There has never been any doubt about Idina Menzel's vocal prowess. From the moment she stepped on to the Broadway stage as Maureen in the late Jonathan Larson's Rent, it was clear that the young performer possessed a thrilling belt. She subsequently demonstrated her powerful tones in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Wild Party, the City Center Encores! mounting of Hair and the all star Funny Girl benefit concert for the Actors' Fund of America. However, with her starring role in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, Menzel has taken a great leap forward as an actress. She is currently offering her most nuanced performance to date, making us care greatly for the fate of her character, Elphaba, the not-so-Wicked Witch of the West. Menzel is funny, often touching and delivers a passionately sympathetic performance of a woman whose outward differences force her to confront the ignorance of those around her. I recently had the chance to chat with the soft-spoken Menzel, who will soon welcome husband Taye Diggs — another former Renter — to the cast of Wicked for a limited engagement. That brief conversation follows.
Question: How does it feel being back on Broadway?
Idina Menzel: It feels great. [Laughs.] It's a great role, and I'm proud to be in it.
Q: So, did you trip Norbert [Leo Butz] to get your husband into the show. [Laughs.]
IM: No! [Laughs.] I love Norbert. Norbert and I are the best of friends and really enjoy working together.
Q: Are you excited about your husband joining the show?
IM: I'm so excited about him joining, yeah. It'll be just great for the holidays, and we can spend time together, and I think he's perfect for the role. But I miss Norbert tremendously.
Q: How long does it take you to apply the green make-up, and how long does it take to get it off after the show?
IM: Putting it on — it's about 40 minutes. Getting it off is like ten minutes in the shower, scrubbing it off. If there's somebody I want to meet after the show, then I sit there and scrub my skin to death, get out of the shower and meet them looking presentable. [Laughs.]
Q: What is the make-up? Did the designers have to experiment with different types?
IM: No, actually, MAC makes all these colors. They had a make-up that was green [and] you just add water. It's like a water color. We use a Japanese brush, and it smoothes it on.
Q: Do you keep the color on between shows on matinee days?
IM: No — I take a ton of showers because I like the steam for my voice. There's a lot of smoke in the show, so I'm always steaming, which is probably good for the make-up because then my pores are cleaned all the time. But, no I can't eat [with the make-up on] — it's gross! [Also, the color] gets deeper as the show goes on, so to have it look the way it does at the beginning, I have to start over.
Q: Was this the first time you've gone out of town with a show? What was that experience like?
IM: Yeah. It was incredible and very important. I think that if you're doing a new musical, you want to have the opportunity to experiment and try things without the whole city of critics looking over your shoulder. And, the writers had that freedom to play, and they did. We tried different things, and we moved the order of scenes, and [they] wrote new lines and tried different costumes. It's a very important part of the process for a new musical.
Q: What was it like working with Joe Mantello as a director?
IM: I really owe it all to him. He challenged me to be better and really helped me discover who this woman was. When they are writing a new piece, they're not sure where they're coming from sometimes. The climate of who she is changes depending on a scene that's in or not, so you're constantly going, 'Okay, wait. Now, I'm actually funny sometimes!' He just helped me figure out every moment and be specific and helped me bring out the essence of who she is.
Q: Do you have a favorite song or moment in the show?
IM: I have several favorite moments; it depends on the day. I love singing the duet with Kristin at the end because I'm always in awe of how different our voices are, and yet, when we sing together in unison, how wonderfully they blend. That's an important statement for the characters and the people that we are in real life as well. I love singing the duet with Norbert because I get to be the ingenue. All the other roles I've had, I'm always the slutty supporting character [laughs], and now I get to sing the pretty love song, so I love doing that. I love flying and singing 'Defying Gravity,' which is my most favorite song in the show.
Q: What do you think the message of Wicked is?
IM: There are a lot of messages. The two main ones — the story of the friendship of these two women and how they, through striving for truth in themselves, they really give a wonderful gift to each other and change each other forever. I think that that's important. I think that the idea that when someone's different from us, we tend to be threatened by them, and that we have to strive to look deeper than the surface. I think that's the other most important message.
Q: Was theatre always your plan or were you originally more interested in a pop career?
IM: It vacillated. Growing up I studied classically and did lots of shows in school. And then I went to NYU for theatre, but I also did a lot of [singing at] weddings and bar mitzvahs. I was the front singer in a band in Long Island, and I had to learn so many different kinds of music for that, so I started listening to people other than theatre and classical, more like R&B and blues. That inspired me to want to write my own music and find my own style. I tried to find the balance of recording my own music and, also, always coming back to the theatre because I always find that I've been embraced here in a really wonderful way, and I love the communal aspect of it. I love working with a cast and a group of people every day, which is different than recording because you're usually pretty isolated and alone. They serve as a good balance for each other.
Q: And you have a new album coming out?
IM: I do. It's what they call an EP, which means it's only six songs. I did it this summer in between [Wicked's San Francisco run and Broadway]. I recorded some songs that people have always asked me to record from the shows I've done, my own shows. And then there are a couple new songs. It's all original material. . . It's going to be called "Here." It's really unplugged and very organic. It should be out by the holidays or the first of the year.
Q: A lot of your former Rent co-stars are back on stage this season. Do you still spend time with them?
IM: We do. Daphne [Rubin-Vega] is one of my closest friends. She came to my wedding, and I'm very happy for her because I hear that she's wonderful [in Anna in the Tropics]. I'm actually just trying to figure out what schedule changes we have so I can figure out what day I have free to go see her.
Q: Are you involved in any other theatre projects or workshops?
IM: Oh, I can't handle anything else but this right now! [Laughs.] I pretty much have no life outside of the theatre. I go home every night and I put the TV on and I veg out and order food. And, then I e-mail people, which has been good because I've gotten better with the computer! And then on Mondays I don't talk. It's kind of rough just keeping up on my relationships with friends outside of the show. But it's what you've gotta do, at least for a little longer until it's in your body.
(Wicked plays the Gershwin Theatre, 222 West 51st Street; call 212-307-4100 for tickets.)
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