WASHINGTON — She’s the beloved voice behind Broadway’s “Wicked” and Disney’s “Frozen.”
Will her hard-core fans get to hear her famous show tunes “Defying Gravity” and “Let It Go?”
“You’ll get none of those songs,” Menzel joked before bursting out laughing. “Of course! You’ll get songs you expect to hear and then some surprises. The fun and challenging thing … is to find fun and new arrangements to keep me creatively fulfilled, yet let audiences hear what they want to hear. There’s a good balance [with] cool musical surprises and new covers.”
What are some of the surprise covers we might hear?
“We do an Aretha Franklin tune that I’ve always wanted to do and interject a little Led Zeppelin for a second there,” Menzel said. “I stopped putting restrictions on myself, so when there’s songs that I’ve always wanted to sing, I don’t worry about it. As long as they continue to tell the story of the evening and fit in the set list the right way, I’ve just been having fun with it.”
Menzel has indeed been having fun for decades. Born in Queens in 1971, she grew up just blocks from her future “RENT” co-star Adam Pascal, who credits her with his audition.
“He’s so sweet that he gives me credit,” Menzel said. “I was dating one of his best friends. We lived around the corner from each other since we were little kids. Our friend, my boyfriend at the time, was an intern at an agency and snuck me in, faxed my resume and got me the audition. Then, I knew they were still looking for [Roger], so I said, ‘Hey, I know this guy I grew up with. He’s awesome.’ I can take a little credit, but it was mostly Adam’s amazingness.”
Anyone who’s seen “RENT” (1996) knows that Menzel’s character Maureen is a phenomenal breakout role. How did she invent those quirky body movements during “Over the Moon?”
“It’s a little [playwright] Jonathan Larson, a little me and a lot of [director] Michael Greif,'” Menzel said. “That’s the process I love the most, just getting involved early on in a show when they’re conceptualizing. … By the time we’re on stage, the character and myself, you don’t know where one stops and the other begins because they’ve been using you as a muse.”
While “RENT” earned Menzel her first Tony nomination, she would win for Best Actress in “Wicked” (2003), written by Stephen Schwartz (music/lyrics) and Winnie Holzman (book). Based on Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” Menzel played Elphaba, the misunderstood green sister of Glinda (Kristin Chenoweth).
“You have to relate to something on a personal level first,” Menzel said. “I relate to it as a woman, struggling to find my own voice, wrestling with my own lack of self esteem and needing to spend years of my life figuring out what made me special and different in this world and not being afraid to let that shine. … Women especially have a harder time stepping out and letting their bigger, larger, stronger selves be heard for fear of not being liked.”
That self-esteem struggle is the core message of “Defying Gravity,” an instant show tune classic from one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. While most actors would give anything to be in one hit musical, Menzel has already anchored two with “RENT” and “Wicked.”
“I pinch myself all the time, believe me,” Menzel said. “It’s one thing to have a lot of great successes in your career or things that make money or commercial success, but it’s another thing to be a part of things that really resonate with an audience, that have scenes and messages that change people’s lives and are empathetic to what they are experiencing.”
After “Wicked,” Menzel became a musical theater icon, whether it was playing the rival glee club coach Shelby Corcoran in TV’s “Glee” (2010-2013), or earning her impressive third Tony nomination for “If/Then” (2014), written by Brian Yorkey (book/lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music).
Still, nothing could have prepared her for the success of Disney’s animated hit “Frozen” (2013), voicing Elsa in what is guaranteed to be a child’s Halloween costume for years to come.
“It resonates with young people, then it exponentially ripples out from there and it’s just so lasting,” Menzel said. “I get up on stage and the generational connection is just great for me. I grow up with my audience, then they have kids, then their kids see the next show. It’s a gift.”
While the film’s story provides themes of sisterhood, the music is an inspirational reminder to seize the day (“the past is in the past”) with a defiant attitude (“the cold never bothered me anyway”). Standing in the recording booth, did she have a hunch “Let It Go” was special?
“I felt the song was a great song; Kristen and Bobby Lopez are amazing songwriters, but I try not to jinx anything in my life,” Menzel said. “I was just really happy I was cast in a Disney musical, because that’s a milestone to begin with, just to voice a Disney character. I was excited about that, that I had a big song. I had no idea it would become what it has become.”
Not only did “Let It Go” reach the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, it won both a Grammy and an Oscar. Ironically, as Menzel stepped out onto the Oscar stage to perform at the Academy Awards, “Grease” alum John Travolta went viral by botching her name as “Adele Dazeem.”
“I still have people say it to me,” Menzel said. “John Travolta has been extremely apologetic and sweet and continues to send emails congratulating me on things in my life, so it’s actually been a very, very happy mistake. I’m happy when people come up to me on the street and recognize me, period! Whether they call me by the right name or the wrong name, it’s OK!”
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