‘Rent.’ ‘Wicked.’ ‘Frozen.’ And now a remake of ‘Beaches.’ We track the making of a queer icon with Idina Menzel
Though it arrives nearly 20 years after her debut album, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for a self-titled Idina Menzel release. Menzel’s latest is a declaration of self — of her real self, that is.
“It’s how you pronounce my name,” the Broadway star says during our recent interview about the eponymous title, idina., a not-so-subtle allusion to that infamous name botch at the 2014 Academy Awards.
You remember: John Travolta called her “Adele Dazeem” just before she hit the stage to perform her career-changing song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, during which the Tony winner voices cold-thwarting snow queen Elsa. Frozen fame took Menzel to Elphaba heights, but it was Wicked and Rent that forever made her a gay fave.
Imagine, then, what a new Beaches might do for Menzel. The Lifetime remake of the 1988 classic has the 45-year-old portraying Bette Midler’s CC Bloom, a career choice the singer-actress admits has ruffled the feathers of her loyal queer following. Menzel talked about one gay fan’s tweet that led to her almost backing out of the film altogether, how LGBT support solidified her success and why she’s “excited” that Frozen fans are pulling for a lesbian Elsa.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: What’s a trip to the grocery like now, after Frozen made you a household name? Idina Menzel: It depends on how many little kids or gay men are there. And they certainly have been complimentary, and yeah, we take some pictures and I’ve put myself on a video for several people’s birthday wishes and bar mitzvahs.
But the gay guys aren’t just singing “Let It Go” to you, I’m sure. Exactly. And you know what, I’m leaving out the ladies, too! Because, of course, I was Maureen in Rent, so it’s not all the gay male community. There are a lot of beautiful women that have been very supportive of me.
What does your long and loyal history with the LGBT community mean to you? Honestly, you said the word “loyal” — it means everything to me. All the women that I’ve revered in my life have been beloved by the gay community. So, when I was younger it was like, if I’m not in with that club, then I haven’t made it. So, as soon as I felt like I was being included and appreciated and supported [by the LGBT community], it just really meant everything to me. Not to mention, the accolades and all the compliments don’t come easy. There can be harsh critics; it’s not an easy crowd to win over, so it feels good when you feel like you’ve made friends and they are so loyal and so supportive.
When were you first aware of your gay following? The first moment was probably when I’d go to the Nederlander Theatre when I was in Rent, and I’d get all these amazing letters from young kids struggling with their sexual orientation and who they were and how they wanted to come out. I’d get a lot of letters about that and how I was helping them be honest with themselves and be brave about coming out, so it started then and that was even… that was stronger than I had even anticipated or ever really had dreamed. Just on a much deeper, much more important level than singing a high note with a lot of bravado and people clapping. And it’s continued to be like that, really, with Wicked and Frozen, with Elsa. There are always these characters who are literally trying to come out of the closet – they’re hiding something within them that they’re afraid to let people see, and then finally they embrace it and change the world around them.
You seem to gravitate toward empowered female characters and tropes. Is there a particular reason why? I have no idea! I swear, I don’t know if I find them, or they find me. I went into the studio (for this album) — I was going through a divorce [she broke from Taye Diggs in late 2014 after 10 years of marriage], and I can’t tell you how many times I’d sit with these amazing writers and want to write some really upsetting, sad, dark song and it would turn out to be some uplifting, empowering song about trying to find my strength as a woman. I’d be like, “Aaack, why did we write that?! I hate that! I’m just so sick of it! I wanna be miserable! And I want people to let me be miserable!”
But no, I’m half joking. I just want to make sure that people know that I’m not always feeling that empowered and that confident in what I’m doing. Just like anyone else, I gotta work on all that stuff.
Are you saying you’re a real person? I think so! I think I am!
There’s a lot of pressure on you and Disney to make Elsa gay. Are you surprised by the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend movement? Am I surprised? [Sighs] Maybe at first I was a little surprised because it’s Disney, but I can say that I’m excited that the conversation is happening. I can’t promise anybody that that’s what’s gonna happen. I’m just a servant at a big company called Disney and I’m happy to have a role and a job. But deep down am I really happy that it’s causing people to talk about it and have these kinds of conversations? Yeah, I am.
Do you think the world is ready for a lesbian Disney princess? I don’t know about that, considering we’re having a hard time even getting Donald Trump out of the way. Sometimes it’s a little discouraging. But you never know. We keep making all these strides. We’ve made a lot of strides in the last couple of years, and then all of a sudden the hate and the vitriol within our country is exposed and you’re like, “What happened? We’re in the ancient times again.”
What does it mean to you to know that so many LGBT people interpreted “Let It Go” as a coming out anthem? And did you when you first read the lyrics? Yeah, probably not right at first because I’m an actor first, and so I’m thinking, what is it for this character and this young girl? Having had the Wicked experience, I bring those themes to it as well. But then I quickly saw all of the parallels and the universality of the song and how it could speak to so many people in so many different ways.
We must talk about the Patti LaBelle-inspired note you slay during “Queen of Swords,” from your new album. I have to say that sometimes my best moments, artistically speaking, have come from really emulating someone I love and playing around, because then I get out of my own space. I was literally just having fun. We had already recorded the end of that song a million times and I sang a million different runs of ad-libs at the end, and I was trying to make my producer and engineer laugh. And I didn’t know I could do that one! So then, of course, they put it in.
I’ve had other moments in my life where I’m on stage and if I’m having a hard time — if I feel insecure about a beat or how I’m interpreting something — I’ve done something like, how would Glenn Close approach this moment? Then, all of a sudden, I’m like, “Oh, look at this,” and I’m holding for applause and taking an extra two seconds just to own the stage, not feeling like I have to get out of there because I’m undeserving. It’s interesting if you put yourself in their footsteps once in a while how it can open that up for you and you realize, “Oh, I’ve been selling myself short. I can sell this moment.”
I’m not saying anybody should copy anybody. I don’t think anybody should mimic anyone, but I’m always an advocate of emulating and soaking in all of the greats, because then once it comes out of you, it’ll never be a clone — it will be you inspired by these people.
You’ve had three other studio albums — why self-title this one, and what’s the significance of the period? It’s very personal. I went through the hardest time in my life while writing this album — a beautiful, successful time, and also a very tumultuous, complicated time in my personal life, and so it’s very intimate. It’s my way of saying, “Hey, this is me and my barebones.” And the period is… what’s the word?… just a little nudge, like, “This is me,” with a little attitude in there, whether it’s how you pronounce my name or [directed toward] anybody who has tried to keep me down.
We refer to our most beloved icons by one name — Cher, Madonna, Mariah, Bette – so maybe this is also your initiation into gay iconography. Hey, if I can get into that realm or that class, I would be very happy. It would be a huge compliment. But I’m still working toward that. Those women have done a lot more than I have!
Why was it important to you to be a part of the “Fight Song” for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic National Convention? Elizabeth Banks asked me to do it. You know, I’m just … I believe in Hillary and I’m a Democrat, and I’m not trying to put off or judge anyone who isn’t, but I felt it was important to be a part of it.
Now that you’re obviously tight with Elizabeth Banks, could that mean we’ll see you in Pitch Perfect 3? That would be awesome.
“Wind Beneath My Wings” is a song that’s so iconic and so owned by Bette Midler. What was it like taking it on for your upcoming Beaches remake? It was almost reason to say “no.” I mean, I did say no a couple of times at first to the whole thing because to walk in her footsteps, I mean, you can’t. I needed to find what the reasons were to be a part of this when the [original] movie is so beautiful as is. I found that there’s a whole young generation of women who hadn’t seen Beaches. Because of the time we’re in now, as women, there’s a new perspective we have within that story, and there’s a new conversation that can go on as far as us living out our passions and our work and our home life. It’s a little different when you watch the movie now, in this context of life. There’s more that we can bring to it to update it. But as far as the song — the song terrified me. I brought it to my producer, Greg Wells, who did “Queen of Swords” and half of the album, and I said, “How can we make this contemporary?” We sat at the piano and stripped it down, and he just found this way that brings in all these modern sounds. We stayed pretty strict to the melody and I don’t know — I’m just really happy about it. I think it came off really beautifully. It’s an homage to what was already there, but also just a new incarnation of it.
Gay men are very devoted to Beaches. Have you consulted any of them for the role? By accident I went on my Twitter feed and saw somebody who wrote, “Idina, I love you, but it’s sacrilege that you’re doing this!” I called my agent and I was like, “Tell them I can’t do it. All these gay men are mad at me and they’re gonna hate me!” But it’s just such a great role for me and the experience of being on set and working every day on this beautiful woman that is funny and talented and she gets to do drama and comedy — it was such a great experience for me and it was just hard to turn down. So I hope they’ll forgive me! I understand if they cannot. But you know, come on, Judy Garland redid A Star is Born and then Barbra redid Judy Garland! So sometimes these things happen. I’m not saying I’m any of those women, but you know, sometimes we redo these movies.
Earlier this year, you reunited with your Wicked co-star Kristin Chenoweth and sang “For Good” with her for the first time in 12 years. What was it like to revisit that song a decade-plus later with Kristin and can we expect you to work on anything else with her? Ah, maybe! Yeah, I would never say never to that. That experience that day was very powerful for both of us, and very moving. We both sung that song a lot through the years in our own concerts, but we hadn’t gotten back and sung it together. And you know, that show changed our lives and the trajectory of our careers. It bonded us — it bonded lots of people — and it’s a song that people connect to in so many ways. They use it at their weddings and their dances with their mothers and they play it at funerals. It’s this incredible song, and for us to have sort of originated that — and together — it’s something we’ll always share. We felt such a pride about it.
Are you going to be OK if Wicked gets made into a film with actresses other than you and Kristin? No, I’m gonna — no! I’m gonna have a hard time with that. Let’s be honest… you want me to be honest? Or do you want me to say, “Oh, sure, can’t wait for whoever looks 20 years younger than me but can’t sing as good as me gets the role?”
They better not fuck it up, right? They better not fuck it up! I’m lobbying to do it like Benjamin Button. A little CGI on a beautiful, green face. I could look gorgeous! Like, who cares — just take out a couple wrinkles. Green and exotic. I still have a girly innocence about me. And here I am trying to audition for this role…
I’m sorry, Idina; believe it or not, I have no say in this. No, it’s all good. It’s not gonna happen for a while anyway. I’ll be 70 by the time it comes out and still be trying to get this role.
The special effects will be even better in 30 years. I hope I’m just not in Vegas in some bad lounge singing it, that’s all I hope.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 23, 2016.