>This time last year, Idina Menzel recalls, "I was at the Bitter End, showcasing with my rock band, trying to get just one person from a record label to come down and see us." Today, Menzel spends her free time writing songs for the solo album she'll soon record for Hollywood Records. What happened? Rent. In the year's most honored musical, Menzel earned a Tony nomination for her sexy, strong-voiced portrayal of Maureen, an East Village performance artist. "My soul is represented in this character," says Menzel, who worked closely with the late composer Jonathan Larson to shape her role. "The night before the first rehearsal, he invited the whole cast to dinner at his apartment. He was full of emotion because his play was going to go forward with a great director [Michael Greif]. It was so exciting and then so devastating." Larson died suddenly before the show's first preview. "Our success has been bittersweet, but Jonathan would be thrilled that his music is reaching so many people."
Menzel began singing as a teen-ager on Long Island, "driving around and working at weddings and bar mitzvahs. I had to develop a large repertoire, so I listened to Motown, top-40, jazz all kinds of music. I trained classically, but when I heard Aretha Franklin and Etta James, I said, 'That's where my soul is.'"
After Rent, Menzel looks forward to creating her own "funky, soulful pop record." And this time next year, she says, "My dream is to be on a bus with a band, opening for someone like Lenny Kravitz at Radio City. I want to focus on my music."
-- By Kathy Henderson