SINGER-actor Idina Menzel, who was born in Queens and raised in Long Island, New York to parents of Russian-Jewish heritage, is making her first Australian concert tour. And she credits singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs in New York as a teenager to kick-starting her musical career.
“I started when I was 15 and remember singing Hava Nagilah at the weddings,” Menzel says by phone from New York on the eve of her Australian tour, which kicks off this weekend at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
“My parents were very supportive of my dreams and got me some voice and dance lessons.”
At 26, Menzel made her professional stage debut in Jonathan Larson’s hit 1996 musical Rent, a rock music show set in New York’s avant garde East Village about a group of struggling performers, writers and friends.
It became a huge hit and holds special memories for the 42-year-old performer for two reasons – she was nominated for a Tony Award and it was where she met Taye Diggs, who was also in the cast, and who she married in 2003.
“It was my first professional job and my parents were very proud. They were also relieved because I had struggled for a while and naturally they wanted me to do well.”
Menzel spent more than 18 months in Rent, followed by stage roles including in Hair, Aida, The Vagina Monologues and a concert version of Funny Girl.
Composer Stephen Schwartz was working on a new musical called Wicked and cast Menzel in the lead role as Elphaba, the green wicked witch of the west. “Rent and Wicked were several years apart. There was time in between the two shows for my career to have some highs and lows,” says Menzel.
“We workshopped Wicked for a long time; it was three years in production. I was in Wicked when it first opened on Broadway in 2003, so when it became successful it was extremely satisfying.”
Wicked went on to become a great success and Menzel won the 2004 Tony Award for her role, which she reprised in the London production in 2006, going on to win a best actress award.
The musical confirmed Menzel as a star and led to more career opportunities. In 2005 this meant a film version of Rent and a guest-starring role in the hit TV series Glee, playing Shelby Corcoran, the coach of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline and also Rachel’s biological mother.
After the 2009 birth of her son Walker, Menzel was invited back to Glee to continue the role of Corcoran.
“I was so grateful to be part of a show such as Glee, which resonates with young people and is in tandem with the characters that I play,” she says. “And it was nice to work in Los Angeles – far away from New York – and to be around theatre people in these TV shows. There’s a sense of community and energy that I missed, so that was nice.
“And to work with my husband Taye in Private Practice was great, although they had me doing a love scene with Tim Daly, which was a bit awkward.”
Menzel’s film credits include Enchanted, where she appeared opposite Susan Sarandon, Patrick Dempsey and Amy Adams; Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust opposite Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell; and her latest project, where she will be heard in Disney’s animated feature Frozen, based on the classic story by 19th century Dutch author Hans Christian Andersen.
In Frozen a young girl named Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) embarks on a journey to find the Snow Queen (voiced by Menzel) to help save the kingdom from an eternal winter. It is scheduled to be released in November.
Asked which she prefers – theatre, TV, films, records or concerts – Menzel says: “I feel very fortunate that I can have a balance of these different areas, which helps to keep me fresh.
“If I had to choose one it would be a live performance on the stage, whether it’s a Broadway show or a concert. I love being in the studio and doing TV and film, but I am really excited about getting back to the stage. There’s nothing like it.”
For the past two years she has been working on a new musical called If/Then, which will have its world premiere in Washington in November.
The musical centres around Elizabeth, nearly 40, who moves to New York to make a fresh start in her life and career.
Menzel has teamed up with old friends including director Michael Greif, producer David Stone, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey.
“I sit in a room with the composer and the small cast and we will get there, but people don’t realise how hard it is,” says Menzel.
“I’m very excited about it. We will stage it in Washington first, away from the magnifying glass of the New York critics, and work on it there. If all goes well we will go to Broadway in March next year.”
In 2010 Menzel performed a series of concerts with legendary Jewish composer Marvin Hamlisch as her musical director conducting a symphony orchestra. The Toronto performance was filmed and released as a CD and DVD titled Barefoot at the Symphony.
“One day I could not wear my shoes on stage because my back was sore from travelling around with my son, and ended up having an amazing show,” she explains.
“I wear a gown for these concerts, but decided not to wear shoes anymore, and we called it Barefoot at the Symphony.
“Marvin and I would throw the jokes back and forth like two Jews at the Catskills.”
Menzel says she has many fond memories of working with Hamlisch, who died in August last year.
“We would often go to dinner after a show; he was a comedian as much as a great musician and really supported me. He was a beautiful man and welcomed me into his musical world.”
In her Australian concerts, Menzel will perform a diverse repertoire of classic pop and musical theatre favourites, including hits from Wicked and Rent.
“I am excited about performing in Australia.”
Idina Menzel performs with the Sydney Symphony at the Sydney Opera House on June 26-27 and with the Melbourne Pops Orchestra at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, on Sunday, June 30. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au.
REPORT by Danny Gocs
PHOTO of Idina Menzel