When I was growing up there was a saying that things come in three's. I don't know where that originated, but through life it has seemed to be true for me. On Broadway in the nineties there was a case were this old adage rang true, and all in the same show. There was the introduction of “Wicked” – one of the greatest Broadway Musicals of all time, and its' two stars Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. While this was not Menzel's introduction to Broadway it was the role that catapulted her to a level of stardom that she had not known before, and we are all the beneficiaries!
Menzel is one of the greatest Broadway discoveries of the past twenty years. Her voice, that smile and her ability to connect with an audience. You cannot be in her presence for more than a few minutes before you feel as if you know her – and like her. It is no wonder then that her career has taken her far from the Broadway stage and onto concert stages and television screens the world over.
I caught up with Menzel in a cab of all places, and we started at the very beginning, performing at home as a kid. “My grandfather who passed away when I was very young was very big on story telling and putting on shows. He was a very big part of getting me to perform and getting that out of me.” But it was when auditioning for a choir that she discovered that she had something. “I auditioned for a choir concert and I heard a little bit of a gasp from the back, from the teachers and I thought 'OK, I must be doing something well.”
From then on it was all about learning for Menzel. Learning to train and use her instrument, that amazing voice. “My mom got me voice lessons and I started studying classically with my teacher. She really wanted me to understand my instrument and breathing and to be able to read music.
At fifteen her professional singing career began. Weddings and Bar Mitzvah's would provide Menzel with steady work through college at New York University where she graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts. It is this work that she credits with a musical education that she benefits from to this day. “It was a really vibrant learning experience.” As a wedding singer she needed a very large and very diverse catalog of music ready to perform on request. “I think it helped me to be very versatile and have an appreciation for all types of music.
It was after graduation that she auditioned for a small off-Broadway show called Rent. The success of the show took it and Menzel to Broadway. But for Menzel the impact of this show on her life is greater than the success that it brought. It came with a life lesson she cherishes to this day. Jonathan Larson, the co-creator and driving force behind Rent attended the musical's final dress rehearsal the day before opening. The following morning, the day the show opened, he passed away. “Because we had to push on as all that was happening, we really learned what was important in life. We were up there with this incredible gift that he left us. The only important thing was that we did a good job and we communicated his work. That is what we owed him. Therefore all the materialistic things and all the things that come with being in such a phenomenal show fell by the wayside. It really grounded us.”
And then there was Wicked. ”A musical director friend of mine told me about the show and told me I should really go in for this.” If you are not familiar Wicked is a retelling of the story of the Wiches of Oz, it is offers an amazing twist on the story we grew up with, and really illustrates that you never know where you will find a true friend and how our perception of others can be very flawed. Wicked has gone has gone on to become the twelfth longest running show in Broadway history and remains the greatest Broadway show I have ever seen. To what does she credit the enormous popularity? “I think we all have a place inside of us where we feel misunderstood, combine that with the story of Oz that we all grew up and there is just something magical that resonates inside of us.”
Since leaving Wicked the muti-talented singer, song-writer and actress has found success on stages, selling out shows the world over and she has been featured in many film and television roles, most notably as Rachael Barry's biological mother on Glee.
Though there is not a forum where this powerhouse doesn't shine, I think it is on the stage that she is most engaging. Her “Barefoot At The Symphony” tour is a complete sell out, and has been filmed for a PBS special. She brings a revamped version of this show to Dallas on June 13th. She promises the songs you expect with new material and new arrangements. Menzel is an amazing talent. Listening to her “Barefoot At The Symphony” CD I am reminded of a young Streisand, back when she was playful, spontaneous and had a sense of humor, about the world and about herself. That Streisand is long gone, but Menzel recreates that magic flawlessly.
Idina Menzel performs at the Music Hall at Fair Park on Wednesday, June 12th. Tickets are $40-$70, and available at Ticketmaster.
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