There has never been any doubt about Idina Menzel's vocal prowess. From the moment she stepped on to the Broadway stage as Maureen in the late Jonathan Larson's Rent, it was clear that the young performer possessed a thrilling belt. She subsequently demonstrated her powerful tones in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Wild Party, the City Center Encores! mounting of Hair and the all star Funny Girl benefit concert for the Actors' Fund of America. However, with her starring role in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, Menzel has taken a great leap forward as an actress. She is currently offering her most nuanced performance to date, making us care greatly for the fate of her character, Elphaba, the not-so-Wicked Witch of the West. Menzel is funny, often touching and delivers a passionately sympathetic performance of a woman whose outward differences force her to confront the ignorance of those around her. I recently had the chance to chat with the soft-spoken Menzel, who will soon welcome husband Taye Diggs — another former Renter — to the cast of Wicked for a limited engagement. That brief conversation follows.
Question: How does it feel being back on Broadway?
Idina Menzel: It feels great. [Laughs.] It's a great role, and I'm proud to be in it.
Q: So, did you trip Norbert [Leo Butz] to get your husband into the show. [Laughs.]
IM: No! [Laughs.] I love Norbert. Norbert and I are the best of friends and really enjoy working together.
Q: Are you excited about your husband joining the show?
IM: I'm so excited about him joining, yeah. It'll be just great for the holidays, and we can spend time together, and I think he's perfect for the role. But I miss Norbert tremendously. Q: How long does it take you to apply the green make-up, and how long does it take to get it off after the show?
IM: Putting it on — it's about 40 minutes. Getting it off is like ten minutes in the shower, scrubbing it off. If there's somebody I want to meet after the show, then I sit there and scrub my skin to death, get out of the shower and meet them looking presentable. [Laughs.]
Q: What is the make-up? Did the designers have to experiment with different types?
IM: No, actually, MAC makes all these colors. They had a make-up that was green [and] you just add water. It's like a water color. We use a Japanese brush, and it smoothes it on.
Q: Do you keep the color on between shows on matinee days?
IM: No — I take a ton of showers because I like the steam for my voice. There's a lot of smoke in the show, so I'm always steaming, which is probably good for the make-up because then my pores are cleaned all the time. But, no I can't eat [with the make-up on] — it's gross! [Also, the color] gets deeper as the show goes on, so to have it look the way it does at the beginning, I have to start over.
Q: Was this the first time you've gone out of town with a show? What was that experience like?
IM: Yeah. It was incredible and very important. I think that if you're doing a new musical, you want to have the opportunity to experiment and try things without the whole city of critics looking over your shoulder. And, the writers had that freedom to play, and they did. We tried different things, and we moved the order of scenes, and [they] wrote new lines and tried different costumes. It's a very important part of the process for a new musical.
Q: What was it like working with Joe Mantello as a director?
IM: I really owe it all to him. He challenged me to be better and really helped me discover who this woman was. When they are writing a new piece, they're not sure where they're coming from sometimes. The climate of who she is changes depending on a scene that's in or not, so you're constantly going, 'Okay, wait. Now, I'm actually funny sometimes!' He just helped me figure out every moment and be specific and helped me bring out the essence of who she is.
Q: Do you have a favorite song or moment in the show?
IM: I have several favorite moments; it depends on the day. I love singing the duet with Kristin at the end because I'm always in awe of how different our voices are, and yet, when we sing together in unison, how wonderfully they blend. That's an important statement for the characters and the people that we are in real life as well. I love singing the duet with Norbert because I get to be the ingenue. All the other roles I've had, I'm always the slutty supporting character [laughs], and now I get to sing the pretty love song, so I love doing that. I love flying and singing 'Defying Gravity,' which is my most favorite song in the show.
Q: What do you think the message of Wicked is?
IM: There are a lot of messages. The two main ones — the story of the friendship of these two women and how they, through striving for truth in themselves, they really give a wonderful gift to each other and change each other forever. I think that that's important. I think that the idea that when someone's different from us, we tend to be threatened by them, and that we have to strive to look deeper than the surface. I think that's the other most important message.
Q: Was theatre always your plan or were you originally more interested in a pop career?
IM: It vacillated. Growing up I studied classically and did lots of shows in school. And then I went to NYU for theatre, but I also did a lot of [singing at] weddings and bar mitzvahs. I was the front singer in a band in Long Island, and I had to learn so many different kinds of music for that, so I started listening to people other than theatre and classical, more like R&B and blues. That inspired me to want to write my own music and find my own style. I tried to find the balance of recording my own music and, also, always coming back to the theatre because I always find that I've been embraced here in a really wonderful way, and I love the communal aspect of it. I love working with a cast and a group of people every day, which is different than recording because you're usually pretty isolated and alone. They serve as a good balance for each other.
Q: And you have a new album coming out?
IM: I do. It's what they call an EP, which means it's only six songs. I did it this summer in between [Wicked's San Francisco run and Broadway]. I recorded some songs that people have always asked me to record from the shows I've done, my own shows. And then there are a couple new songs. It's all original material. . . It's going to be called "Here." It's really unplugged and very organic. It should be out by the holidays or the first of the year.
Q: A lot of your former Rent co-stars are back on stage this season. Do you still spend time with them?
IM: We do. Daphne [Rubin-Vega] is one of my closest friends. She came to my wedding, and I'm very happy for her because I hear that she's wonderful [in Anna in the Tropics]. I'm actually just trying to figure out what schedule changes we have so I can figure out what day I have free to go see her.
Q: Are you involved in any other theatre projects or workshops?
IM: Oh, I can't handle anything else but this right now! [Laughs.] I pretty much have no life outside of the theatre. I go home every night and I put the TV on and I veg out and order food. And, then I e-mail people, which has been good because I've gotten better with the computer! And then on Mondays I don't talk. It's kind of rough just keeping up on my relationships with friends outside of the show. But it's what you've gotta do, at least for a little longer until it's in your body.
(Wicked plays the Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st Street; call 212-307-4100 for tickets.)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Barbara Cook will make her Metropolitan Opera debut New Year's Eve. During the New Year's Eve gala performance of Franz Léhar's The Merry Widow, Cook will appear in the Act III party scene where she will offer renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Wonderful Guy," Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me," Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" and Carl Fischer and Frankie Laine's "We'll Be Together Again." The Merry Widow cast features Susan Graham in the title role, Bo Skovhus as Danilo, Emily Pulley as Valencienne, Paul Groves as Camille and James Courtney as Baron. Kirill Petrenko will conduct the orchestra, and Wally Harper will serve as Cook's accompanist and conductor. Tickets for The Merry Widow are available by calling (212) 362-6000 or by logging on to www.metopera.org. The Dec. 31 performance begins at 7:30 PM. . . . Avenue Q star Ann Harada will step into the "Broadway Spotlight" — which presents concert evenings with stars of the musical theatre — Feb. 2. Harada, who portrays Christmas Eve in the hit musical at the Golden Theatre, will take centerstage at the Ars Nova Theater Feb. 2. Show time is 8 PM. As previously announced, Dance of the Vampires' Max von Essen will precede Harada in the "Spotlight"; von Essen will perform at the intimate theatre Jan. 5 and 19, 2004 at 8 PM. The Ars Nova Theater is located in Manhattan at 511 West 54th Street. Tickets are priced at $12; doors open at 7:30 PM. Call (212) 868-4444 for tickets or go to www.SmartTix.com. . . . Side Show Tony nominee Alice Ripley has been cast in the new Off-Broadway comedy Five Flights, which will play the Rattlestick Theater next month. Ripley will portray Olivia in the Adam Bock comedy, which begins previews Jan. 13, 2004, with an official opening scheduled for Jan. 19. The limited engagement will play through Feb. 22. Directed by Kent Nicholson, the cast also includes Joanna Adler, Kevin Karrick, Jason Butler Harner, Matthew Montelongo and Lisa Steindler. The play comprises five scenes, in which playwright Bock "uses birds as metaphors to describe a dysfunctional family who populate [the play] about siblings who must decide the fate of an aviary built by their recently deceased father." The Rattlestick Theater is located at 224 Waverly Place between West 11th and Perry Streets. Tickets, priced at $37.50, are available by calling (212) 868-4444 or by visiting www.smarttix.com. . . . Original Thoroughly Modern Millie stars Sutton Foster and Marc Kudisch will both be part of the latest Broadway By the Year concert Feb. 9, 2004. Foster — who will leave her Tony-winning role Feb. 15 — and Kudisch, who is now starring Off-Broadway in The Thing About Men, will join Nancy Opel, Christopher Fitzgerald, Nancy Anderson and Bill Daugherty for Broadway By the Year: 1926, which celebrates the musicals that graced the New York stage in 1926. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from Oh, Kay!, The Desert Song, The Garrick Gaieties of 1926 and Scandals of 1926. Scott Siegel conceived and directs the series, which will continue March 15 (Broadway By the Year: 1935), April 19 (Broadway By the Year: 1949) and June 14 (Broadway By the Year: 1963). Although the starry line-ups for those evenings have yet to be announced, among the performers scheduled to take part include Judy Blazer, Darius de Haas, Eddie Korbich, Emily Skinner and Chip Zien. Tickets for Broadway By the Year shows are priced at $37.50 and $45 and will go on sale Jan. 2, 2004, by calling (212) 307-4100 or (212) 840-2824. Town Hall is located at 123 West 43rd Street. Visit www.the townhall-nyc.org for more information. . . . Another Town Hall event: Tovah Feldshuh — who is currently portraying Golda Meir in the one-woman show Golda's Balcony at the Helen Hayes Theatre — and recent Listen to My Heart star Alix Korey are among the women scheduled to perform in a concert titled From Brooklyn to Hollywood. Also conceived and written by Siegel, the May 3 evening will also feature the talents of jazz vocalist Natalie Douglas, Forbidden Broadway regular Christine Pedi, Starmites Tony nominee Sharon McNight and The Full Monty's Annie Golden. Show time is 8 PM. From Brooklyn to Hollywood will celebrate the Hollywood composers, songs and stars "that made — and make — Brooklyn proud." Brooklyn alums Neil Diamond, Harry Nillson and Barbra Streisand will be saluted as well as such films as "The Kid From Brooklyn," "It Happened in Brooklyn" and "Saturday Night Fever." Concertgoers can also expect to hear Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's "Cowboy From Brooklyn." Tickets to the concert are priced $35 and $30 and will go on sale Jan. 2, 2004, by calling (212) 307-4100 or (212) 840-2824. . . . Hairspray's Laura Bell Bundy and Urinetown's Nancy Opel will take part in a reading of a new musical titled But I'm a Cheerleader. The by-invitation-only reading will be held Jan. 12, 2004, at Primary Stages on West 45th Street. Those actors joining Bundy and Opel for the reading include Stephanie Kurtzuba, Simone Catalano, John Dewar, Leo Ash Evens, Mary Faber, Colby Foytik, John Hill, Telly Leung, Logan Lipton, Michael Longoria, Moeisha McGill, Stefani Miller, Peter Reardon, Tom Richter and Monté Smock. The musical — based on the Lions Gate film by Jamie Babbit and Brian Wayne Peterson — features book and lyrics by Bill Augustin and music by Andrew Abrams. Amy Rogers will direct the reading, which features musical direction by Andrew Byrne.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Through Dec. 20 at Feinstein's at the Cinegrill in Los Angeles, CA
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Jan. 17, 2004 in Asheville, NC
Jan. 31 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 7 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
Feb. 13 with Jason Graae in Salt Lake City, UT
Feb. 14 with Jason Graae in Palm Springs, CA
Feb. 26-28 with Jason Graae in West Palm Beach, FL
Feb. 29 with Stephen Schwartz and Friends in Wilton, CT
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Christiane Noll in Concert
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little
Louise Pitre in Concert:
Jan. 31, 2004-Feb. 8 in Sweeney Todd with the Calgary Opera Company at the Jubilee Auditorium in Canada
Feb. 13 at the Capitol Theatre in Windsor, Ontario
Feb. 28 at the Sanderson Performing Arts Centre in Brantford, Ontario
Feb. 29 at the Silverthorn C.I. Auditorium in Toronto, Ontario
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!