"It Was My Salvation," Says Idina Menzel On If/Then and a Career-Defining Year

News   "It Was My Salvation," Says Idina Menzel On If/Then and a Career-Defining Year
 
Tony Award winner Idina Menzel opens up and reflects on one of the biggest years of her life.
Idina Menzel in <i>If/Then</i>
Idina Menzel in If/Then Joan Marcus

It used to be safe to say that 2004 was Idina Menzel's "year." She was starring in the biggest show on Broadway, playing the iconic Wicked Witch who defined a generation and took home Broadway's biggest honor at the Tony Awards — all prior to re-creating the role of Maureen in the 2005 film adaptation of Rent.

That was until this year. Following a somewhat bumpy 2013 — which ended with a split from husband and Rent co-star Taye Diggs — Menzel's 2014 skyrocketed. She was headlining a new Broadway musical, rising to mega stardom via the Oscar-winning film "Frozen," performing the anthemic "Let It Go" just about everywhere (including the Academy Awards, where she became known as alter ego Adele Dazeem), Tony-nominated (yet again), gracing Billboard magazine's cover and selling out one of New York City's biggest venues, Radio City.

The last we spoke was Jan. 28. She was in rehearsals for If/Then. "Art is literally imitating life for me," Menzel confessed. "Without going into my personal life too much, I'm definitely going through some major personal things and have to rethink all of the choices I've made and think about starting over..."

Idina Menzel in <i>If/Then</i>
Idina Menzel in If/Then Photo by Joan Marcus

"Starting Over" she has been — eight times a week, in fact, in Broadway's If/Then. "It was my salvation, really," she now says — almost a full year later — about If/Then, a musical that follows a woman restarting and reshaping her life. "It's my salvation." "Yes, it explores a lot of intense themes that are close to my heart," she added, "but to have the opportunity to be on the stage with the cast that I have and work through those things every day, it's been a total gift."

The gift of salvation comes just in time for the holidays — always a difficult time for the Tony winner, given that she grew up in a separated family. To celebrate (on top of all the other major successes of 2014), she released the album "Holiday Wishes."

Was a holiday album on her bucket list? "No, it wasn't actually," she said by phone on the way to a Friday evening performance of If/Then. "The holidays were — I guess will always be — a complicated time for me. Growing up in a divorced family, the holidays are complicated, but ever since I had my little boy [Walker Nathaniel Diggs], I sort have been rediscovering them, rewriting those memories and looking forward to the holidays."

Menzel at the Tony Awards
Menzel at the Tony Awards Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

This holiday season, according to Menzel, has been quite the ride.

Walking into the Halloween evening performance of If/Then, every member of the pit was dressed up as Elizabeth, the character who is "flirting with 40" and must explore two separate and opposing paths on a quest for fulfillment.

When asked about Halloween, she laughed (not just a chuckle, but one in which you can sense true happiness). "Ridiculous!" she exclaimed. "The band is known for dressing up — they have theme days or weeks. That happened to be the theme that day, and that was hysterical. Some really bad wigs going on there…"

For Thanksgiving, she invited the cast to her place for dinner. "We only had the day off," she explained. "Like I said, I'm really trying to rewrite my holidays and make new memories, so I wanted my son to be surrounded — he loves everyone in the theatre — by all of his friends in the cast. There's no one else I wanted to be with, and a bunch of us didn't have anywhere else to go."

From the outside looking in, the If/Then cast seems to be one of the most supportive on Broadway. They are constantly spotted together. After hours, they go to 54 Below to support their co-stars in their solo debuts, attend each other's events around Manhattan and spread the love on Twitter. But, Menzel insisted, "The theatre community is like that, I think, in general. It's just the kind of creatures that we are. We get close really fast, and we bond, but this is an extraordinary cast. I don't know if it's because a lot of us are really close in age… I don't know. We went out of town together; we went to D.C., and when you go out of town, you get real close because you don't have your daily life to take you away from each other when you leave rehearsal and you leave the theatre. It's just a special, special group of people that, honestly, I could not have gotten through this year without."

Although this year can be viewed as one of her best, Menzel was constantly in the limelight — and the limelight comes with a lot of pressure. Her breakup from Diggs was public, her Broadway show received mixed reviews, her name was butchered on the Oscars by John Travolta and every high note she hit was scrutinized in message boards across the interwebs.

"How do you do it?" I asked. "How do you shrug it off? How do you easily admit your flaws? How do you remain human?"

She responded: "It's harder and harder to make yourself vulnerable [with] the more people watching you, right? It's also the only way that you're going to maintain a relationship with your audience and that they're going to find you to be an authentic, true person. It's really the only way that I know how to be. I wish I was better at putting up a façade, but I can't. And, I have learned to embrace my mistakes, whether it be in performance or just in life. I've learned that they usually, if I can breathe for a second and not freak out, [offer] some kind of learning moment. There's an opportunity to make something funny, to introduce myself in a different way to an audience or to just have a personal understanding about something. It can be a scary place to be, but it's really the only way that I know how to do it. If I really want to be honest, there's the f*cked up part of you that likes to just spill out all my shortcomings before you can discover them!"

She laughed.

"If I can admit them early on, then everybody else won't find them. I have more control over it. I guess if I'm really honest, there's that side to it, too. Rather I do it than you do it."

As for "Let It Go," she said, "I'm very happy for it to be my little friend that follows me everywhere. I thought I had a song like that in 'Defying Gravity,' and to this day I will always be grateful for that song as well and a couple of the songs from Rent, but to have such a huge crossover song not just for theatre audiences, it's something I've really wanted for a long time. I will always embrace it and love it and enjoy singing it, even if it's too f*cking high if I put it in the wrong key! As long as I can be healthy and sing it, I like to sing it."

Up next, Menzel hits the road. She's off on a global concert tour in the New Year. "Walker is going to come on the bus — we've already discussed," she confided. "He's come already as a little guy, but I think he'll appreciate it more… He's all ready to decorate the whole [tour bus] with dinosaurs and stars that glow in the dark and put them on the top of the bunks — all that kind of stuff. It's fun. It's a nice way for him to see that there's a much bigger world out there."

And, as for a tour of If/Then, "I'm not sure," she said. "We'll have to see. I want the best for If/Then. It's my baby. I'll always want to be a part of it, so if I can work it out, I will try."

Although her life is chock full of memoir-worthy moments, she said that no book is in store — although her sister, an "amazing writer," she said, has "some ideas," but "that's for another interview."

Now, she's just trying to live in the moment.

"I've been around long enough to know that these moments don't come all the time," she said. "I want to live in it and be present."

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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