Music Interviews
4:56 am
Sat May 19, 2012

Idina Menzel: From Broadway To The Symphony

Originally published on Sat May 19, 2012 4:30 pm

Idina Menzel is touring the nation, performing "No Day But Today," her signature song from the musical Rent. That show made Menzel, playing the flirtatious performance artist Maureen Johnson, famous in the late-1990s. She followed with her Tony Award-winning role as the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West in the musical Wicked. More recently, she's had a recurring spot on the TV show Glee.

When Menzel takes the stage on this tour, she sings standards and pop covers in front of symphony orchestras. Recordings from the tour have been collected on an album called Barefoot at the Symphony, so named because she's discovered that's the secret to her best performances. She spoke to Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about this latest turn in her unpredictable career.

"I always like to sing barefoot, but when I first started doing these dates with the symphonies, I of course thought I should clean up my act, being a Jewish girl from Long Island with a little bit of a trucker mouth. So I wore a gown and some high heels," she says. But she's also a mom with a 2-year-old son, and after a day or two of hauling stroller, car seat and child on and off airplanes, she gave it up.

"My back was killing me, and I thought there's no way I'm putting on those heels," she says. "I went out there, and I had the best show I've ever had. I was hitting notes I've never hit. I felt like I was being more myself, and I was funnier. I was just more comfortable, so that was the end of that."

Menzel started working as a wedding singer when she was 15 years old. "I lied to all the bands so that they'd hire me, and I drove around illegally in Long Island and New York and Connecticut to get the gigs," she says. "So I was always having to do other people's music."

Even though her bread and butter was singing songs the way people expected to hear them, Menzel says she was aware that imitation wasn't enough. "I know I'm known for singing some of those high notes, but that's really not what giving someone goosebumps is all about," she says. "It's about really trying to find what makes you unique."

Onstage she goes for laughs, especially when she's covering Lady Gaga's "Pokerface," backed by Juilliard graduates. "They're always so serious, the orchestras, you know?" Menzel says. "It's always a fun contrast of that song and the genre of music. And me."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO DAY BUT TODAY")

IDINA MENZEL: (Singing) No other road, no other way...

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

That's Idina Menzel with "No Day but Today," the signature song from the musical "Rent." Of course, "Rent" is the show that made Idina Menzel famous, playing the flirtatious performance artist Maureen Johnson. She followed with her Tony Award-winning role as the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West in the musical "Wicked." More recently, she's had a recurring spot on the TV series "Glee." And now, Idina Menzel is set to tour to nation, performing this song along with a collection of standards and pop covers in front of a symphony orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO DAY BUT TODAY")

MENZEL: (Singing) No other road, no other way, no day but today. No day but today...

SIMON: The music can be heard on a new live CD called "Barefoot at the Symphony." Idina Menzel joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MENZEL: Hi. I'm so honored to be here.

SIMON: Well, it's our pleasure. And do you take your shoes off?

MENZEL: Yeah, they're off right now. No...

SIMON: I mean, what's the barefoot part?

MENZEL: I always like to sing barefoot. But when I first started doing these dates with the symphonies, I, of course, thought I should clean up my act, being a Jewish girl from Long Island with a little bit of truck driver mouth. So, I wore and gown and some high heels. But then I was traveling with my two-year-old son and carrying a stroller and the car seat on the airplane, and I just woke up the next day and my back was killing me. And I thought there's no way I'm putting on those heels. And I went out there and I had the best show I've ever had. I was hitting notes I've never hit. I felt like I was more myself and I was funnier and just more comfortable. So, that was the end of that.

SIMON: You begin the song we just heard thanking the late Jonathan Larson, who wrote the musical "Rent." What do you remember about him? What do you remember about that whole emotional experience?

MENZEL: It's a very bittersweet memory. "Rent," for me, was a significant time in my life because it was my first break. It was my first professional job. I also met my husband in that cast, Taye Diggs. And, you know, there were so many accolades for that show and yet, for those listening that don't know, Jonathan Larson, our composer, was 35 years old. He passed away on the night of our dress rehearsal. And so every night we were up there singing his words and his music and we didn't have him as our leader. It was our mission to communicate his words and his music. It wasn't about the success of the show or, you know, a lot of the things that a bunch of young 20-year-old kids might experience being a part of success like that.

SIMON: What's it like to perform with symphony orchestras?

MENZEL: At first, when I offered my first date with the symphonies, I was a little tentative because I didn't want to lose intimacy that I can have with an audience. I felt like a vast group of musicians like that behind you could be somewhat overwhelming. But it's thrilling and I love it. I found a way to wrestle with it so that I can enjoy sort of the extravagance of it and also be able to talk personally with the audience and take a breath.

SIMON: Let's listen to another song on this CD, if we can. Many people will recognize that it's from "Wicked." It's "Defying Gravity."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEFYING GRAVITY")

MENZEL: (Singing) I'd sooner buy, defying gravity. Kiss me goodbye, I'm defying gravity. I think I'll try defying gravity. And you can't pull me down.

SIMON: So, when you were a youngster learning you had this extraordinary gift, I'm just going to guess you would listen to some of the same songs over and over and learn the song that way and even for the first couple of times might have imitated whoever was singing.

MENZEL: Yeah. It's funny you said that. I was just talking about that with someone. I was a wedding singer, and I started when I was really young. I was about 15 years old and I lied to all the bands so that they'd hire me. And I drove around illegally in Long Island and Connecticut and New York to get the gigs. So, I was always having to do other people's music.

SIMON: Let me do some math. I wonder if the statute of limitations is expired or if we have to worry about New York State troopers bursting into the studio right now.

OK, you're OK.

MENZEL: Yeah. But so, I used to have an exercise for myself actually where I'd be driving to the gigs and I'd play, like, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, you know, try to listen to a particular song of theirs and then repeat that somewhere at the wedding or bar mitzvah and see where, you know, where Billie Holiday was where Idina may have started to become. And I tend to be a role model with a lot of young people because of "Wicked" and "Rent." And often they'll say I want to be like you or whatever or sing those notes or I'd practice with my teacher. And sometimes I feel little badly about that because it's really, I know I'm known for singing some of those high notes but that's really not what giving someone goose bumps is all about. It's about really trying to find what makes you unique, and that's going to be the thing that sets you apart and then why you become discovered or become successful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKERFACE")

MENZEL: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh...

SIMON: Let's listen to one of the songs you performed on "Glee." It's on this CD, too, and it's a cover of Lady Gaga's "Pokerface."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKERFACE")

MENZEL: (Singing) Can't read my, can't read my, no, he can't read my poker face. She's got to love nobody. Can't read my, can't read my, no, he can't read my poker face. She's got to love nobody...

As much as I love Lady Gaga, I always feel badly for all the Julliard-trained musicians that have to play that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

MENZEL: Wait, hold up, I'm sorry...

Oh, my God. They're up there just conducting the whole thing and it stops and it starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

MENZEL: I just realized I didn't set up the song. And why would I be singing this Lady Gaga song with this incredible symphony who all this Julliard or Royal Conservatory of Music. Where do you go in?

And they can't believe their ears and their eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

MENZEL: I didn't mean that disrespectfully. I just, you know, what's the equivalent? Julliard? Oh.

They're always so serious, the orchestras, you know, and then so I think, oh God, they hate me. And then as soon as they come offstage, they're all like, hi, we loved the show and can I bring my daughter backstage. And, you know, I think that they're told that they're not supposed to sort of react. But so it's just always this sort of fun contrast of that song and the genre of music and me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKERFACE")

MENZEL: (Singing) Oh no, see I don't love nobody. Oh, yeah. Give it to me, guys, come on, bring it, bring it, bring it. Hey.

SIMON: Do you see yourself doing another Broadway show any time soon?

MENZEL: Oh gosh, yes. I'm jonesing to get back. You know, my husband and I feel very strongly about staying in the same city. You know, he has a successful television show that's been based in L.A. and I've been doing the "Glee" stuff. But one thing I'm really, really proud of is my success with originating roles in new musicals. And so it's a process that I enjoy. Standing at Stephen Schwartz's piano for three years before we ever made it to Broadway and hearing every, you know, version of "The Wizard and I" that he wrote for that part, that scene, you know, and having him call and say come over, I just rewrote this. So, I want to do that again and I'm certainly involved in some early stages of that.

SIMON: Idina Menzel is set to tour the country with her new CD, "Barefoot at the Symphony," symphony after symphony, town after town. Thanks so much.

MENZEL: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MENZEL: (Singing) (unintelligible) on the wind and if I'm touched by someone's careless hand. And deep on the wind, I lost my love...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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