DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner Idina Menzel

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Idina Menzel
Idina Menzel

IDINA MENZEL
Idina Menzel burst onto the Broadway scene as a powerful rock balladeer in the original cast of the late Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent and later proved herself a Tony-winning actress as the green-faced, misunderstood, not-so-wicked witch Elphaba in the international hit Wicked, which continues to play to sold-out audiences at the Gershwin Theatre. These days, the gifted artist plays many roles, including wife to fellow actor Taye Diggs, mom to their 16-month-old baby Walker, television actress (she appeared in several episodes of the phenomenon that is Fox's "Glee" as the mother of Spring Awakening's Lea Michele) and concert artist. In fact, the award-winning performer, who was seen belting out "Defying Gravity" and "What I Did for Love" for President Obama in the most recent "In Performance at the White House" television special, will make her New York Philharmonic debut Feb. 5 at 8 PM at Avery Fisher Hall. The concert, a benefit for the Philharmonic, will be conducted by multi-award-winning conductor/composer Marvin Hamlisch. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with the down-to-earth singing actress, who spoke about her many upcoming projects, including the launch of a summer camp for young girls in underserved communities; that interview follows.

Question: I thought you were great on the Broadway at the White House special.
Menzel: Oh, I appreciate that. Thank you! I was just scared to death. [Laughs.]

Question: What was it like walking out and seeing the President and his family sitting right there?
Menzel: It was surreal. I mean, they're so close, you know? It's a small room. And during dress rehearsal, [director] George Wolfe told me to make eye contact, or somebody else said, "Don't not make eye contact. It's rude." But usually, in order to focus, you'd want to look past them, because you're just trying to focus and not think, "Oh, my God. I'm singing for the President." So it was a lot about that, when to look at him, or when to look at her and the kids, when to take in the rest of the room, and I didn't want to forget my lyrics. It was terrifying, but it was something I feel really proud for being a part of.

Menzel sings at the White House
photo by Lawrence Jackson

Question: It was also nice to hear "What I Did for Love" because no one's done that in years. It seemed to go through a period where no one would do it.
Menzel: Yeah, it was taboo, right? Well, Marvin Hamlisch and I – he's conducting my show at the New York Philharmonic, and we've become friendly. We've done a bunch of concerts in the past year, and we've really hit it off and really love each other a lot, so that was a nice confluence of events. At that time, I had just started working with him. I forget – I think I had a show down there at Wolf Trap … in DC, and then we also had to sing for [President] Obama, so we had a nice rehearsal for the White House together, and now whenever I'm on stage with him, I always try to do that song with him.

Question: Do you do any other of Hamlisch's songs or just that one?
Menzel: I will! I can do them all! [Laughs.] The more we start to work together, the more we'll put some in. The program's long enough, and I think what happens is, we do an encore and we bring that song and there's all these union rules and you can only be on stage for no more than 90 minutes or something, so we haven't done the "Marvin and Idina" repertoire yet. I certainly would love to do "The Way We Were" [laughs], and I do have a little bit about it [in my show], how it affected my life, that song, as a kid. Question: How did it affect you?
Menzel: It was one of the first songs I ever sang in a talent show, and Barbra Streisand was and is a huge inspiration to me, so I talk about what that song meant to me and do a little rendition of it, sounding like an eight-year-old girl from Long Island. We have a little fun with that, and [Marvin] gives me a hard time onstage about it. [Laughs.] So we have a good rapport with each other, and he's really funny. He's got the most incredible stories.

Question: Just going back a bit to talking about Streisand, you also sang for her at the Kennedy Center Honors two years ago. What was that experience like?
Menzel: [Laughs.] Well, up until the President, that was the most terrifying gig I had done, and those two, they're pretty close. The President and Barbra Streisand are pretty equal. [Laughs.] But probably Barbra Streisand was even [more difficult to sing for] because you know the President's just putting love out there. He didn't write or sing the song. Barbra Streisand – she sang "Don't Rain on My Parade," so it's a whole other level of absurdity for the evening. [Laughs.] But it was fun! It was terrific. It's a great show to be a part of, and I met her afterwards. I actually recount a lot of that story for the audience in my concert, so I won't tell you too much, but it was a big evening for me, and right next to my Tony, I have a handwritten thank-you note from Barbra Streisand from the evening. [Laughs.]

Question: Have you performed with the New York Philharmonic before or will this be the first time?
Menzel: No, this is my debut!

Question: What else can people expect to hear?
Menzel: Songs from the shows that I've been in, other Broadway stuff. They'll hear an original or two of mine that I've had orchestrated for the New York Phil. Some standards – it's pretty eclectic.

Question: What's it like for you, as a songwriter, to hear your work orchestrated for a symphony?
Menzel: It's thrilling. It really is. I kind of get sick of my own things pretty quickly, and so any time I can rediscover something, it's fun for me as a musician. I have this wonderful music director. We have done most of the arrangements that we will do on the 5th, and he did something really beautiful with one of my songs from an album, "Gorgeous." The whole thing is thrilling. To stand in front of an orchestra and sing has been really exhilarating and liberating for me. I thought that I would feel like my hands were tied behind my back a little bit because I had come from singing with a rock band and the looseness of that, but there is an intimacy that I am able to maintain, somehow, in these beautiful halls. And, in addition to standing in front of this grand, magnificent orchestra, the dichotomy of that is something that I'm excited about and I've been having a lot of fun with, that I can have that big beautiful sound and then also talk to the audience real personally. … So, yeah, that's why it's just been really fun because I thought that I would end up compromising the nuances and the ease that I normally have with talking with an audience. I thought that the bigger the hall got and everything that I'd lose that, but somehow, it encapsulates the theatricality and the drama of what people, I guess, are expecting, having seen my shows, the musicals I've been in. And yet, I'm able to keep it down-to-earth, and I feel like they leave the show having learned something about me that maybe they didn't know before. That's actually really important to me that I connected with them.

Question: Do you ever have any "pinch-me" moments, having started singing for weddings and now performing in front of a huge orchestra?
Menzel: All the time. Yeah, it's endless. I'm constantly feeling that way. Any time I'm in New York City and I walk by an old club that I used to play at, where I had to invite 20 of my friends just so the place would let me come back. I'd pray that my dad would come so that in case I couldn't pay the drummer, he could hand me a 20 or something. [Laughs.] Yeah, I have those moments all the time, and I think they're really important to take in and keep grounded. I feel like my career has had a lot of ups and downs and gone through ebbs and flows. I'm at an age where things are happening in a nice way, but I can really appreciate them. I think it's the people that it happens to really young that … have a hard time. My first big show was Rent, which happened when I was 25, but because it was Rent, and it came along with this entire experience of losing our composer, we grew up fast. There was no room for egos and losing perspective. We had to get onstage every night and communicate Jonathan [Larson's] music. That was the priority, and so I guess that set a standard and a foundation for the way that I tried to approach the rest of my career.

Menzel and husband Taye Diggs
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Question: I was wondering how you feel motherhood has affected you as a person and a performer.
Menzel: It's funny that you asked me that, after what we were just talking about, because I think that motherhood also is a gift for helping you stay in the moment, just like you said. All of these wonderful things, being able to appreciate being on stage in front of an orchestra – having those moments that you can stand outside of yourself and say, "Wow, this is incredible." I think that being a mom, there's no time to let my neuroses get involved and to over-think things and to over-prepare. I mean, I only have so many hours in the day, and if [my son Walker] doesn't sleep through the night, I only have so much sleep! I want to spend as much time with him as I can, and the time that I don't and have to get work done is very specific. So you're really in the moment, and I just feel so much better about things. I don't know how else to explain it. For someone like myself, who often is looking over my own shoulder and judging what I was doing all the time, this has really liberated me – not to mention how this kind of love makes you feel, that you're able to experience this kind of love that you can't explain unless you have children. It's just so powerful, and now he's getting to an age where we're just laughing, and he's got a great sense of humor and we're just being silly, and just [appreciating] the utter joy that he brings to our lives. But as far as how it affects my career, it's just made me chill out in a way, you know? And if anything, I'm more productive and I've been more inspired than I've ever been because when I do have free time, I use it really practically.

Question: I read about a TV series that's being developed for you. I don't know if that's something you can talk about yet.
Menzel: Yeah, honestly, any day now, we'll find out if it's something I can tell you more about it, or if it's done and then it's dead in the water. [Laughs.] But yeah, I've been developing this show for ABC, loosely based on my wedding-singer days, and it's [at the development point] where we're in a holding pattern. … I don't want to jinx it. [Laughs.]

Menzel and Lea Michele on "Glee"
photo by Adam Rose/FOX

Question: Has there been any talk of you returning to "Glee?"
Menzel: Yeah, there's always talk, and I guess we'll see what happens. I'd love to go back. They kind of call you last minute. They kind of keep their storylines close to their vest.

Question: What's it like filming that series? It seems like they pack so much into one week's show. Is the rehearsal time crazy?
Menzel: Not as much for me as it would be for the kids, but even my experience, of course, was busy, and I'm not in every scene like the other guys are. But it was just great to be on set, and to be a New Yorker, to be a theatre person, and to be in a show surrounded by those kind of people and that kind of mentality, it felt comfortable. It felt like I belonged, and that's a good feeling when you're in L.A., because a lot of times, you feel like a fish out of water here.

Question: What are your thoughts about the "Wicked" miniseries?
Menzel: I know, I just heard about that! I'm a huge fan of Salma Hayek's anyway. I think she's brilliant. I know her personally, and she's a cool lady, so I'm sure it's in really good hands. And I'm a huge fan of the book, the novel "Wicked," separate from the musical, so to me, it sounds like a beautiful thing.

Question: Has there been any more talk about the "Wicked" film?
Menzel: I think there's always talk, but I don't know. I'm lucky enough [that] I was in the "Rent" movie ten years after the fact [laughs], so I count my blessings.

Question: After the London concerts of Chess, was there any discussion of bringing that here?
Menzel: A little bit, yeah, but that show has been through a lot of incarnations and needs book work, and if it's just a concert version, what does that mean? I don't know where they're at with that right now, but I had a great time with Josh [Groban] and with Adam Pascal. That was just fun, and London is a favorite city. I couldn't have asked for a better experience working with them, so who knows what'll happen, but I haven't been in touch with that project lately.

Menzel in Chess
photo by Tristram Kenton

Question: Are there any possible theatre projects on your horizon?
Menzel: Yes. ... They're original things, and those, as you know, can take years, and that's the stuff that I love to be a part of anyway, and so while I'm in Los Angeles and I have the baby and my husband's on a TV show out here, it's okay to be workshopping these things and be nurturing them in their early stages because I can't move to New York, really, right now anyway. It's a couple original pieces that I'm a part of developing, but nothing that I can really talk about yet.

Question: Any chance of another CD?
Menzel: Yes. It's a matter of time because I would also like to document the concerts that I've been doing and maybe get PBS to do a special or something like that. So, would it be a live CD or would I go in and do a studio one? That's what I'm just trying to figure out, and we'll see. The other thing that I'm really proud of that I'm doing right now is, I've started a foundation that we call A Broader Way, my husband and I. Its first initiative is a camp for the arts up in the Berkshires for fifth grade girls from underserved communities. Jeanine Tesori [and I] – our goal is to write an original piece that's sort of co-written and inspired by the girls, and after ten days, bring it into New York [and to a] Broadway stage and perform it. I grew up going to summer camp, so it was always a dream of mine to do something like this.

Question: Will it start this summer?
Menzel: Yeah, it's in the calendar. We've rented the property, which is up in the Berkshires, and I'll be in towards the end of August, and we're doing our fundraising and the whole thing, and it's really exciting. I've been talking about it for years, and then one of my good friends from college finally galvanized the project for me. [Laughs.] … And so, I'm excited, and I have to get a bunch of our theatre friends to come up and hopefully donate some of their time, and we'll see what happens. … We're just trying to get our website set up so that then, if people want to make donations or whatever, they can do that, but right now, we don't have a place for it. We're almost there. We almost have all of our print [ads] and all of our brochures and the whole thing done. … We're starting small, and we're starting with just girls, 30 of them. And then, each year, it will expand exponentially because I want the girls to come back and I want to keep tabs on them for years to come and start scholarship projects and stuff like that for them to have college. So maybe the next year, we'll add boys, and then those girls will come back a second year, something like that. But [for the] first [year], we didn't want to bite off more than we could chew.

Tickets for Idina Menzel's New York Philharmonic concert may be purchased online at nyphil.org or by calling (212) 875-5656. Tickets may also be purchased at the Avery Fisher Hall Box Office or the Alice Tully Hall Box Office at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 65th Street.

Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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