I can still remember the first time I heard Idina Menzel sing. Rent was all the rage and, living thousands of miles from Broadway, I rushed to buy the cast recording the morning it was released. I was immediately taken with Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking fusion of post-Sondheim conversational lyrics with post-The Who pop-rock sounds. Unlike most musicals I loved, Rent was a man's world, focusing mostly on Roger and Mark with, for the first hour or so, only Mimi popping up here and there, a lone female voice in between all the guys (Angel's fierce femininity notwithstanding).
Then, all of a sudden, making a diva's late entrance as Maureen (after an elaborate heralding in the "Tango Maureen"), Idina Menzel sang the satirical performance art pastiche "Over The Moon." I was already 20 and I wasn't dumb, but I don't even think I got the joke, because I was so entranced by Menzel's striking debut. Before I even saw her photo, I could picture her. Her voice conveyed the smart, sexy brunette Gen X goddess in every 80s movie I ever fell in love with. This was like the musical theatre version of Jami Gertz. I kept catching myself belting out "jump o-VER the moon" trying to emulate Menzel's bright, powerful tone. But then the song was something of a throw-away, and her only other number was the "Take Me Or Leave Me" duet with Joanne. I loved her, but I took her for granted.
Menzel's next major musical role was in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party at Manhattan Theatre Club. Quite the opposite of sausage fest Rent, The Wild Party was awash in glorious girl power — so much so that it was hard to see as an Idina Menzel vehicle. Wicked — while far higher in MPM (Menzel per moment) than Rent — is such a mega blockbuster that it was hard to feel any proprietary sense of diva worship. Idina Menzel in Wicked belongs to everyone. It wasn't until I saw the 2005 movie "Rent" that I realized what had been right in front of me for almost a decade: Idina Menzel is the great pop belting musical theatre leading lady of our time, the rightful heir to the throne previously occupied by Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone. In the "Rent" movie, Menzel oozes sass and class, bearing the assured confidence of a woman who recently won a Tony starring in the biggest Broadway hit of a generation. Her authority is undeniable. Luckily, the fun of being a fan of someone as successful as Idina Menzel is enjoying her tremdendous output of recordings.
Click through to read my selections for the essential Idina Menzel on disc.
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