This year's Tony to-do was a great night for actresses of color. In the winners' circle Phylicia Rashad became the first African-American to win the Tony for Leading Actress in a Play, and Audra McDonald became the first to win a fourth Tony for Featured Actress (a.k.a. "The Audra McDonald Category") — both for A Raisin in the Sun. Earlier in the evening, Anika Noni Rose was named Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Caroline, or Change — and every prognosticator in town predicted that Tonya Pinkins, who played her hardworking mother in that show, would easily follow suit as Best Actress. But, instead, the name that popped out of the envelope was Idina Menzel, the distinctly green head witch of Wicked.
Menzel already had her Happy Loser face in place. "Right before, when they named the nominees," she recalls, "my husband [actor Taye Diggs] leaned over and said, 'Honey, you know the smile you have on your face right now? If you lose, it's a really good smile. Keep it.'" So she froze it and braced for the worst. The best wasn't in her repertoire.
"I only remember what I said because I have since watched it. At the time I didn't remember anything at all. My agent had e-mailed me to have something in my head. 'Please don't be your usual self-deprecating self and not prepare anything. Don't assume you'll lose.' When I watched it, the best thing was my husband's reaction. It's always the best if you experience something through someone who loves you."
Diggs has been her good-luck-charm leading man in all her award-courting endeavors — in her 1996 Tony-nominated Broadway debut as Maureen in Rent and in her 2000 Drama Desk Award-nominated Off-Broadway debut as Kate in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. (He even filled in for a sidelined Norbert Leo Butz as Wicked's limber-limbed scarecrow.) "He has been through a couple of years of this show with me. They'd do a reading, then they'd go away and write some, and they'd do another reading. You keep hoping you'll still be right for what they're working on or they won't replace you with a big name. Then you get to New York, and you start worrying about your health and your voice and eight shows a week. My husband has seen all my neuroses going through that."
In a very real sense, the Tony to Menzel can be interpreted as her reclaiming a story that is, after all, hers. With songs by Stephen Schwartz and a book by Winnie Holzman from Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked purports to turn "The Wizard of Oz" on its head, shaking sympathy for the devil and viewing good characters with unbecoming warts. First and last, it's the backstory of The Wicked Witch of the West — how sorcery-school hazing and other lifelong persecutions (because of her pea-soup pigmentation) turned the benign Elphaba into the cranky, maniacally cackling Margaret Hamilton we know from movies.
It didn't help that her opposite number, Glinda, gooed with a cloying goodness and was played with twinkly tartness by Kristin Chenoweth. The imbalance of power was apparent when the show lifted off in San Francisco. "You don't really see this till you get in front of an audience," Menzel noted. "We took the summer off, and they did a lot of rewriting. Originally, Elphaba was much more of an observer. Everything happened around her. She was onstage a lot, but she didn't have an opinion about things. We couldn't see her point of view. The revised version gave her more intelligence and more of a sense of humor."
Menzel's favorite moment in the show is the vocally soaring "Defying Gravity," which rings down the first-act curtain with lights flashing and smoke billowing in a spectacular mix of stagecraft and witchcraft. "I love it if I'm feeling well. If I don't, it's pretty hard."
Well or unwell, Menzel has an excellent attendance record. "I take pride in that because I work very hard with my voice teacher. We break the music down and look at all the areas that might cause me problems if I've a cold. And I learn alternate melodies, just in case."
"Defying Gravity" is a yardstick for her in other ways, as well. "I had this real epiphany recently when I did a show-and-tell with these little kids up at Sacred Heart. They performed for me, and one little girl about ten did her own arrangement of 'Defying Gravity' with a piano player. I started crying on the second note. Afterward, we had a Q&A, and one kid asked, 'How do you do eight shows a week? What can get you through this week?' I said, 'This little girl who just sang for me will get me through this week.'"
The upside to winning a Tony (if more up is required): a raise for work well done. Her contract calls for her to cavort for the remainder of '04 with a new wizard (George Hearn), a new beau (Joey McIntyre) and a new Glinda (Jennifer Laura Thompson).
The downside? It has cost her her favorite color. "It used to be emerald green, but I think I'm kinda sick of it now. When I see something in a store that I really like and it's green, I don't buy it because I'm tired of people saying, 'Are you wearing that because you're playing the green girl?' 'No, I just like green.'" Now, the poor girl is trying to think pink!