Idina Menzel leads the band
As a wedding singer in the 1980s, Idina Menzel came up with a crowd-pleasing formula: trot out a broad range of familiar songs, keep the party moving and the banter light.
But the actress, who has since won a Tony Award for “Wicked” on Broadway and starred in stage and movie versions of “Rent” and on Fox’s hit comedy “Glee,” had to rein in her now-famous big voice. She was supposed to be background music in those days, after all, not the main attraction.
Menzel smiled recently when she thought about that time, and not just because she fibbed about her age to land jobs around her native Long Island, N.Y. (She was 15 when she started, but told her band mates she was 18). The experience was great, if cheesy, she said, of the time when she moved from the music of the Police to Motown to Cole Porter and to the bossa nova. She wanted to be a rock star then, but out of necessity she became more of an entertainment jack-of-all-trades. As it turns out, that’s worked in her favor.
In a national tour she launched earlier this year, Menzel’s playing cabaret-style concerts with full orchestras, singing Broadway show tunes, original songs she wrote for her most recent CD, “I Stand,” and pop standards. There’s also ad-libbed patter between songs but, Menzel promises, “no shtick — I think I’ll have a lifelong aversion to that from all those weddings and bar mitzvahs.”
It’s a first-of-its-kind collaboration for Menzel, working with the likes of composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch, who called her “solid as a rock,” the Boston Pops and the National Symphony Orchestra.
For a performance Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, Menzel plans an eclectic lineup where her rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” could share the stage with her signature song, “Defying Gravity,” from “Wicked.”
“It’s not the typical orchestra show because there’s something idiosyncratic about it,” Menzel said over herbal tea on a recent chilly morning at Aroma Café in Studio City, near where she and her actor husband, Taye Diggs, recently bought a house. “I’m trying to corral some of my disparate groups of fans and bring them together.”
Much to her delight, she’s no longer competing with wedding toasts and bridezillas and, as the headliner, can call the shots.
“I’ve been picking arrangements that enhance my voice because I don’t have to tone it down in this setting — just the opposite,” she said. “It feels great.”
She’s had to do a little self-editing, though, trading her favored jeans and motorcycle boots for stilettos and evening gowns and making sure her on-stage stories are family friendly. “Wicked” director Joe Mantello called Menzel “disarmingly honest,” which, the singer said, sometimes comes out in candid not-safe-for-the-kids language.
“I’m not changing who I am, but I’m respectful because I’m in these amazing halls with a diverse audience,” she said. “I still want to be as authentic as I can be — it’s what people expect.”
Menzel’s tour shows how influential she’s become as a performer, said Chris Columbus, who directed the feature film “Rent.” “She’s created a bridge between rock, pop, soul and Broadway,” he said, as Barbra Streisand did before her. “And she has an emotional power that’s astounding.”
Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart called her a “phenomenon” among musical theater performers, inspiring rock star-like devotion from her fans. “It’s wonderful to see a Broadway star surrounded by enthusiastic teenagers, all gleefully serenading her with her own hit songs.”
Mantello, who worked with Menzel during “Wicked’s” three-year Broadway run and again for the West End production of the show in London, hasn’t seen her tour yet but thinks the milieu suits her.
“As she’s become more and more sophisticated as a performer, she hasn’t lost what makes her unique,” he said. “She’s so charming and real and vulnerable, and this is a great platform for people to see that.”
There’s talk of culling bits of the orchestra shows into a PBS special, but details are still fluid, and Menzel continues searching for her next original Broadway role. (No revivals, she said.) She, Diggs and their 14-month-old son, Walker, split their time between Los Angeles and New York, with the baby already on preschool waiting lists on both coasts to accommodate his parents’ multimedia careers.
Diggs costars on ABC’s “Private Practice,” in which Menzel has had guest roles, and he just sold an adoption-themed ensemble drama to the network. Menzel, meanwhile, is mulling a scripted TV idea loosely based on her life. She doesn’t know if she’ll appear again on “Glee,” where she played Lea Michele’s long-lost mother and coach of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline, but she’s open to the possibility. Producers have said she’ll likely return.
Balancing the personal and professional since her son was born has been a challenge, Menzel said, but she and Diggs “feel more inspired than ever,” though she admits they’re usually sleep deprived.
Her latest endeavor probably won’t help in that department. Menzel has started a nonprofit foundation called A Broader Way that plans to launch a performing arts summer camp for underprivileged kids.
The idea came to her after she saw the response from youngsters, especially girls, to her outcast character, Elphaba, in “Wicked,” and it’s been solidified by the mainstream success of the cast of “Glee.” She wants to create an environment where kids can express themselves through art, dance and music.
“The camp will celebrate these kids that don’t fit into the perfect mold of what’s popular,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll understand that their talent makes them cool.”