Singer and actor Idina Menzel is bringing her varied act to the area this weekend.
Menzel is best known for originating starring roles in Broadway blockbusters like “Rent” and “Wicked,” as well as lending her voice to animated hits like “Frozen” and appearing in TV shows like “Glee” and the remake of “Beaches.”
Given her phenomenal success on stage and screen, it’s a wonder she has time to record and tour as a singer.
But Menzel said her albums and live shows give her somewhat of a break from the pace of her other commitments.
“It’s a relaxed atmosphere,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘You have to get this album done in 30 days.’ I fit it in where I can and it’s usually a reprieve for me. It’s a sanctuary, if you will. I just change gears. I can go late at night and record. I’m kind of a night owl because of my theater life. I love it.”
Given her background in musical theater, Menzel said songs from her Broadway repertoire are definitely part of her live shows, but she also likes to showcase her creative range.
“I need to give [audiences] a certain amount of music that they would be bummed if they didn’t hear,” she said. “I think that my audience is really sophisticated and has been with me such a long time that they are open with me playing with the arrangements sometimes. But I don’t do it too much because then it becomes changing it for the sake of changing it. If something organically feels like it can take on a different arrangement and live in a different world, I’ll try to go there. Something like ‘Defying Gravity,’ even though it’s on a Broadway show, has such a pop component to it. So if I play with the chord progressions here and there, people don’t even notice it sometimes. I like being reminded that I have these amazing songs — radio hit or not — that I can hold the mic out and people will sing the words to me. I’ve always wanted to get to that point in my career. Every time I get the reaction that I get when people hear the opening chords, it’s a reminder that I’ve arrived to a place that I’ve always dreamt of when I was little.”
Historically, one could either be a pop star or a theatrical star, but rarely both.
Menzel said that while that is still the case for the most part, she has become one of the few exceptions to the rule.
“The acceptance of theater music has increased with projects like ‘Glee,’ ‘The Voice’ and ‘American Idol,’” she said. “I still think it’s hard to be a Broadway singer and get on pop radio. There is a stigma no matter what it is. That’s why ‘Let It Go’ is such a big deal for me. For so many years I was told I would never get on pop radio because people just thought I was from musical theater, and no matter how cool and current and modern the producer they would put me with, it wouldn’t happen. All of sudden, you have a song with a pop sensibility but a lot of theatricality to it. I broke all the rules. It’s exhausting to listen to what everybody is thinking and what the rules are because things are always going to change and there are always exceptions. So I just keep plugging along doing music that I love and my show reflects that. It has music from the Broadway shows as well as pop, rock and soul music. I used to be afraid that there wouldn’t be enough cohesion for people, but I think the combination of having great musicians and my life story is what makes it all come together.”
Menzel added that she has been fortunate enough to be a part of shows and films that have captured the imagination of younger audiences throughout her career.
“It’s funny because it’s always been a young fan base,” she said of her fans. “When I was in ‘Rent’ it was that young generation. Then they grow up and they bring their kids. Then there was ‘Wicked’ and that young generation. I feel lucky. Every decade I connect with a young generation and for the next one, I have the parents there with their kids. These audiences have been with me for so long and thankfully I never have to look for another job again. I can always get on stage and sing for a living. Yes, I have young girls in blue Elsa dresses coming to the show but I also have older men who want to hear great show tunes. I welcome the challenge being a woman in her 40s who has a really young audience.”
Menzel has also been a longtime champion of LGBT rights, supporting organizations like The Trevor Project, NOH8 and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
She said the roles she has had throughout her career have influenced her activist causes.
“My career started in ‘Rent’ and there’s a pride that I have about being in that show and playing a gay woman and being part of a groundbreaking zeitgeist of a show that had gay couples singing love songs,” she said. “It also shows the world of HIV and AIDS and how it has affected an entire group of people. The first fan letters that I got were from kids struggling with their sexual orientation and they felt like the show was giving them a safe place to come out or be themselves. Ten years later I’m playing Elphaba in ‘Wicked’ who isn’t necessarily gay but who is in the ‘closet,’ for lack of a better word. She has to figure out a way to embrace her differences and be who she was. I don’t know if I attract these projects and characters but it’s a really wonderful pattern that has educated me and made me more aware and made me want to teach people about empathy. All these things play a part in my activism.”
Menzel has originated a number of popular characters in her stage career in shows like “Rent,” “Wicked” and “IF/THEN.”
When it comes to the roles she chooses, Menzel said she prefers to help create a character rather than stepping into roles with whom theater audiences are already familiar.
“I’d much rather originate,” she said. “Who wants to be compared? ‘Beaches’ was the first time I ever did that and it was terrifying. All the things that I was worried about still happened following in the footsteps of these great iconic women you’ve revered your whole life. Who wants that? It’s much easier to be in a room with a creative team creating a new work and character that you are a part of and sort of being their muse.”
Given that she set the bar for actors who have had to play Elphaba in “Wicked” and Maureen Johnson in “Rent,” we asked if Menzel has any sympathy for those who have had to fill her shoes once she’s moved on.
“They have age on their side,” Menzel said playfully. “They are younger, they have less wrinkles. Usually it’s a stepping stone for them and they are about to break out on their own. And also they’re fucking awesome and when I’ve made the mistake of going to watch, I get all in my head and think, Why didn’t I do what they did? That was a great choice.”
Idina Menzel performs 8 p.m. May 20 at the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa Event Center, 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City, N.J. For more information, call 609-317-1000 or visit www.idinamenzel.com.
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