The star who defied gravity on Broadway is now flying around the country, singing barefoot with a symphony.
Idina Menzel grabbed a Tony nomination in 1996 for her first Broadway role, playing performance artist Maureen in the groundbreaking musical “Rent.” In 2004, she won the coveted Tony for her soaring ride as Elphaba, the green-skinned girl with magical powers in “Wicked.” Her “Rent” character made the leap to the big screen in 2005 and two years later, she was back for another fairy-tale turn in “Enchanted,” opposite Patrick Dempsey.
With many other stage and screen credits under her belt, she’s found yet another young fan niche playing Rachel’s mom on “Glee.”
But it’s her “Barefoot at the Symphony” project that gets her back to her roots as a singer. She’s been performing with orchestras across the country and abroad since 2010, recording her November 2011 Toronto concert for PBS and a “live” CD, both released in March. She’ll bring her mix of show tunes and pop songs with a twist to the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines at 7:30 p.m. June 22, 2012.
Despite the sweeping scope of each venue and staging with no fewer than 25 musicians, Menzel strives to create “a real intimacy” with the audience.
“I tell a lot of stories and chronicle my music with personal anecdotes about my life,” she says by phone from a recent tour stop in Santa Rosa, Calif. “I enjoy actually trying to find that balance between having some musicians and a big, dramatic, theatrical, magnificent sound up there with all that wonderful musicianship, but also keeping it really intimate and personal, because it’s important to me that people feel like they leave getting to see a little window into who I am. Those are the only concerts I’ve enjoyed in my life. When I’ve left the theater, I want to feel like I know that person.”
Menzel, 41, grew up in New York and has been singing since she was a little girl. She stepped onstage for the first time in a kids’ talent show in the Catskills around age 6, singing harmony with friends on ”Cats in the Cradle.” By a second grade school choir audition, she was hooked.
“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” she says. “Everything I did and all the choices I made paved that (career) path.”
She started out singing weddings and bar mitzvahs at age 15, went to college, “pounded the pavement,” and landed on Broadway at 25.
She describes “Rent” as ”an incredible ride.”
“It was a very emotional and impactful time in my life. I met my husband in that cast,” says Menzel, who is married to actor Taye Diggs. She had a guest role on his TV show, “Private Practice,” and together, they have a son, Walker, nearly 3.
“The ‘Rent’ experience was different than most people’s experiences in theater, because we lost Jonathan (Larson), our composer, on the night of our first dress rehearsal,” she says, “so there was no room for being heady. As much as it was a whirlwind and the show was taking off, we had to stay really grounded and committed to what we were doing, because he wasn’t there. It became obsessive, in a way, to make sure that we were doing right by him.”
That was the springboard to her career, but she still had to work hard, “like everybody else.”
“I got a record deal, but then I got dropped from my record label. I had a lot of ups and downs,” she says. “It wasn’t until years later — six or seven — that ‘Wicked’ happened. So I sort of had to start over again. And then when ‘Wicked’ happened, I was older and knew, as well, how things come and go and are so fleeting. I just try and enjoy every moment of that.”
Now that she’s an established star, she does have more theatrical options at her fingertips, but prefers to be part of new shows being developed.
“Because I really want to be involved in originating roles and being in new works, that takes a lot of time and patience,” she says. “You can do workshops and readings of new material, then it takes years for them to find their legs. That’s the challenge with finding a new piece on Broadway.
“And then in the rest of my career, sometimes things are handed to you, but for the most part, I’m still out there, like everyone else, auditioning and trying to get the next job.”
The immediacy has changed with her new role as mother.
“It’s made a world of difference for me,” she says. “It’s completely changed my priorities and my perspective. It’s made me a lot more laid-back about career and expectations that I have on myself. I enjoy my work more because when I get up onstage, I don’t expect as much from myself, because maybe I haven’t slept as much, or I’m juggling so many things with family, and therefore I kind of let it go and I end up being freer and easier on myself. In return, I think I’m a better performer.”
That mirrors the best advice she’s received along the way.
“It comes from my husband a lot — to just go easy on myself,” she says, “and to know that I am enough in my talent, and even if I’m not at a hundred percent, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be impactful. That I’m not just my voice or just my talents — I’m everything that makes up who I am. Therefore, if something is a little weaker one day from the next, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be successful. It’s about being a great person, therefore taking the pressure off a little bit.”