mother was going through. It was a challenge for my whole family and miserable for me.
What would you like to say to women presently enduring an intense marriage?
We know when something's off and that is a good time to make sure you are not isolating yourself. Be sure you have friends and resources. Even though things may seem ok, don't isolate from healthy relationships that can help you see a new perspective before its too late.
Many sisters are close but maybe not as close as you and Idina. Do you feel entering the world as you did in such a fragile state immediately deepened her love and protection of you and in return your dedication towards her?
Maybe so, but its Dee's nature to look after things. Its just who she is. If you have ever been to one of her concerts she loves to bring children up on stage and sings Let It Go with them. Recently one young boy just stole the show with his amazing voice and she wanted to give him his time to shine but she was also worried the other kids would feel intimidated or less important.
As a teacher, what challenges do you face and what would you like to change about our educational system?
One of the challenges I face is that I am so emotionally permeable. Now I teach small reading groups but when I was a classroom teacher, it was so overwhelming to see and feel what every kid needed and not be able to take care of them the way I wanted to. A student's social and emotional health is my priority. What I would like to change about our system is that by the time decisions are made and funneled down through the system, needs sometimes change and the process starts over. It's such a "time suck". Lack of funding is also so frustrating.
Outside of your children, what is one of the things in which you are most proud?
Besides the book, I really love my marriage right now. We have a blended family and that's challenging sometimes but I am proud of the way we have grown up together.
Have you come to an understanding that perhaps Idina was looking for approval from you all along? You went through many firsts, first - having a baby, getting married, etc.
I don't think she seeks my approval but I do know that she seeks and values my input and my opinion in a significant way. I still think we both have our own insecurities. I think we are still trying to prove things to ourselves.
Your heritage is Jewish and you mentioned some Bible scriptures in your book. Do you have a belief system you live by or faith that guides or inspires your life?
I spent a lot of time in my teens and early twenties meditating and had a pretty spiritual path and relationship with what I called God. Over time, it just wasn't there anymore. I called myself an atheist for a long time but I noticed I had a lot of resentment. I never wanted to believe in God because I wanted it to be true. I want to believe because it is true. So there's a lot of deep water there and it's moving, I'm just not sure where it is going.
A sentence in your book describing your relationship with Idina is, " I had the sense that with her I was happy or a burden" and regarding your first marriage, "I was happy or wrong". Do you feel differently as you both have matured or since you've penned this book?
I think we re both humbled by the choices we have made. She didn't feel I should have gotten married the first time and part of me trying to make that marriage work was I would have been wrong and failed in Dee's eyes. She's not the sister that knows better. We are sisters who listen to each other and try to talk things out.
Was there a part of the book that surprised Idina.
Yes, there were a lot of things that were happening that she was not aware of. She did say I shouldn't write about the time I wet my pants on the cruise ship!
I was expecting a book about living in the shadows of the limelight in which your sister lives. Instead, she reached out to have you a part of many occasions that were important to her. Who wouldn't want to be on the Red Carpet at the Academy awards or a Broadway opening with Idina Menzel. But I get the feeling those paled in comparison to the average days you would prefer more of - watching a movie together, manicures, private dinners etc.
That is one of the things the book brought to light- how important it is for me to have more of that time. Life is so busy so its not like you don't want to go to the Tony Awards or the Oscars but I love to fly in, just hang out, play with my nephew, drink wine and do nothing. It's kind of like my sister runs her own business and she is so busy. I am happy to be with here where and when I can but I cherish those times we have to ourselves.
You had to have owned some part of Travolta's Adel Dazeem faux pas. You were there live. What were you thinking? Did you feel overly protective of Idina that night?
That was kind of like the moment when you feel your neurons aren't firing properly! Wait! Huh? What just happened! I loved that Dee's manager Heather didn't make me take her statement out of the book, "Let's go, Im gonna kill John Travolta". It was something! Before I even had time to freak out about it social media was out of control. The irony is that the Scientology building in Manhattan stands directly across the street from the Richard Rodgers Theatre where Dina's show If/Then was playing at the time! Dee had to fly back to New York and see that building everyday.
Your story is so relevant with today's themes encompassing strong women. Elsa, Elphaba, The Hunger Games and Supergirl all have powerful sister connections. Has writing this book changed your relationship with Idina in any way?
It has changed in that there was very little left unsaid after writing the book. I spent several hours a day for 5 years writing this and so much got resolved.
Binge watching Outlander with my dogs, red wine and BBQ potatoes chips - enjoying the solitude while my family is out. Also a happy place for me is being present in the moment.
Who do you feel your audience will be and what do you want them to take away from Voice Lessons?
Certainly Dee's amazing fan base will have an interest and I am hoping there is a gateway to a larger audience who enjoy reading memoirs, stories about families and like authenticity and humor. I really want people to laugh out loud. My hope is that this won't get pigeonholed for one type of audience. I wrote this book about complicated relationships for everybody. I want people to read it, feel validated and know its ok to be imperfect and be inspired to be their best self.
Would you share what Dee thought of Voice Lessons?
She read it over and over and had all of these positive things to say. My favorite memory is when we were in Hawaii together and she pulled my book up on her phone and read a scene aloud that she loved to a bunch of her friends and manager and me. I heard her read my writing aloud for the first time and I think that was the best thing ever.
Our Broadway World audience would like to know if you have a favorite song Dee sings and a favorite role she has played and why.
My favorite song of Dee's is "Small World" and I do love "Do You Want to Build a Snowman". That was so irritatingly me when we were kids. My favorite part she played was in a movie with Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek called Ask the Dusk. She was phenomenal. A lot of people picture her in strong female roles but she played this incredibly broken and vulnerable woman so beautifully. Her singing can so easily overshadow her role as an actress. And I love that she got to make out with Colin Farrell. I said, "Dee, seriously, I'm a single mom, life really sucks right now for me and you're married to Taye Diggs and making out with Colin Farrell. Spread the wealth!"
What is next for Cara Mentzel?
Parent teacher conferences! I'm working part time as a teacher.
Actually I just started writing again. I'm excited to write about boys! Instead of sisters I'm writing about brothers. Between my sister and I we have 4 boys, Dee has one son, I have 2 sons and a stepson. So I am brainstorming that, in all its madness!
Voice Lessons: A Sisters Story, St. Martin's Press is in print and audio at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Audible and Apple iBooks. You can follow Miss Mentzel on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/authorcaramentzel.