It’s weird to be looked up to by little girls,” says Idina Menzel. We’re sitting at a cafeteria table in the cavernous brass-and-chrome lobby of the Public Theater. It’s the week before previews for her latest musical vehicle, Michael John LaChuisa’s See What I Wanna See, and Menzel is describing her fan base—which features an awfully high proportion of preteens for a self-described “edgy little rocker girl.”
The adoration of the Hilary Duff set arrived with Menzel’s best-known role: a Tony-winning turn as the bright-green teen witch Elphaba in the Broadway smash Wicked. But that audience—the Long Island teenyboppers wearing I ♥ IDINA T-shirts who saw so much of themselves in her ugly-duckling character—might be thrown by her turn at the Public, where she plays three rather adult characters: a kimono-clad femme fatale, a dangerous moll, and a coke-addicted actress. So Menzel made an unusual request for the downtown theater: a notice in front of the theater that read NOT APPROPRIATE FOR CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF 13.
It’s peculiarly appropriate that a Syosset girl who began her career on the Long Island bar mitzvah circuit is, at 34, preparing to give the Public’s first PG-13 performance (though the notice was later changed to cut the specific age reference). Yet her fan base puts her in an odd position. “I want to set a really good example, but I’m not the most innocent person,” she says, accidentally channeling Britney Spears. “I’m a little crass. But I just have to be myself.”
Menzel’s theatrical breakthrough was a very grown-up performance as a louche bisexual in Rent. But theatergoers know her best as that ubiquitous witch who belted out technically flawless pop ballads. They may also know about the full-blown critical backlash against her singing style (and, perhaps, her fan demographic)—most notable in critic Ben Brantley’s New York Times rant against the American Idol-ization of the Broadway musical. The popular spoof Forbidden Broadway even features a Menzel imitator belting out, “I am the loudest witch in Oz / And no one’s gonna turn my volume down!”
Menzel bristles at the criticism. “I actually think Kelly Clarkson is extremely talented,” she says. Declining to address Brantley specifically, she does say that “because Wicked had a big budget, people knock it. If it had the same songs but we did it downtown in a little dark theater and I was standing on a chair,” the reviews might have come out differently. Besides, she has that downtown pedigree. “People forget where Rent came from,” she says. “I sing a duet to my gay lover, who’s black! I mean, come on!”
Well, she’s downtown now—working on an experimental musical created by one of theater’s most stubbornly anti-populist musical playwrights. (Menzel is also recording a second solo album and stars in the movie of Rent, out in November.) “I just wanted to challenge myself,” she says, predictably, but adds something else. “I want to work with Michael John because I feel like people don’t give me enough credit for my training.”
Her training began informally on Long Island, where Menzel (born Mentzel) was a classic diva in the making—a musical-obsessed girl longing to act, sing, and flee the suburbs. The soundtrack to Barbra Streisand’s A Star Is Born was the first album Menzel owned. “My grandmother took me to see that in the movie theater,” she says. “I know it’s not cool; I should say a Bob Dylan record or something.” But her pajama-salesman father and therapist mother didn’t want to raise a child star, and she had to settle for school productions.
At 15, Menzel found her way out: She became a wedding and bar mitzvah singer. Passing for 18, “I’d drive myself illegally with my junior license to the Temple Beth Shalom ballroom and work with all these older men. I grew up kind of fast. I had to come in with this huge repertoire.” Her precociously sexy, exotic look—doe eyes, full lips, aggressively jutting jaw—had to have helped.
By the time she graduated from NYU’s drama program, Menzel had outgrown the wedding circuit and was focusing on downtown rock gigs. Auditions for a theatrical career had become almost an afterthought by 1995, when Jonathan Larson picked Menzel for his downtown rock musical about East Village squatters coping with aids, drugs, and gentrification. When he died the night before the show’s opening, Rent’s mythology was born: the scrappy posthumous rock opera that would take over the world. Rent was also where Menzel met her husband, Taye Diggs, who’s since become the show’s most successful alumnus.
But while Diggs scored role after role, Menzel hit a rut. One record label dropped her after her EP failed to sell. She and Diggs were married in Jamaica by the country’s official rabbi, to generous tabloid coverage—but Diggs’s name would always come first. “I’d walk down the red carpet with Taye and nobody knew who I am; they’d push me aside,” she says.