Idina Menzel :: Barefoot and still defying gravity
Few musical theater stars cut as striking a profile as Idina Menzel does, as she does in the recently broadcast concert on PBS taped late last year in Toronto. The thing is, though, is that as elegant as she looks in her fuscia Donna Karen gown, there’s one thing missing: heels.
Not that this is something she chooses to play down. In fact, the concert’s title - "Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony" - trumpets it, alluding to an easy-going manner that makes you realize she’d be fine just in jeans and a t-shirt.
That Toronto concert, which was conducted by the late Marvin Hamlisch and featured an appearance by Menzel’s husband, singer/actor Taye Diggs, was released both on CD and DVD this past Spring. It proved so successful it prompted this latest series of concerts, which takes the Tony-winning singer to Boston, London and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Again, she’s with symphony orchestras and, again, is barefoot.
True to herself
Menzel came to perform this way out of necessity. In 2009, she and Diggs welcomed the birth of their first son, Walker. The following year right before a concert she was set to perform with a symphony orchestra, she had to lift her son into a car seat and hurt her back. Faced with performing, she realized it came down to a choice of struggling in heels or being comfortable barefoot. Barefoot won out.
"I thought there was no way I could go out in front of an audience in heels and hit the notes," she said recently from Los Angeles en route to pick up her son in day care. "So I decided to go without them; and I had this spectacular show. And I felt freer in my body than I was before. I sing better. It is a lot more comfortable. And I stopped worrying what it might look like to symphony audiences around the country and decided it is more important to be comfortable."
Being true to herself may be the key to Menzel’s success, which has taken her from Broadway to London and to Hollywood, where she is presently living with her husband for 10 years. They’ve been together for 16, having met when they both appeared in "Rent" on Broadway.
Still, despite her success, which includes that Tony-winning stint as the first Elphaba in "Wicked," there’s something delightfully laid-back about Menzel, who interrupts the interview to chat with a friend about wrapping paper she enthused about. ("I love it," she cooed. "Where did you get it? Ooops. I’m multi-tasking and doing an interview. Can I call you later?")
She is so laid back, in fact, that in concert she is quick to tell concert audiences that she talks like a truck driver.
"I don’t know if I shock people. But they’re not my friends and may not know me. I am a Long Island girl from a Jewish family - it’s just the way I express myself. I try to clean it up when I’m in front of an audience, but once in awhile, I let loose. But I hope audiences realize it’s just me being real. I think it’s important to be as organic and as honest as I can be when I am up there because audiences are smart and can feel when someone is not being themselves up there. I don’t want to offend anybody, but I want to be myself."
In fact, being authentic became the theme of the conversation, be it in discussing her rationale to being barefoot to the eclectic choices she performs. One minute, she’s singing a song by the Police, the next, it’s Cole Porter. One of the highlights of her live concert is her version of Lady Gaga’s "Poker Face" (seen below).
"I got my start when I was 15 as a wedding singer. I also sang at a lot of bah mitzvahs, so I needed to know a lot of different songs from different genres. And that really influenced me. People might know me from the theater don’t know that side of me. So it’s a fun way for me to combine all these different genres that I love in front of a huge symphony - there is something thrilling about that. I try to choose things that I love. It could be because I love the melody and the lyric; or it could be a song that’s anecdotal to my life in some way; or just a song I have always wanted to sing."
Right now the dynamic that drives the 40-year Menzel is being a LA mom one minute, a concert performer the next. After Boston, she heads off to London for concerts, then back to New York, where she’s making her solo debut at Carnegie Hall on October 29. After that, comes concerts in Florida, then Los Angeles for a New Year’s Eve concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
"I love performing and I love touring," she said, then paused. "But it’s harder as a mom now. The balancing of being a mom can be difficult. I mean I can either take Walker everywhere and deal with that; or choose not to take him everywhere and deal with the guilt that goes with that. It complicate things and clouds my feelings. But once I am onstage, I put that behind me. That experience is authentic. I can really enjoy those 90 minutes on stage. I can feel guilty afterwards."
And finding that personal comfort level is what she strives for.
"It’s about me being myself. Even if I am singing in front of 20-80 musicians behind me, that I remain in myself. I don’t push. I think that with the experience I can be really intimate in these halls with great acoustics, then do ’Defining Gravity’ with the orchestra behind me. I think I found the balance by keeping things really intimate and personal as well as theatrical and passionate."
While Menzel has risen to considerable heights, both in the theater and on television (where she most recently had an ongoing role on "Glee" as Lea Michele’s mother), she has yet to have a hit single. "I’ve tried to have pop albums and write my own music with cross-over songs. And sometimes I’ve had some luck with it, but never as well as I intended. So it is frustrating not to have a song be played on the radio and have a #1 hit song."
Still what brings her joy is how strongly audiences have responded to her body of work. "I have had these incredible experiences with ’Rent’ and ’Wicked’ and ’Glee.’ I realize that I am fortunate enough to have these songs that are identified with me that I can still hold a microphone to an audience and they can sing-along. They know the words, just as if they were a hit song. And so for me to be able to out there and share that with other people and feel confident that they know the song, It is fun for me and comforting, but also so gratifying for me to have an iconic song that I can take anywhere in the world that people know - it is such an honor."
What she is also excited about is having a role in the new Disney animated feature "Frozen," which she is currently fitting into her busy schedule. "
"I was working on a song yesterday that was written for my character. I love the project. It is really such a big deal for me. It’s a landmark in my career to be in a Disney animated movie. My son won’t be old enough to really kind of get it, but he will eventually. And being someone that loves to work in a recording studio, I just love the whole process. It’s an art form that I love - being in front of that mike, working in a studio, not worrying what you look like it."
Has she seen her animated character?
"Yes," she said laughing. "It’s wild, but I haven’t seen that much of it. They keep playing with it. I’m not sure it will resemble me, if at all. It’s just so cool. And to be involved in it from the early on, is such an honor to watch these genius guys come up with these ideas and to see them work."
Another highlight from this past year was when she went on a gay Carribean cruise with Atlantis. "That was the best," she enthused. "It was me and 4,000 shirtless men for three days. It was a blast. It was so much fun. I tell everyone that if I ever go on a cruise that it has to be a gay cruise."
Upcoming dates for Idina Menzel include Boston, September 29, 2012; September 30, Hartford, CT; October 8-14, London, England; October 16, Edinburgh, Scotland; October 17, Manchester, England; October 27, Rochester, NY; October 29, New York City, NewYork; November 28, West Palm Beach, FL; November 30, Miami, FL; December 1, Tampa, FL; December 31, Los Angeles, CA.
For more information about these dates and how to purchase "Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony" on CD and DVD, visit her website
Watch Idina Menzel sing "Poker Face" from "Idina Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony":