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.
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.
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.