As part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Tony Award winner Idina Menzel sat down with Marc Platt, a producer on both Wicked and If/Then, to talk about her life and career in the theatre. Here are the ten things we learned about Menzel in the hour-long conversation.
1. An ex-boyfriend got Menzel her gig as Maureen in Rent… sort of: “I had a boyfriend who was working at an acting agency,” she explained. “He faxed my resume kind of secretly through to [casting director] Bernie Telsey. I got in; they were looking for unknowns, and there I am in this show in its early incarnation, and the composer wants to work with us and develop it around us.” Platt asked her about being part of projects that became a phenomenon. She confessed, “[With] Rent, I needed a job. I didn’t know Michael Greif, I didn’t know Jonathan Larson. I just went in; I needed a gig.”
2. She wore green to her Wicked audition and cried when she left: “I remember, actually, your audition for Wicked,” Platt said to Menzel. “Every wonderful actor/actress on Broadway came in and auditioned, and Idina came in. I believe you were wearing green glitter [eye shadow], if I recall, and [it was decided] she’s pretty much playing the role. It wasn’t much conversation after she left the room.”
Unlike with Rent, this time Menzel wanted to book the job because of the creative team involved. “I just want to get into the audition,” she recalled. “I went in and auditioned and auditioned again, and I got out of there, and I cried [thinking], ‘I hope they hire me.’ It wasn’t [just] like, ’I want to do this thing and work with Stephen Schwartz!’ I kissed a lot of ass! … You do these workshops, and through each workshop they might say, ‘Oh, let’s get Alanis Morissette’ or whatever. Each time you think, ‘Well, maybe I’m not going to keep the job.’ So to actually see it come to fruition, to go through that process, to hang out with Stephen Schwartz in his apartment—his work apartment here in Manhattan—at his grand piano and have him say, ‘I’ve rewritten your opening song. Come here it. Let’s listen to it.’ The key… the this, the that… They sort of get inside you. They get to know you and your impulses and your inflections and the way you speak and the way you sing, and all of a sudden it makes my life easier because I don’t have to work so hard. It’s the chicken or the egg, like what came first? Yes, I’m creating a character, but in such a nice, incremental way that before you know it, it’s you, it’s there. It feels organic…. Like I said, I cried when I left because I think it was deeper than just being nervous and wanting the job. It was knowing that I was touching something that was special, and I didn’t recognize it was going to be as big as it was, but I knew if it was touching me in that way that it would resonate with people on such a level like that, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
3. She must vocally map out a show and have a back-up plan in place in case she’s tired or under the weather: “I had a voice teacher I’ve been working with for over 20 years. We have a very ritualistic, disciplined approach to how I sing and how I prepare,” she explained. “It’s like a real project, like a map for me, so that I can technically approach it all and then be free to just be in my body and in the moment later on when it counts. I do that; a lot of people don’t. They can smoke a joint and get up there and sing. I can’t do that! I never could when I was young, and I don’t even try now. You do not want to see that! But I’m very jealous of those people who can go out and have a whiskey and then do eight shows a week. I can’t.”
When Menzel worked as a wedding singer through college, she would test out different vocal stylings on jazz standards, which has helped her improvise in the moment. “I find a lot of my friends say actually, ‘How do you do that?’ On a day that I have a cold and I’m not feeling well, I can improvise. I can take the melody somewhere so that I don’t have to hit the highest note, and I’m comfortable with it. A lot of people have to practice a million times before they change anything, and I’m comfortable finding a new melody or a new thing to do—to keep myself sane and try new things—but also if I have to…. I give myself an A, a B and a C show, which means if I can’t hit the highest, most acrobatic notes because it’s that time of month or I have a cold or I had a big fight with my ex-husband [Taye Diggs]—whatever it is—I didn’t get to sleep because my son was up all night, I have the B show, which is a really beautiful version of the show and maybe doesn't hit the highest thing, but nobody would know. Usually because it’s original musicals, they don’t know what it is, and my teacher would always say, ‘Don’t feel like you failed. Do your best version of that and feel good about that.’ So it takes the pressure off me, and I always find something new because as soon as I change a little something in eight shows a week, it jars you, and you go into this new cool place emotionally or vocally. I really recommend that.”
4. She may have a new album come out in the fall: When asked by a fan when her next album would come out, Menzel replied, “I think soon. I think I’m getting there. I don’t know. Don’t hold me to it, but I think in the fall.” Platt asked her about being a songwriter in addition to being a performer, but it’s not a title she’d give herself. Instead, “I like to collaborate,” she said. “I like to be in the room with another great songwriter or producer. I like to give them the kitchen sink. They start playing some music, and I like to sing… I can sing melodies, I come up with titles and lyrical ideas, but I’m really not good at making decisions. I don’t know, ‘Was that a hokey thing? Will that sell tons of records?’ I just want to be with someone who goes, ‘That was awesome. Get rid of that.’ I also don’t like writing all by myself—the idea of completing a song. It’s just too much pressure for me. I never had a good song that I wrote, so to be up here and act like I’m this great songwriter, I would be just a fraud. But, I’m good at bringing myself to it—being a good collaborator in the room. I’m working on a new one now. I already did that. I got in the room with all of these wonderful producers and songwriters that extracted a lot of cool stuff out of me, and we’ll see what happens.”
5. She’s not afraid to make mistakes, and a successful “mistake” was trying out Radiohead’s “Creep”: “I’m not afraid of making mistakes anymore in public because they’re usually really helpful,” she said. “They put the audience at ease, and they give me an opportunity to say something funny and try something new. I think that it all harkens back to the wedding [singing] thing because I used to drive to the gig, and they’d say, ‘The bride wants to hear some tune’ that I [would] have to learn in three seconds when I’m driving, and I go up there, and I just fake half of it. I phonetically sang some lyrics that didn’t even make sense, but they’re not listening anyway, so to be ‘not perfect’ became something that was okay, and I thought at first, ‘Well, that’s not good.’ On Broadway a lot of times, it’s: ‘How perfect can you sing? How much vibrato? How long can you hit the note? How high?’ And, I stopped worrying about that being what defines you and makes you great.
“If you can just be authentic—mistakes are authentic—that’s the people’s way into you, and that’s what gives people chills, not the most perfect note that you hold or the most perfect vibrato.” One of the “mistakes” she’s made that became a success? Covering Radiohead’s “Creep” in concert. “I took a chance with that,” she said. “Having ‘Let it Go’ and ‘Defying Gravity’ and all of these empowerment songs, I was feeling a little bit like a fraud because it was telling everybody, ‘Feel good about yourself. Be powerful. You’re a woman. And get out there and fly! Own who you are! Be an individual!’ Then I’d have a bad day and be depressed in my own bed, and I couldn’t get out of bed and felt like sh*t, so I was like, ‘I need to do a song where it’s also about feeling like sh*t....’ I remember sitting with JT [Franchuk], my hairstylist at If/Then, and I was like, ‘What song is about feeling really ugly?’ And she was like, ‘Do you know that song?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ You come up with an orchestration, make it a little bit more theatrical… I have a heavy metal guitar playing, but then you have strings…and, all of a sudden, my worlds kind of collide. That, actually, has been a happy mistake.”
6. She bonded with Marvin Hamlisch over “Tits and Ass”: Menzel got to work with the late, great composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch, best known for his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning work on A Chorus Line, and she said that they immediately fell in love. “I was doing a lot of concerts with these big Pops Orchestras,” she recalled, “and they are very about being perfect… He was the only one who was cool with me being a little loose. We stopped in the middle of something. One time, there was [one of] those beautiful people who sign [American Sign Language] during performance, and I said something about tits and ass, and we were both like, ‘We have to stop and see—how does that get signed?!’ We just had the same approach to things. He had great stories. I miss him.”
7. She thinks she’s too old for the Wicked movie: Platt asked Menzel to elaborate on her experience in film, and she says that she’s still learning. “If you sing for real—a big note, a belting note—but the camera is this close, they will most certainly tell you, ‘I can see your cavities. You don’t look attractive.’ So fake it if you’re usually lip-syncing to something. If I was in the Wicked movie, which I probably won’t be…” Platt interjected, asking the audience: “How many people would like Idina to be in the Wicked movie?” The crowd roared in approval, to which Menzel responded, “I’m going to be way too old by the time he gets it done, unless he CGIs [computer generated imagery] it, and he knows how I feel about that. I really want him to do that. But the point being that if it’s, ‘OH-OH-OH!,’ I’ll probably have to go, ‘oh-oh-oh,’ so I’ll look pretty. It’s really weird how it works out. On Glee, I learned that a lot. Lea Michele taught me a lot. She didn’t move her mouth that much, but it looks real on the camera. I’m like, ‘We’re not singing!’ And she’s like, ‘You don’t want to do that, it’s not going to look right!’”
8. Being on Glee actually bruised her ego a bit! Speaking of Lea Michele, Menzel felt a bit bummed when the Glee team asked her to play Michele’s mom. “It was bittersweet,” she said. “One: Because the gig came in three months after I popped a baby out, so I felt fat as all hell, and I was Lea Michele’s mom. I was like, ‘I can’t just be her older sister?’ She wasn’t as young as she was playing, you know, so it was like, ‘Really? I’m her mom?’ It wasn’t good for my ego, to be honest, but I was happy to be there and work with those people. It was cool, but I kind of had to get over myself.”
9. What did she really think of being called Adele Dazeem by John Travolta? “It was the best thing that ever happened!” she said with a laugh. “The honest truth? Right when it was happening, I was like, ‘What the f*ck did he just say?’ The orchestra is playing live, so it was like, ‘Oh my God, I finally made it this big. He just f*cked up. The song is coming…! Get over yourself. You’re so vain and conceited. Just go! Sing! Meryl Streep is there!’
That’s the whole thing that went on in about eight seconds to get myself back in the zone because I had meditated about this moment. I wanted to enjoy it and breathe and sing to my son, make it about him. Not like, ‘Oh, George Clooney is sitting there,’ and then he f*cks up my name, so I had to get back my focus really fast.” But, she said, Travolta was very “sweet” to send her a nice email and flowers following the flub.
10. She won’t let her son Walker Diggs perform until he’s older: Menzel said that the birth of her son Walker made her less neurotic. “Having a child gets you out of your own head,” she explained. “You have somebody much more important that needs you, and so if he’s up in the middle of the night and I can’t sleep, but I have a big show to do the next day, ‘Well, maybe I’m not going to hit that note.’ I’m going to go out there and do the best I can, and I found that it actually took the pressure off me, and I ended up enjoying myself more for some reason. It has liberated me, totally.”
Platt asked Menzel that if a producer wanted to put her son in a movie or a commercial, what would she say? “No!” she quickly replied. “I say, ‘Go f*ck…!’ When he is old enough to make the choice, but even so… I wanted to be auditioning for Annie, and I remember in Backstage it said you can’t be taller than 4’11”, and I was like 4’10”, and I ran into my mom and was like, ‘I’m going to be too tall! Let me audition!’ She was like, ‘You’re not allowed to act as a kid. When you get to college, I’ll let you do it.’ It was because we saw some girl who got yanked off the day-camp bus to go to a commercial audition in Manhattan. She was hysterical crying. She just wanted to go to day camp and play volleyball and swim, and it made this impression on us, and I fought my mom tooth and nail. Everybody has their own journey, but I’m glad because I went to NYU, did my thing and when it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I just don’t want him to grow up too fast!”