Then came Wicked, which made her a household name (at least if your household made regular visits to TKTS). And her harrowing final week cemented her diva status. The day before Menzel’s swan song, she cracked a rib falling through a trap door. Unable to perform on her last day, she made a curtain call in a tracksuit to a standing, screaming ovation.
“I’d drive myself illegally to the Temple Beth Shalom ballroom and work with these older men. I grew up kind of fast.”
One of her more surprising fans was Michael John LaChuisa. Having railed publicly against unimaginative pop musicals, you wouldn’t expect him to replace his show’s original star, the classically trained Audra McDonald (who left to do a TV show), with a power-pop belter. “I’m a classicist,” acknowledges LaChuisa, “and she comes from a rock background.” But for him, there was a bottom line: “When it came to looking for someone young, who can sing the bejesus out of my stuff, and who can act, and who can be beautiful and sexy and has magnetism, I don’t know of anyone else but Idina Menzel.”
Her reputation as a belter, he says, is overblown. “At first she was shy about the colors in her voice. She became famous for her high belt, and I use that in the show—I’d be foolish not to—but she’s got jazz, she’s got folk, she’s got a degree of classical soprano in her voice. Each of the characters goes through a certain transformation, so I figure, use it all.”
Both LaChuisa and Menzel cite a basic premise of musical theater, and one that neatly sidesteps her tentative acting: Character equals voice. “A good actor for film knows what to do during the close-ups,” says LaChuisa, “and in musical theater, the song is the close-up.”
LaChuisa’s instincts were spot-on. Menzel carries his wildly diverse tunes beautifully, adding emotional notes to a cerebral libretto without blowing out the little theater’s footlights.
It’s a good thing, because she’s got even more intimate spaces in mind. In honing her solo cabaret act, Menzel has been carefully watching Bette Midler’s shows. “She came out and she’d sing Janis Joplin style, just blood from the vocal cords, and then she’d do ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,’ and the next thing you know she’d come out in a wheelchair in a mermaid costume, and then do stand-up. I like that. Everybody in this business wants you to not confuse people. She doesn’t care.”
No one doubts that she’d be a crowd-pleaser in a one-woman show. But what kind of crowd would it be? “There are different clubs in the theater world,” she concedes. “Has Sondheim asked me to be in a show? No. Would I love that? Yes. Maybe he’s not a fan of mine. And yet, am I proud that I can probably sell a lot of tickets? Yeah—and I’m not going to be ashamed of my popularity.”