Defying Expectations

By Dan Avery

Originally published on Advocate.com August 10 2008 11:00 PM ET

Idina Menzel has
made her reputation playing tough women -- Elphaba in Wicked, Patrick Dempsey's jilted girlfriend Nancy in
Enchanted -- and the role that started it all,
bisexual performance artist Maureen in Rent. "I'm not sure why it's worked out that way,"
muses the 37-year-old originally from Long Island, N.Y. "I
haven't consciously avoided the 'good girl' parts -- I think
it's just how I'm perceived. But I don’t
mind, because it's enabled me to take on some
really complex characters."

These days Menzel
is making her own music, touring the nation with her
new album, I Stand. It's her third effort, and her most personal
-- addressing insecurities, social issues, and her
relationship with husband Taye Diggs. "There's a
stigma about Broadway actresses going into the pop
world," she says. "I had to show the label I was
serious, so I really put my heart and soul into it. It's not
every day a Broadway singer goes on a tour bus with 10
other guys." Just before taking the stage in
Milwaukee, Menzel chatted with The Advocate about the
new record, Diggs, and the bittersweet end of Rent. 

How did I Stand come about? We recorded it over about 18 months in L.A.,
ending in spring of 2007. I was so lucky to get Glen
Ballard as my producer. He's worked with Dave Matthews
and No Doubt, and produced Alanis Morissette's Jagged
Little Pill
. Glen really encourages artists to
write their own music and craft their own sounds without
worrying about it being commercial.

After singing other people's music in shows like
Rent and Wicked -- beautifully, I
might add -- was it scary putting yourself in the
driver's seat?
There's a certain vulnerability in putting your
own thoughts out there for people to see and judge.
It's a little scary. But it’s the most
fulfilling part too. Well, I didn't want to alienate theater
fans, of course, but wanted to make a more mainstream
pop album.

Is there an overarching theme to the album? I didn’t set out to include one, but when
I look back, it's sort of about trying to be authentic
and in the moment. I was kind of struggling with who I
was and trying to confront my insecurities. So I guess it's
about wanting to live life in a rich, fulfilling way
and not letting the moment pass.

What inspired the first single, "Brave"? That’s the one song people really connect
with -- at meet-and-greets, fans tell me it helped
them get through some things that are a lot tougher
than what inspired me to write it. I mean, I was just having
a shitty day and used music to get me out of bed. I do
that a lot -- use music as therapy. 

Indina Menzel (Getty x395) | Advocate.com   

A lot of your gay fans have taken the song
"Gorgeous" as a sort of queer anthem -- was that intentional?
It definitely was intended to resonate with gay
fans. The song came from two things: One was how, even
today, my husband and I face certain challenges as a
interracial couple. But I also have a very good friend
who's gay and in an international relationship, so it's been
difficult for him and his boyfriend to be together.
It's about society giving you a hard time…and
[you] just not giving a shit. It's universal, though --
maybe you love someone your parents don't approve of. It's
not about vanity -- not about my gorgeous husband.
It's about being true to yourself and realizing that
all love is beautiful and worthwhile.

Who gets stopped more by the gays -- you or Taye? I think I do, but only because I eat it up. Taye
is like, "Oh, yeah, thanks man." I start chatting with
them and asking questions. I definitely feel the love
from the gays. They're in the front row at my
concerts. There are gay bars where the drag queens dress up
like Elphaba.

There was an incident a few years back where you
and Taye received threatening letters about your
relationship. Were you scared or just amazed that
people still carried such bigotry around?
It was just frustrating. We're surrounded by
supportive people in our lives, so there was no sense
of being afraid. But it got out into the press and
worried the people in our lives.

Which was really
upsetting. I mean, that people still gripe about a
Jewish woman and a black man being married? It makes me feel
like there's still a lot of racism out there. I don't
want to be un-PC, but I want to say Obama isn't
further ahead in the polls because of his race.

You've been touring with I Stand for months.
What's tougher: doing a Broadway show eight nights
a week or headlining a concert?
I think they both require the same level of
commitment and discipline. The set I do for I
Stand
is almost two hours -- which is really long
for a concert. Wicked was almost three hours,
and I was onstage the entire time. It's hard to
compare.

OK, then: Which is more fun? Well, the spontaneity of a concert is great. A
few months into a Broadway show and it's a well-oiled
machine. Here, you never know what might happen. Plus,
you're the captain of the ship: I can change the order of
songs or just chat with the audience or the musicians. I
hope people who come to my show take something of me
away with them.

Idina Menzel (Publicity x395) | Advocate.com
 

Is the concert just the album, or do you throw your
Broadway fans a bone?
I do some of the Broadway stuff, but I strip
them down a little, make them more acoustic. We do
"Defying Gravity" and a few others.

Speaking of Broadway, how do you feel about Rent
finally closing in September after 12 years?
It's been bittersweet because of [playwright]
Jonathan [Larson's] passing. We originated the show
without our ringleader, and we all sort of saw it as a
tribute to him. Our job was to bring Jonathan's dream to
life, which gave us purpose. It was grounding -- I think it
kept us from getting a little insane, which is what
can happen when you face success so early. It was my
first Broadway production, which was incredibly
special. And, of course, I met my husband there too.
[Laughs] Something that’s good about the
closing is that now it can be performed in high
schools. To think that some teenage girl will be able
to play Maureen, and that maybe a class of students
will come out of it a little more educated about life and
people that are different from them.

What's going to happen to all the Rentheads? Is
there another show out there that could pick up the mantle?
Over the years the other cast members and I have
heard from so many people who were struggling with who
they were -- struggling with success or accepting
their sexuality. I don’t know if there will ever be
another show that touches the same nerve. But
Spring Awakening has a strong following,
and Wicked also speaks to a young generation.

When will we see you back in the theater? Well, I worked on a staged reading of Duncan
Sheik's new musical, Nero, back in July. Daniel
Kramer is the director; he's very up-and-coming. He
wrote four songs for my character, including this
great number called "No Trace of Us." It was such a
wonderful experience to be involved in something at the
earliest stages again. They got to know what makes me
tick and what my voice can do. I tell my manager to
find these embryonic projects. If there's one or two
good songs or the right creative team, I'd rather put my
faith in that than some jukebox musical.

Any chance of a Wicked movie? I think it's in the works, but it could
take years to make it happen. Kristin [Chenoweth] and
I may be a little too old by then. Of course, green
makeup and the right lighting cover everything.