Idina Menzel finds her footing on the orchestra stage
By Naila Francis
Her first thought was she wasn’t the right fit.
When Idina Menzel was initially approached a few years back to sing with a symphony orchestra, the Broadway star had her reservations.
Yes, she’d been singing most of her life, appearing in various incarnations performing songs from just as many genres. But an orchestra?
“I thought I’d have to be really pulled together and clean myself up and be really formal and it’s really not me,” says Menzel, best known for originating the roles of Maureen in “Rent” and Elphaba, the green witch, in “Wicked,” the latter winning her a Tony Award.
She also worried about her ability to engage the audience.
“At first, I was intimidated because I pride myself on keeping a real intimacy with the audience and I didn’t want to lose that and feel overwhelmed by the orchestra. But I gave it a while and I found that I could strike a nice balance,” says Menzel. “It’s thrilling to stand in front of such a massive wall of sound and talented musicianship.”
It’s a euphoria not unlike what she feels on the Broadway stage, despite how disparate that realm may seem.
“The theatricality and the dynamism of being in a show on Broadway — I don’t see it as that different,” says Menzel, also known for her recurring role on “Glee” (as Shelby Corcoran, the mother to Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry). “I find them both to be extremely magical. With any kind of live performance, I get the same kind of adrenaline shooting through my body.”
For the past two years, Menzel, who performs Saturday with the Philadelphia Orchestra at The Mann Center, has been headlining sold-out shows with orchestras across the country. In March, her soaring, emotive voice, onstage candor and the unbridled humor that has caught some by surprise — “My role in ‘Rent’ was a comedic one but people forget that. I guess ‘Wicked’ was such a serious part,” she says — were showcased in a PBS special “Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony.” The televised performance, which was recorded with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Toronto, under the direction of legendary conductor Marvin Hamlisch and music director and pianist Rob Mounsey (Madonna, Paul Simon), coincided with the release of a companion CD and DVD.
That it reveled in her decision to go barefoot at such a traditionally decorous event hints at the irreverence and free-spirited fun she brings to her performances. Singing sans footwear is also what freed her of her preconceptions of how she should appear before an orchestra.
“I found that even just taking off my shoes helped me feel more like myself, and the way I moved around the stage and the way I used my body to hit notes just felt more comfortable. It just became more of a tactile experience,” says Menzel, who was inspired to leave her towering heels behind when she woke up in pain on the morning of one of her performances after a day spent carrying around her son, Walker Nathaniel, now almost 3.
“When you’re a singer, you’re always worrying about your voice and your health and how much sleep you’re getting. I was very disciplined. … When you have a child, if you want to have a career and be a good mom, something’s going to have to give,” she says. “You get onstage and you lower your expectations for yourself and, in return, I feel more relaxed. I’ve thrown more caution to the wind and it’s made me a better artist.”
She brings Walker, her first child with husband Taye Diggs, on the road with her when she tours. The couple, who met during “Rent” — he played Benny the landlord — is based in Los Angeles, where Diggs’ medical drama, “Private Practice,” is filmed. But Menzel, who will star as the voice of Elsa the Snow Queen in “Frozen,” an animated Disney film slated for release next year, is itching to return to New York.
“I’m desperately trying to get back to the city and get back into theater. I would love to be part of originating a new role again,” she says.
For now, she is at home on the orchestra stage, where she’s not afraid to poke fun at herself — she’s previously confessed to taking her “Glee” gig because she was feeling fat and anxious for work after the birth of her son — or revisit embarrassing episodes from her past, such as recalling her botched attempts to both seduce and impress a gay professor she had a crush on while a theater student at New York University. She credits her easy rapport with the audience to her days as a wedding singer before she landed her first professional job with “Rent” in 1995.
“There’s a comfort level that comes with standing up in front of a bunch of people that aren’t listening to you. You develop a thick skin,” she says. “Then you take all the experiences I’ve had in my life and pile them on top of that, and I just feel so comfortable (onstage). I’m more comfortable being vulnerable and intimate and transparent with an audience than I am putting up this facade.”
When it comes to her set list, there are the expected songs — “No Day But Today” from “Rent,” “For Good” and “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked” — and others that resonate on a more-personal level.
“I’ve just been picking music that really speaks to me, whether it’s music that chronicles a very important time in my life, or music that I’ve always wanted to sing or music that expresses an emotion or story I have to share with the audience,” she says.
She enjoys, too, taking a song like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a childhood favorite from “The Wizard of Oz,” and interpreting it anew as an adult. Menzel was in fourth grade when she landed the role of Dorothy in her school’s production, edging out a sixth-grader for it, and being thereafter convinced she belonged on the stage.
“Being in that play changed my life. I was always a big dreamer,” she says. “I can be insecure in a lot of other places in my life, but I always had a lot of confidence in my potential as a performer.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer