Bugs’ interview with Idina Menzel originally ran in the Montreal Gazette on August 31, 2015
Idina Menzel remembers the day she fell through a trap door onstage during her Broadway run as the “wicked” witch Elphaba in the blockbuster musical Wicked like it was yesterday.
The accident happened during the Jan. 8, 2005 matinée at the Gershwin Theatre, and stunned the cast, crew and sellout crowd.
“I thought I had punctured my lungs or something,” Menzel told me in a recent and rare one-on-one sit-down interview. “It was crazy and I was surrounded backstage by all the crew, who were my friends. They were trying to get me to breathe and were afraid to move me because they wanted to make sure my spine was OK. It was scary.”
Menzel fractured a rib. But the next day, without makeup and dressed simply in a tracksuit and sneakers, she made a surprise entrance at the very end of the matinée to sing a few bars in the finale, and received a five-minute standing ovation.
Clearly, the show must go on for Menzel, who is nothing if not well rehearsed. “I warm up with my voice teacher,” she said. “We treat (this tour) like an athlete trains for the Olympics. You don’t run a marathon coming out of nowhere. It’s important to train, especially for when you have a cold or you’re having a bad day. You have to be able to get up there on stage and still be powerful even if you’re not 100 per cent.”
Menzel first earned notice in 1996 in the Broadway musical Rent. She won a best-actress Tony Award in 2004 for playing Elphaba — a role she would reprise when the musical opened in London’s West End in 2006.
Superstardom came in 2013 when Menzel voiced the character of Elsa in the Disney movie Frozen, and she topped the charts with her Oscar-winning anthem Let It Go from the soundtrack.
When asked if she will star in the upcoming Broadway adaptation of Frozen, Menzel replied:“We’ll see if they want me to. They’re still working on the story, and I might be too old to play Elsa onstage.”
She credits her success to working as a wedding and bar mitzvah singer when she was a teenager. “You have to learn all kinds of music,” she said. “It really makes you a good listener. It also builds a thicker skin because you’re up there pouring your heart out and no one is listening. So I think a lot of who I am today, I learned from that experience.”
Menzel, whose musical theatre idol growing up was Barbra Streisand, has become a role model for a new generation of young girls who discovered her via Frozen.
“It’s beautiful, but also quite a responsibility,” she said. “It makes me need to be on my game and make sure that I am practising what I preach. I am out there singing about empowerment and accepting who you are, and what makes you extraordinary in this world. So I make sure I do that for myself. … I don’t want to be hypocritical. It’s a big responsibility, not just to young girls, but also to young boys.”
Menzel’s gay fans are also legion. Beyond her championing LGBT civil rights, what is it about her that they adore?
“That question is always one of the hardest ones for me to answer, because I’m not quite sure,” Menzel replied. “I think it’s partly the underdog characters that I’ve played — characters who overcome alienation or being ostracized, who overcome adversity to feel beautiful. Also, good big hair, a good big voice and a nice vibrato is always good for the gay community. I owe everything to my gay fans, ever since my Rent days.”
When asked if she is a diva, Menzel laughed and Googled a definition. “I’m not, in the negative context they use it these days. I hope I’m not,” she said. “I’m grappling with asking for what I need (to do my job) as a powerful woman in this world, because women get a bad rap when they stand up and speak for themselves. But I’m pretty low maintenance, I would say. It’s a balance. It all ties into Frozen and Elsa and not being afraid to embrace power and harness it, and know you can change the world.”
Night after night, show after show, Menzel is reminded of her dreams and aspirations. “I still like giving autographs to fans,” she said. “I remember when I was a little girl, I used to practise what my autograph should look like. So when young girls come up to me after a show, even if I’m tired or weary, I remember that.”