When it comes to the résumé of a Broadway star, it's hard to beat Idina Menzel. Along with a Tony Award, she's been in not one, not two, but three projects that weren't just popular, but cultural touchstones. "I'm realizing the older I'm getting how wonderful it is to have sort of one big thing a decade," reflects the Rent, Wicked, and Frozen star. "Some days I'm able to take that in and really appreciate that the projects I've been associated with are more than just a job. They're thematically important and profound to a huge generation of people. But on the other hand, I'm just trying to get my kids to school on time. Life has a way of keeping you humble."
That could almost be the logline of Menzel's new documentary Which Way to the Stage?, set to debut on streamer Disney+ December 9. The film (which takes its name from Rent) is the brainchild of Menzel and follows her on a 2018 concert tour that culminates in a performance at her hometown concert arena, New York City's Madison Square Garden.
According to Menzel, the project started out as "just wanting to document a dream coming true," but the backstage struggles being captured during filming necessitated showing a different side. Beyond showcasing Menzel's rabid fanbase and trademark high belt, Which Way to the Stage? illuminates the stage and screen star at her most vulnerable—but Menzel was perfectly fine opening up. "I try to welcome that in everything I do. I feel like as an artist, that's the only way we're really going to make a difference and connect with our audience."
Among the rawest moments in the documentary are a backstage cry after venue security at a tour stop won't let Menzel in because they don't know who she is (a scene sure to cause more than one set of pearls to be clutched amongst Playbill readers). But the film catches Menzel at her most exposed when documenting her efforts to juggle a demanding and high-stakes career with another equally high-stakes job: motherhood.
"Kids keep surprising you as a parent," says Menzel. "As soon as you get accustomed to something or feel like, 'Yeah, I got this,' something else manifests. You never really feel completely on even footing. I'd like to pretend that I look back on it and really see what a great mom I am, but the truth is that there are days when I feel like I handle it really well, and other days where I feel like I'm messing up my kid."
The film shows Menzel's son, Walker Nathaniel Diggs (from a previous marriage with her Rent co-star Taye Diggs), traveling with her for some of her tour. For later stops, mother and son are forced to separate, with Menzel struggling to find time for phone calls so she can check in, help with homework, or say goodnight.
But according to Menzel, this unique child-raising situation has its hidden benefits. "When I look back on all these things, I realize my kid has independence. He goes to sleep-away camp for several weeks every summer. He does his own thing. None of [the touring] impeded on him being the autonomous little man he is so far."
Don't worry, theatre fans; Which Way to the Stage? also fully documents Menzel's stage career, both the concert tour and her time on Broadway. Vintage clips show everything from Menzel's Long Island high school productions of Bye Bye Birdie and Carousel (Elphaba in a Renée Fleming role? Now I've seen everything!) to her iconic performances in the original companies of Rent and Wicked—and according to Menzel, we can expect more Broadway in the future.
"I think it's my happiest artistic, creative place," says Menzel of her time on the boards. "I do play with different mediums to have that balance, because once you do eight shows a week, you're exhausted. It's nice to then go in a recording studio and be more solitary and take a look at your life and write songs. It's nice to be on a film set. But if I'm being honest, my happiest place is being in a rehearsal room starting a new show. I've had such a good run with developing new work and being a part of that. That's just where I live. It's where I feel most like myself."
As for which project might bring her back to the stage next, Menzel is keeping mum for now, but apparently it's a show that will incorporate some of her other talents. "There's something really important to me I've been working on for many years. I'm part of writing the music and conceived of the idea, so it's just very artistically and creatively fulfilling for me. We'll see. These things take years and they go through many changes—It's timing and what society and the world wants to receive at that time."
And of course there's the elephant—or should we say Elphaba—in the room: the upcoming two-part Wicked movie, set to feature fellow Tony winner Cynthia Erivo as the green-faced witch Menzel made iconic on stage. "I'm very supportive of it and the women in it. I'm sending lots of positive energy to them and I trust that it'll be good. It's Marc Platt, our producer, who's involved and he understands the heartbeat of it. I'm excited for people to see it that may not have seen Wicked the first time around."