Idina Menzel is back on tour with her first studio effort in nearly a decade
If luck is the crossroads where opportunity meets preparation, then it’s clear that Idina Menzel has been going through life with the spiritual equivalent of a four-leaf clover hanging over her head. Menzel went from a 1996 professional musical Tony-nominated debut as an original cast member of the Off-Broadway and Broadway versions of Rent to later playing Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, alongside Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked. Having won a 2004 Tony Award for that role, the Queens native received her third Tony nod for starring as Elizabeth in the 2013 musical If/Then. All this before landing on the radar of little girls everywhere as the voice of Queen Elsa in the 2013 film Frozen, where she sang the immortal Oscar- and Grammy-winning song “Let It Go.” The groundswell of popularity and success that came with being part of this particular project even has the singer shaking her head.
“Professionally, [Frozen is] one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she says with a laugh. “When you can have success in your career and it really touches people and connects with young people especially, there’s something even more special and profound about that kind of accomplishment. I had no idea it would be as big as it is. I count my lucky stars and look forward to doing the upcoming sequel. Once every decade, I get a sort of a zeitgeist type of opportunity and I’m just very, very lucky.”
These are quite the professional heights attained by the alum of J. Irving Baylis Elementary School, Harry B. Thompson Middle and Syosset High School, who is currently touring behind last year’s idina., her fifth solo effort and first non-holiday recording since 2008’s
I Stand. With one of the early dates being at the newly renovated and rechristened Nassau Coliseum on the heels of local icon Billy Joel playing opening night, Menzel is enjoying quite a homecoming.
“The show on Long Island was a big deal to me, because I grew up going to Nassau Coliseum. I saw U2 play there. That was one of the first concerts ever. And the fact that Billy Joel was there two nights before me and opening it up was all very nostalgic and exciting for me,” she says wistfully.
Still very much a Long Island gal at heart, Menzel has plenty of great memories of going to school in Syosset. She’s still friendly with former teacher Lydia Esslinger, who came out for the Coliseum show. Menzel also speaks fondly of other influential educators including the late Elliot Bean and Roslyn Pincus (“She was my favorite teacher of all time and encouraged all of us in the fourth grade to be very creative and to read poetry.”) Having grown up in such an upscale area doesn’t mean she wasn’t aware of economic disparities that might make for fraught and bittersweet teen years.
“I have memories of [the district] being extremely supportive of the arts and being in an affluent area where people put a lot of money towards the arts. So I was able to really travel with a choir and put on school plays with great teachers, lessons and all that kind of stuff. That was one of the best things about growing up there,” Menzel recalled. “I remember plenty of kids having a lot of money and I was on the low end of middle class and so it was hard to grow up around that. There was a lot of entitlement. I think it’s hard for a kid to have an understanding and perspective of what they are lucky to have. I didn’t have as many Jordache jeans as someone else (laughs). I did understand that I was very lucky and that my parents gave me a great many things on my father’s pajama salesman’s salary.”
Despite the groundswell her professional path has taken, Menzel’s personal life has taken a beating in recent years. After giving birth to son Walker Nathaniel Diggs, her decade-long marriage to fellow Rent cast member Taye Diggs ended in a 2014 divorce. Last September, she announced her engagement to actor Aaron Lohr, who she met when both appeared in the 2005 film adaptation of Rent. This recent emotional rollercoaster ride that is her personal life is reflected throughout the dozen songs on the new record.
Highlights include the piano ode “Last Time,” with Menzel going from a slow build into the lines, “Don’t let the last time I saw you/Be the last time” and “I See You,” a power ballad not unlike Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” that hits home with aching couplets like, “Here’s to the lonely/To the broken-hearted/I want you to know I feel your pain/Here’s to the hopeless/The almost forgotten/To those who got lost along the way.” This latest record found Menzel revisiting and working her way through some of those hard recent moments.
“I had a lot to write about. I’d gone through a lot of changes in my life. I was going through a divorce while simultaneously, my whole professional life was taking off,” she says. “I met someone that I love very much after I got divorced, so there’s a lot of rebirth and there’s a lot of sadness and regret. There was a lot to write about.”