DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Winner Idina Menzel Plus "The Biggest Star on Broadway"

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Winner Idina Menzel Plus "The Biggest Star on Broadway" News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Idina Menzel (from top) in See What I Wanna See, the
Idina Menzel (from top) in See What I Wanna See, the "Rent" film, Wicked and with her Tony Photo by (top to bottom) Michal Daniel, Phil Bray for Columbia Pictures, Joan Marcus and Aubrey Reuben

IDINA MENZEL

Ever since she burst forth on the stage of the Nederlander Theatre in the original cast of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent, Idina Menzel has been a force to be reckoned with in the musical theatre. The New York native possesses one of the most unique voices of her generation, a pliable alto that can be sweet and girlish in its middle register and then easily soar to pop-influenced top notes way above high C.

Menzel followed her dazzling turn as Rent's energetic performance artist Maureen Johnson with roles in The Wild Party, Aida and the City Center Encores! production of Hair, but it was her work as the green-faced Elphaba in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked that catapulted the singing actress into a whole new level of fame. Not only did she nab the Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award for her touching performance — and her vocal wizardry in such numbers as "Defying Gravity" and "The Wizard and I" — but Menzel won a new legion of fans, young girls across the country who saw themselves in Menzel's portrayal of the misunderstood, not-so-wicked witch.

Now, the actress may be on the brink of even greater stardom. The eagerly awaited "Rent" film — which features Menzel, husband Taye Diggs and many other members of the original Broadway company — arrives in movie theatres across the country this holiday weekend, and Menzel will also soon be seen in the film "Ask the Dust," opposite Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell. The much-in-demand star also recently signed a new recording contract, and she can currently be seen in the new Michael John LaChiusa musical See What I Wanna See at Off-Broadway's Public Theater, where she plays three extremely different women. I recently had the chance to chat very briefly with the award-winning Menzel; that interview follows.

Question: How did your casting for See What I Wanna See come about?
Idina Menzel: I heard that the role was available, and I've always wanted to work with [composer-lyricist] Michael John LaChiusa and work at the Public, so I really went after it and tried to find out what they were looking for and even if they'd consider me.

Q: Do feel like there's less pressure performing Off-Broadway than on Broadway?
Menzel: Yes, there's less pressure, which allows for more creative process. The rehearsal process was just more laid back. The creative process for See What I Wanna See was just wonderful. I fell in love with [director] Ted Sperling and Jonathan Butterell [credited with musical staging]. And, Michael John made everything feel so safe, and we felt like we had plenty of time to really try things and take risks. You don't have eight producers sitting in the rehearsal, taking notes, giving you constructive criticism on the side. You can really just be amongst yourselves and learn about what you're doing.

Q: Looking back at Wicked — I was wondering how or if you felt it changed your life.
Menzel: Of course it changed my life. It changed me artistically. I feel like I've become a better performer having worked with [director] Joe Mantello. I feel like I've been given this incredible gift to have all these young people that write me letters and tell me how affected they've been by the show and how they see themselves up onstage and how they can appreciate their own individuality and what makes them unique. It's been a huge responsibility for me, but something I'll never regret or trade in for anything.

Q: Your last weekend in Wicked was very dramatic to say the least. Are you all healed?
Menzel: Yeah, I'm totally healed. It healed just in time to learn the tango for the "Rent" movie. [Laughs.]

Q: Do you feel like you were able to have closure, coming back in the final moments of what was supposed to be your last performance in Wicked?
Menzel: That was a little drug-induced. [Laughs.] But I'm so glad [it happened] — the producers had said to me, "If you can at all get in the car and come to the show, we really would like you to have some kind of closure." And it really did help I think. I would have loved to have sung the songs for the last time on that stage, but Joe [Mantello] made a beautiful speech, and the support that I had from the audience made it all seem worth it. And, not what I expected, but equally as special.

Q: Do you think you would ever want to go back into Wicked?
Menzel: I don't know. Right now I can't fathom putting the green make-up on again and doing that. [Laughs.] But that's now, you have to take time away from things in order to get perspective.

Q: Has there been any talk about a Wicked film?
Menzel: I think there's always talk about it. I don't necessarily think it's very valid [at this point]. I'm sure they're going to make a film one day, but right now they don't really need to make a movie. They're doing pretty well over at the Gershwin, so they'll probably wait until some buzz dies off and come back with a movie.

Q: Getting to the movie that you are in. It must be an exciting time with the film opening so soon. Had you been approached other times over the years about a film of Rent?
Menzel: I've always heard talk about it, but it's never really been a reality for me because it's always been told to us that it would be big movie stars that were going to be cast. So, I kind of gave up on the idea of that. Even when [director] Chris Columbus was asking for a meeting, I sort of said, "He doesn't need to do me a favor and waste both of our time if it's just a pity meeting." [Laughs.] . . . And, then, it turns out he really was serious about it, and we're all just so grateful to him because it was the most incredible experience, and I think that hopefully he gained something by having [most of the original Broadway cast] there and whatever chemistry and bond that we all share really comes through the screen.

Q: Have you seen the finished version? What was it like watching the film?
Menzel: I have. It was actually a relief. We all felt a real responsibility about it being done in the right way, and being represented properly and Chris Columbus being faithful to Jonathan [Larson]'s vision. That was very important to all of us. We had this wonderful time shooting it, but you never quite know what's going to happen months later. I don't arrive into the movie for like the first half hour, so I could just totally get immersed in it, and I was so taken with my own castmates and their beautiful performances. I think that Chris really captured something special about each of us, and I think it's completely faithful to the show, and anybody that loves the show will feel good about it, and people that haven't seen it will totally fall in love with it. You sit in the seats, and the music comes blaring out at you, and it's like an event. It envelops you, and you go on this ride into these people's lives, and I think people just want to get to know them more.

Q: What do you think is the main message of "Rent"?
Menzel: I think there are several messages. Mostly, obviously, to live each day to its fullest and not take life for granted. It's about acceptance and tolerance and loving whoever you want to love: black, white, straight, gay — it doesn't matter.

Q: I know the soundtrack was recorded prior to filming. Was it difficult lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks? How did that process work?
Menzel: You prerecord, but there's a lot of creativity that goes into that. Most actors in films are not part of the editing process, but when you do a musical on film and you're putting down the vocals, the director's in the studio with you and you're deciding, "Should this be sung more vulnerably or should this have a different choice?" You're actually part of the editing process, which is very exciting because [the director is] committing these performances at that point, performances that you're going to be lip synching to later. And, you're never really lip-synching. You're always singing along because in order to get a really good lip-synch, you have to sing exactly the way you did. And, you also want, especially since it's an edgy rock musical, you want to see spit flying and veins popping. You don't want to feel like we just went through it and didn't give it our all. So we did it all 50 times. You could lose your voice just by doing it this way — singing with loud, loud music on the set all day long.

Q: You also recently signed a new record deal.
Menzel: Yes, with Warner Bros.

Q: Will that be original music?
Menzel: Some original and some just really great songs that I'm collecting. As soon as I'm done with [See What I Wanna See], I'll start to put my mind into that whole project. Now I'm just focusing on the play. . . It's hard to put a timetable on making an album. It can happen really fast or it can take awhile to figure out what the album's supposed to be. I hope it can be out by fall of next year.

Q: There was also talk of you possibly auditioning — or maybe you have already — for the Evita revival.
Menzel: No, I didn't. I just wasn't ready to commit to living in London for six months at this point, away from my husband. I let it go, and I think they're moving on. [Laughs.]

Q: Getting back to "Rent," what was it like working again with so much of the cast that you had worked with almost a decade ago?
Menzel: It was wonderful. It was sort of like old times. It was very nostalgic. We all kind of have this way with one another where we just fall right back into these dynamics that we always had. Taye's the funny one, Idina's the flaky one [laughs], Jesse's always singing about something. We're a family, so it's very natural, and it was very easy and felt very comfortable. It's different when you walk on a film set and you don't know anyone. Not only building your character, but you have to feel safe enough to try new things. But in this case I had my buddies there, so we were all in it together. It was really rewarding.

Q: Last question. What will you be doing for the Thanksgiving holiday, and what are you thankful for this year?
Menzel: I will be spending the holiday with my father up in the Poconos. I'm thankful for so much. I'm thankful to be able to get paid to do what I really want to do, what I've always wanted to do in my life. And, I'm thankful to be a part of some really challenging, thought-provoking projects. And to be married to a really wonderful guy!

[Idina Menzel can currently be seen live in See What I Wanna See at the Public Theater or on movie screens across the country in "Rent."]

ETHEL MERMAN: THE BIGGEST STAR ON BROADWAY
A few weeks ago I received an advance copy of the new Ethel Merman biography, "Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway." I had a great time reading Geoffrey Mark's tome for Barricade Legend Books; in fact, I devoured the text in two days. The 312-page book, which features a foreword by Merman's longtime friend Rosie Marie, details the many successes and failures — in and out of show business — of the late Merman, who the biographer asserts was Broadway's biggest star, having appeared in 15 hit musicals during her lifetime. The book is a fun, easy and sometimes moving read, chronicling Merman's many ill-fated personal relationships, including her notoriously short marriage to Ernest Borgnine, as well as her lifelong devotion to her parents. It paints a complex portrait of an extremely talented and dedicated woman who longed for the bliss of true love and a movie career to rival her Broadway successes, but was, unfortunately, never able to truly achieve either.

"Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway" is divided into two parts. The first section is a 25-chapter account of Merman's life story — from her birth on Jan. 16, 1906, in Astoria, Queens, through her death, from brain cancer, on Feb. 15, 1984. Diehard Merman fans will especially enjoy the book's second half, which features in-depth accounts of Merman's radio and TV appearances as well as separate sections about her work on film, record and, of course, the Broadway stage. What follows are a few choice quotes from Geoffrey Mark's book, which will hit stores Nov. 29.

about Merman's Broadway debut in Girl Crazy:
"Ethel did not just sing loudly — the word 'belt' (too often applied to her) really didn't apply. Ethel Merman sang incisively, hitting her notes like a gong. The sound then reverberated all through the theater. Her voice and style were perfectly matched to the acoustics of nonmicrophoned Broadway theaters . . . It wasn't just Ethel's holding of that one note [in 'I Got Rhythm'] that made the number so extremely successful. It was her style and energy. While singing the words, Ethel was everywhere, moving about the stage, shaking her fingers, clenching her fists, rolling her eyes. As she started to hold the note, she opened her sparkling eyes as wide as they would go, and with both index fingers, she alternately pointed into the air to the rhythm of the orchestra. At the same time, she moved her eyes back and forth, looking at each pointed finger as if she was as surprised as the audience as to what was going on. The presentation was unique, electric, and stunning. The audience was spellbound!"

about Merman's decision to return to the stage in Annie Get Your Gun:
"On August 11, 1945, little Bobby was born by Cesarean section. Perhaps due to her age, Ethel was very uncomfortable after his birth. She experienced racking gas pains and postpartum depression. Her entire being had been focused on making sure that Bobby was born and healthy. Now that he was, it was almost as if she needed something to do. She didn't allow herself the chance to enjoy the afterglow of birth and having a new life to care for. So when Dorothy Fields called Ethel two days later with an idea for a new show, it was the tonic that Merman's depression needed. . . . Anyone could be a housewife, but only she could be Merman. This was the crucible for Ethel. Despite her love for her husband and children, regardless of the bliss she had enjoyed during her two pregnancies, Merman made a choice for show business. She had tasted the fruit of marriage and motherhood, had in fact longed for it, but found it not as sweet as that of her career. The die was cast. It was a new Ethel Merman."

about one of Merman's many "Tonight Show" appearances on July 26, 1979:
"It is here that Ethel tries to sing one of her disco cuts live with a band. She does 'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' and the effect is strange. She is trying so hard to sell the song and the arrangement, but it does not come off right. This was Merman's final appearance with Johnny Carson. He made a comment about her almost taking off on the last note, and she took this as a knock. At the commercial, they had words, and she was never invited back."

[Author Geoffrey Mark also penned "First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald for the Record" and "The Lucy Book." "Ethel Merman: The Biggest Star on Broadway has a retail price of $24.95.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Luba Mason, who currently stars as Velma Kelly in the Broadway production of Chicago, will offer a concert to benefit Elmwood's Renovation Fund Nov. 30. The 8 PM concert will be held at the Rockland Community College Theatre and will also feature Dick Voigt's Big Apple Jazz Band. Mason is expected to perform tunes from her acclaimed solo recording, "Collage." The Rockland Community College Theatre is located at 145 College Road in Suffern, NY. Tickets for the concert, priced at $25, are available by calling (845) 353-1313. For more information visit www.lubamason.com.

Elaine Paige's upcoming concert at the Birmingham Symphony Hall will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2. As previously announced, Paige will be joined by former Sunset Boulevard co-star John Barrowman as well as Danny Seward for the Dec. 19 concert, which is titled Elaine Paige Sings the Musicals at Christmas. The evening will also feature the BBC Concert Orchestra. BBC Radio 2 will broadcast the concert on Dec. 23 at 7:30 PM as part of its "Friday Night Is Music Night" series. Visit www.bbc.co.uk/radio2 for more information. Tickets for Paige's concert are priced £22.50-£32.50. Call 0121 780 3333 for more information or visit www.symphonyhall.co.uk/boxoffice.

During her solo cabaret debut next month at Feinstein's at the Regency, Rebecca Luker will pay tribute to host of women songwriters, both past and present. Luker, who will play the posh club Dec. 12-15, will perform songs by Betty Comden, Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh, Kay Swift and Lucy Simon as well as works by some of today's best young female songwriters. Concertgoers can expect to hear such tunes as "Lucky to Be Me," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Killing Time," "Can't We Be Friends" and "How Could I Know." Show time is 8:30 PM. Luker's evenings will feature musical director Joseph Thalken on piano with Dick Sarpola on bass. Mark Waldrop is the director of the singing actress' new show. Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. There is a $60 cover and a $40 minimum for all shows. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit www.feinsteinsattheregency.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Ethel Merman (center) in the original cast of <i>Anything Goes</i>
Ethel Merman (center) in the original cast of Anything Goes Photo by from the collection of Louis Botto