Idina Menzel, defying gravity again


Idina Menzel is in preparation to star in the upcoming production of ’If/Then’ at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Jesse Dittmar/For The Washington Post)
November 1, 2013

Idina Menzel knows a thing or two about charmed lives. She is, after all, the original Elphaba, the green-skinned witch of “Wicked,” the megahit Broadway musical that earned her a Tony Award and the adoration of theatergoers young and old who wished for a voice that might, like hers, hit that impossibly high F in Elphaba’s anthem, “Defying Gravity.”

That wasn’t the first spell she cast on Broadway, however. To even the most casual “Rent”-head, she’s known for her socko turn as Maureen, the bisexual baby doll who fills out catsuits and rocks out with girlfriend Joanne to the hormone-stoking harmonies of “Take Me or Leave Me.”

It is a remarkable pedigree, the envy of any actress with a show tune in her heart and the lung power to belt it. To have originated not one, but two such roles, at the ages of 24 and 32, in an era when juicy new parts in musical-theater are as rare as red diamonds, is an achievement that accords her membership in a most exclusive club. And now, as she prepares to meet audiences at Washington’s National Theatre for the world premiere of a new musical headed for Broadway by a pair of Pulitzer-winning songwriters, the situation that confronts Menzel has musical lovers asking: Can she make it three?

The show, “If/Then,” is not only that most exotic of D.C. theater events — a commercial Broadway tryout — but also one of the most eagerly anticipated musicals of the season in New York, where it is scheduled to begin performances in March. First, though, it has to get on its feet here, in a month-long run beginning Tuesday that will start to gauge whether “If/Then’s” creators, the “Next to Normal” team of composer Tom Kitt, lyricist Brian Yorkey and director Michael Greif, have fashioned a hit, or still have a lot of work to do.

True to their artistic natures, Kitt and Yorkey have assembled a musical with thinking-person’s themes and an inventive structure, a two-headed plot that takes its lead character through two competing realities. To mitigate concerns about audiences navigating the plots, lighting and other technical elements have been developed to help define the distinct story lines. No one is surprised, though, that these longtime collaborators have devised the work as a tantalizing maze. “Next to Normal,” which like “If/Then” made an early developmental stop in Washington, was the tale set to music of a family convulsed by bipolar illness. Although the musical defied expectations and ran for 733 performances, it was not the most obvious candidate for box office briskness.

Performer Idina Menzel stars in the musical “If/Then” at The National Theatre through Dec. 8. (Courtesy National Theatre/The Washington Post)
Above the title

“If/Then” is built around the life of a 40-ish urban planner named Elizabeth, who leaves Phoenix and settles back into life in Manhattan, where the musical forks into alternate narratives, one taking her on a career-intensive path, the other on the road to love and family. It’s a valentine to New York and a contemplation of the choices one makes, what they lead to, what they close off: “Some Other Me” is the title of one “If/Then” ballad, a song redolent of the musical’s wistful sense of life’s shifting, overlapping possibilities.

It’s also an apt enough number for Menzel herself, an earthy, no-nonsense Long Island girl who at one time envisioned a far different path, in the recording industry, and who through some amazing strokes of luck and displays of talent wound up on Broadway playing lesbian heartbreakers and misunderstood witches.

“I understand how fortunate I was to be in those other shows,” Menzel is saying, as she sinks into a banquette in a Times Square bar after a recent day of rehearsals. She’s highly aware of the enviable parameters of her working life, which brings her back to Broadway for the first time since she left “Wicked” in 2005. “It’s this weird dichotomy of living your dream, and just going to the office.”

And even more keenly, she’s conscious of the new, hot spotlight in which “If/Then” casts her. For she returns at age 42 as the show’s absolute center of gravity, her name emblazoned above the title, her likeness front and center in the ads. The hope, of course, is that all those fans who grew up with her, who know her from “Rent” and “Wicked,” her stints as Rachel’s mother on “Glee” and Amy Adams’s rival in “Enchanted,” will line up to see her in “If/Then,” too. She’s also one of the voices in the new Disney animated musical “Frozen.”

“I understand the pressure of selling tickets,” she says. “I can feel that hanging over my head.”

A winding road to Broadway

It’s a grownup’s sort of challenge, fitting for this juncture in Menzel’s own trajectory, as she juggles the responsibilities of mom (to 4-year-old Walker), wife (to heartthrob actor and fellow “Rent” alumnus Taye Diggs) and performer. Her allies in the business see a connection between the woman she’s evolved into and the actress she’s become, and observe how well she integrates the intense experiences she’s had onstage into the more ordinary contortions of offstage existence.

“The experience of ‘Wicked’ changed her, which of course it would,” says David Stone, producer of “Wicked” and “If/Then” and a Menzel confidant. “The level of attention to her performance and the award were big. But the bigger thing for me was watching her grow on the side of her life that was happening alongside ‘Wicked.’ The navigating of personal relationships, figuring out the balance, when to follow your dream, when to have a child, figuring out priorities and life decisions. It wasn’t so much what was going on inside the Gershwin [Theatre], it was what was going on on the outside.”

Maturity comes up a lot in conversations about Menzel, who divides her time between Los Angeles and New York, and keeps Walker as priority No. 1: even in Manhattan, she gets in the car every morning and drives him downtown to preschool. With Diggs shooting a TV series in L.A., Walker is with Menzel (and a nanny) in Washington, too.

The impression of solid citizen carries over into her work. “She was the epitome of the natural when we first met her,” says Greif, who cast and directed her in “Rent.” “Things came easily. Now you see that in addition to that naturalness, there’s real craft and real technique. And she so clearly loves this process and she lets this process be elastic and bold. She’s considered, and yet not careful.”

Still, Menzel harbors some insecurities, too, the result in part of the bruises one inevitably acquires in her field, as well as a conviction that she has not enjoyed the same critical embrace as some of her peers. A failure to take off as a singer-songwriter in the recording industry — her first label dropped her after poor sales — left a mark, as did the New York Times review of “Wicked,” which bestowed a larger crown on the performance of Menzel’s co-star Kristin Chenoweth. (Though friends say the tension between them has been exaggerated, there was an unavoidable rivalry that intensified after Menzel bested Chenoweth for the best-actress Tony.)

She says that she’s learned quite a lot over the years about what’s right for her. When I first interviewed her back in March 1996, just after “Rent” opened to huzzahs off-Broadway, she was iffy about a life in the theater, explaining that she had her own rock band and that having a “legit career” made it “difficult” to be taken seriously in rock.

At this account, Menzel scrunches her face into a look that says, “what was I thinking?” “The truth is I love musical theater, and always have. I love singing very expressively, with lots of emotionality and in pop and rock, they make you tone it down,” she says. “It took getting dropped from a record label, it took struggling after ‘Rent’, to realize I love it here.”

Growing up

Menzel grew up in white-collar Woodbury, N.Y., a kid who got good grades and had an outstanding voice, but whose mom, over Menzel’s pleas, wanted her to build a childhood rather than a résumé. “One day, she saw a mother drag a girl off a camp bus to take her to a commercial audition,” Menzel says of her mother. That was that. Instead, Menzel took singing lessons and sang in choirs, and when she was a teenager was hired as a wedding singer. The gigs were the opposite of cheesy; they gave her a musical education, as she learned to perform jazz standards in the manner of the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. (Years later, when she molded her concert tours, she relied on all the work she did, mimicking the legends at those Long Island nuptials.)

“You start to emulate them,” she says. “Your ear helps you imitate them, and then you begin to see where your own impetus is.”

“She was incredibly talented and beautiful,” says Adam Pascal, who lived around the corner from Menzel, was a year ahead of her at Syosset High and, in the wildest of career convergences, ended up her co-star of “Rent.” What were the odds of that pair of voices emerging from the same suburban neighborhood?

“He was really popular, he got all the girls and smoked at the back of the bus,” recalls Menzel.

“By painting me as cool, she’s glamorizing the reality,” Pascal, speaking by phone from California, replies, laughing. All through NYU, she dated a friend of Pascal’s, and when she got the part in “Rent,” the friend called Pascal to say they were looking for a guy with a rock voice. “I thought, ‘Idina’s in it. What’s the worst that can happen?’ ”

“Rent” would be a seminal experience, not in the least because it brought Menzel into the orbit of Greif, who would prove to be a faithful mentor and the antithesis of the artificiality she’s found in some other aspects of her working life: “You think you’re best friends, and you never hear from anyone,” she says. To have Greif’s loyalty, she adds, “reinforces my faith in the business.”

Greif and Stone had Menzel in mind from the start for “If/Then,” an enterprise in which she is reunited with another “Rent” original, Anthony Rapp. (LaChanze, a Tony winner for the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” is also in the cast.) “With all of us from the original cast, there’s that tremendous connection that we all had — it’s been, ‘pick up where we left off,’ ” Rapp says. Everyone had to grow up quickly in the early days of that show, especially after its creator, 35-year-old Jonathan Larson, died unexpectedly of a heart ailment right before opening night.

“I can’t overstate what trust means in our work,” Rapp says of working again with Menzel — they play best friends in the musical. “Trusting not that she’s just a good person, but that onstage every night, I have absolute trust and faith that we will be present for each other.”

Having a chance to watch Menzel and Rapp rehearse a scene together, in a Manhattan studio overlooking West 42nd Street, reminds you of their shared history — and of time passing. The scene leading up to their duet in “Some Other Me” requires a young actress to approach Rapp, who plays an author named Lucas, and declare to him, “You are proof you don’t have to give up on your ideals when you get old.”

The characters in “Rent” are forever young. Actors are not. And yet it’s reassuring to reacquaint oneself with familiar ones and see that time does not have to be unkind to them. Menzel has had her share of good times on the stage, and no matter which path “If/Then” follows, she pronounces herself pleased with the road she’s on and the company she’s in.

“I’m smart enough,” she explains, “to know to work with smart people.”

If/Then

music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Tuesday-Dec. 8 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Visit www.thenationaldc.org or call 800-514-3849.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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