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Idina Menzel and the Inspiration She Finds From the LGBTQ+ Community

Idina Menzel
Photo by Eric Maldin/Walkman Productions Inc.

A new documentary follows the Tony Award-winner as she pursues her dream of performing in Madison Square Garden.

Every one of us has a dream, and even at my "ripe" old age, the actor in me still fantasizes about being on a Broadway stage. I can't believe I'm going to admit this in public, but when I hear "Memory" from Cats while I'm running, I belt the tune out and imagine I'm singing that song on a stage (sans the cat outfit).

I worked with Betty Buckley once while I was at Sears and Kmart, and she did a promotional appearance for us, and I told her the story, and she laughed. That was 15 years ago, and I'm still dreaming about it.

This week sees the premiere of a new documentary film, Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage?, which follows Tony Award-winning actress and singer Idina Menzel on her path to realize a lifelong dream: headlining a concert at Madison Square Garden in her hometown of New York City. Along the same lines, I've also had illusions about singing "Piano Man" at the Garden next to Billy Joel. I've got to get over myself.

Menzel is raw and vulnerable with her interviews in the documentary as she goes on this intimate journey to her dream, coping with the challenges of being a working mom and wife on a grueling travel schedule while preparing to take the stage at the legendary arena.

Directed by Anne McCabe and produced in partnership with Ideal Partners, Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage? makes its world premiere Friday, exclusively on Disney+.

Menzel is famous for roles that include Broadway productions of Rent and Wicked as well as the voice of Elsa in Disney's film Frozen, and in the documentary she talks about her big breaks in showbiz and reflects on motherhood, marriage, and balancing work and family. Throughout the film, she shares her experience with in vitro fertilization, an emotional process that runs parallel to her runway toward Madison Square Garden.

The film showcases never-before-seen footage of Menzel throughout her life, from home videos of her early days as a singer at just 7 years old to her beginnings at the premiere of Rent in 1996 to preparing for the original role of Elphaba in Wicked and the creation and subsequent phenomenon that was Frozen. Featuring interviews with Menzel herself, her parents, family, friends and co-creatives, the documentary weaves in her show-stopping performance as she conquers the stage at the Garden.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Menzel and asked her about her interpretations of the film. "It turned out better than I expected," she said. "I had the willingness to let people into my life in a way that tells a story and grounded in songs that accompany my life. The songs are a chronicle of my experiences. It goes deeper than just fulfilling my dream of performing at the Garden, and I'm so happy to be able to share it all in such a personal way."

Menzel said she made this documentary to show firsthand how important it is to pursue your passions and lean on those around you in times of hardship. "This documentary was a joy to make, and I hope it resonates with my fans and new audiences alike who find themselves balancing motherhood, work, and marriage while chasing their own dreams and inspiring others to keep pushing forward," she said.

"I do hope that it's inspirational and that it puts together the wonderful experience of looking back at a little girl who was pursuing her dream. Back then I really believed in myself, and I knew that I would do something with my voice."

Part of that has been using her voice as an LGBTQ+ advocate. "Well, I did think it was a great idea that Elsa could be a lesbian," she said proudly. "I remember that role brought out the debate about her sexuality, and I thought that was terrific."

Menzel also feels that many of her parts have been about empowering the underdog, which is something the LGBTQ+ community can appreciate. "I think that there's a pattern to the roles I play. There's empowerment, being an underdog, being unique and special. It's about celebrating who you are, and finding that thing that makes you feel extraordinary."

Menzel said the film is uplifting and that she's been thinking a lot about the LGBTQ+ community, particularly in the wake of the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs. "It's awful that just going into that bar that people took an unknown risk and some lost their lives," she said. "We must do so much more to protect and speak out on behalf of the community."

"The LGBTQ community has done so much for me," she added. "They've accepted me. They've always been there for me, and they've inspired me, and I hope that I can always be there for them as well."

For Menzel, part of that inspiration is singing out loud and hopefully following in the footsteps of her idols. "I grew up in Long Island, so I was a New York girl and was able to see so many of my idols perform. I saw Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, U2, just amazing artists, so I try to incorporate the way they tell a story into my performance. I'm a creature of improvisation, so it was all about keeping up the energy in the Garden. I thrive in those situations, and I hope the audience just sits back and enjoys it."

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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