Superstar stage and screen diva Idina Menzel returns to Red Bank Thursday with no less than Marvin Hamlisch at the podium as guest conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on RedBankGreen January 31, 2011)
Most actors, singers or combinations thereof would be very thankful to have latched on to even one genuinely fan-supercharged, multi-generational, cross-cultural pop phenomenon in their professional lifetimes. Idina Menzel has been a big part of three such phenoms — and the general consensus is that she’s only just begun.
When the recently minted stage superstar, who painted herself a minty green for her Tony-winning turn as Elphaba in Wicked, returns to the boards of the Count Basie Theatre Thursday night, she’ll be bringing it big-time for local Rentheads (she originated the role of Maureen in the modern musical smash), Gleeks (she’s co-starred in the recurring role of Shelby Corcoran on the hitmaking Fox TV series), and whatever it is that fans of Wicked call themselves these days (Elphicionados?).
The native Long Islander and hardworking mom (she and co-RENTer husband Taye Diggs have an infant son) will also be bringing along an extra special treat — Marvin Hamlisch, the EGOT winner (Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony, that is; not to mention two Golden Globes and one Pulitzer Prize) who’s scored about as many golden trophies as he has movies, TV specials and Broadway musicals. The maestro will be wielding the baton as guest conductor of the mighty New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for an 8p set of songs written or otherwise “owned” by the star singer, from stage/screen signatures to material from her 2008 CD I Stand.
The celebs desk at redbankgreen talked to Menzel on the eve of her east coast jaunt. A half-dozen or so Q’s and A’s follow.
Idina Menzel in the film version of RENT, onstage with Kristin Chenoweth in WICKED, and with Lea Michele on TV’s GLEE.
redbankgreen: I’m looking at the big show that you’ve got in store for us when you return to Red Bank for the first time in two years: the New Jersey Symphony for one night only, with Marvin Hamlisch, yet. The phrase “we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy” comes to mind. Would it be accurate to say that this show, and every show on the tour, is unique to that particular evening, and that particular town?
IDINA MENZEL: I spent a lot of time in that area, down around the Shore, near Red Bank. My roommate in college was from West Long Branch, and I’d stay with her a lot. It was my home away from home… Excuse me for one moment, while I clean up this incredibly disgusting mess made by my child (laughs)!
We’ve been doing these shows for eight months. My music director Rob Mounsey goes everywhere with me. He did the arrangements. But it’s a different show, with a different orchestra, in every city. Different audiences, different musicians.
Marvin’s doing nearly all the shows too, and I’m just so honored that he wanted to do it, especially the East Coast shows, which are very important to me since that’s where I’m from. He really took a leap of faith. He took a chance that he’d dig it. And he and I really hit it off, really connected with each other. We fell in love with each other. I shouldn’t say that; we’re both happily married.
You’ve navigated your own career as smartly as anyone, but do you marvel at having arrived at a place where you can lobby to become part of the cast of GLEE, or be able to work with a superstar record producer like Glen Ballard?
With GLEE, my husband and I are huge fans. I had just had my baby, it was during the time that I was just getting adjusted to motherhood, and I felt really fat, like I was never going to work again. I put it out there that I just wanted to be involved with the show. This was a way for me to get back on the horse.
With Glen, this was somebody that I wanted to work with for years. This is the man who’s been involved with so much of my favorite music, who wrote my favorite song of all time, “Man In The Mirror,” with Michael Jackson. Glen’s name always came up, I would send tape demos to him, but it was a situation where I needed to be working toward the point where he was ready to work with me. Eventually we got to that point, and the year that I spent writing songs with him was the best time of my life.
I’m sure it’s just logistically impossible to pack up an orchestra in a tractor trailer and take them with you everywhere, but it’s got to be even more daunting to work with a whole new orchestra for every show. How do you get everybody synched up, when you’re here with the New Jersey Symphony on Thursday and then up at Lincoln Center with the Philharmonic two days later?
Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about it. I know that things are in the best of hands. I get to sing out in front, and I get to listen.
I’m a creature of the eight-shows-a-week lifestyle, where you pick up on all the subtle differences between individual performances. I’m always listening to the way different musicians feel the music, searching for nuances. Those lovely surprises, like when someone plays a solo in a new and different way.
Speaking of surprises onstage, if you’ll forgive the wisecrack, you’re someone who’s had her share of ups and downs working with Broadway style special effects. Do you think that the latest generation of shows are losing sight of something in the race to mount the biggest, splashiest spectacles? I say this as the body count continues to pile up for SPIDER-MAN.
I haven’t seen the show. I’m a huge fan of U2 by the way, and Julie Taymor is a real artist. But I don’t want to pass judgment. Sometimes you have a wonderful mix of technology and humans, where everyone is working really hard, where the clock is ticking and money’s being spent, and somebody makes a split-second decision and… well, that’s live theater.
I came away from the WICKED incident with one broken rib, and a lot of funny stories.
Alright, we only have time to wrap it up with a quick lightning round. Favorite guilty pleasure TV show from the 1970s or 80s?
Family Ties! I actually don’t feel guilty about that at all.
Fill in the blank: a lot of people might be surprised to learn that Idina Menzel likes to listen to…?
Oh, they might be surprised to know that when I’m in the car, with the radio on, I’d rather not listen to music at all. I listen to news… or silence.
One more. What this New Yorker misses most when she finds herself in anther part of the country is…
The fact that we don’t close everything down at one in the morning! I like to be someplace where things are open after the show, where you can get a meal at midnight. It’s one of the things you miss. I live in LA most of the time now, and you don’t always get to connect with people out there like you do when you’re doing theater in New York. It’s nice to feel connected to other people.