Pretty much any veteran live performer will say they have some little personal “trick” they use to keep their most oft-performed material fresh. For Idina Menzel and her trademark “Wicked” showstopper “Defying Gravity,” it’s sometimes a gay teen — perhaps with a little projecting — that helps get her through the song.
Well, that and what she describes as kind of obligation she has to the star-making material.
“That song is a personal gift to me,” she says. “I have a personal debt I owe to that music. Because I have to sing it so much, people ask if it gets monotonous. I can truthfully say that doesn’t happen because every time I sing it, I come from a different place. It could be the young 14-year-old boy in the front row singing it along with me who may not have come out yet. I know how much the song means to him, so I can sing it to him that night. I think it’s a testament to how well written a song it is that it can speak to so many different people.”
Menzel brings her summer tour to Wolf Trap next week for her only D.C.-area appearance. The Tony winner, who’s become a household name since she debuted in “Rent” in 1996 and later in “Wicked” in 2003, also varies her set list slightly from city to city, another show-freshening trick she swears by. She’ll perform in Virginia with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Steven Reineke.
“I’m excited about the show not only because of the material I’m doing, but because I feel like I’ve found a way to make every city have a show that’s unique to them,” Menzel, 41, says. “People should know when they come to see the show they can leave feeling like they got to know a little piece of who I am and it’s not the same everywhere. Every city’s just a little bit different.”
“I’ve been doing it with the symphony for almost three years already, which I truly love. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, which is why I continue to do it,” Menzel says. “There’s an intimacy I’m able to maintain even though I have all these musicians behind me. I had to strike a balance with it early on. It was a little bit of work for me to figure out how to do that, but now it’s pretty natural and organic.”
Even after appearing in two seasons of “Glee” and in films like “Rent” and Disney’s “Enchanted,” Menzel still finds singing live to be her favorite brand of performance.
“I definitely thrive off of the live audience and the adrenaline of being in the moment,” she says.
In 2009, Menzel had her first child, son Walker, with fellow Broadway actor and husband Taye Diggs. Before motherhood, Menzel had a strict regimen for keeping her vocals up, but now being more flexible with her schedule as a mother has only enhanced her performance experiences, she says.
“The more I sing the better for me. I’m like a marathon runner as far as running everyday. So that’s kind of how I approach it — athletically. And I’m just finding that being a mom and having a little boy now has changed my whole perspective on that. I used to have such a ritual and routine that I still try to keep, but if I deviate from it I’m a little less hard on myself, and in return I feel like the rewards are greater for me professionally. I may not be as prepared vocally, but then I’m on stage and I feel more free.”
Menzel’s summer tour includes old favorites from her roles on Broadway in “Wicked” and “Rent,” as well as other hits featured in her concert “Barefoot at the Symphony” that aired on PBS and has now been released on DVD.
“There are a few songs I wouldn’t leave stage without singing. I’m constantly changing [the set list], trying to tell different stories,” Menzel says. “It’s half and half music people would expect and the other stuff is new stuff I want to challenge myself with.”
Looking back, Menzel finds that she was in very different places in life during her appearances on “Glee” in the show’s first and third seasons. She was still adjusting to being a mom while filming the first season, but during the filming of the third season was more used to juggling parenthood and her career.
“The last season I was on I enjoyed it a lot more. I was learning how to balance motherhood and work for myself. I was enjoying the cast and I didn’t have to run home every second to pump my boobs or whatever,” Menzel says. “I hope [the cast] are all really appreciating it and enjoying it in the moment because you can easily lose sight of how incredible it is. I would love to do more TV, but my definitive wish was to get back to New York and do another show.”
In addition to touring, Menzel is working on a number of projects. She’s working alongside composers of original pieces for new musicals to act as a “muse,” singing and doing readings of their work so they can hear the results of their writing. She’s also thrilled to start work as Elsa in a new Disney movie called “Frozen” set for release in 2013.
“It’s amazing for me, like a dream,” she says. “It’s an animated Disney movie and there’s lots of music in it. It’s a beautiful story, and we just got started.”
And yes, as clichéd as it might sound for a Broadway powerhouse, Menzel is aware and appreciative of her gay following.
“I did the Atlantis cruise ship with 1,000 gay men and I had probably the greatest time I’ve ever had,” she says.
Though on one hand she says it makes no difference — “an audience is an audience, made up of all different kinds of people” — she says the gay kids who tell her “Wicked” helped them come out mean a lot.
“All that kind of stuff is part of the benefits I reap from what I do for a living. It enriches me as a person and I feel like everyone’s in it together out there.”
Gay conductor to lead NSO for Menzel show
By BRIAN T. CARNEY
Maestro Steven Reineke says his friend Idina Menzel wouldn’t want him to say too much about what she’ll be singing at their upcoming performance with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap.
But he does mention, “She covers a lot of material in her set. And she tells great stories. She’s very interactive with the audience. There’s even some audience participation.”
He’s more forthcoming about the first half of the program, which will start with one of his own compositions. The gay composer and conductor wrote “Celebration Fanfare” when he was 25 (he turns 42 in September) and notes that the piece is still performed frequently by orchestras and concert bands across the country. The work is dedicated to Erich Kunzel, conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, who served as a mentor to Reineke and encouraged his career as both composer and conductor.
Reineke resisted the temptation to start the evening with his own version of “Defying Gravity,” though Reineke’s piece was written to celebrate another kind of flight — the centennial of the Wright Brother flight. He says it’s a funny coincidence that Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz used the same title for the Act I finale of “Wicked,” a number that has become a signature piece for Menzel.
“We just happened to come up with the same title. They have nothing to do with each other whatsoever,” he says.
Reineke started composing when he was a teenager. He remembers, “I had all this music running around my head. I started to plunk things out on the piano because I just needed to get these songs out. It wasn’t really a conscious choice.”
It was also about that time he realized he was gay.
”I came out to myself when I was 17 years old, a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college. I’ll never forget having that cathartic moment when I stared in the mirror and said the words out loud, ‘I am gay.’ That was the hardest part about the process.”
As he began his professional life, Reineke remained open about his sexuality and says it was “a no brainer” because “I was never really in. The more notoriety I got, the more it came up, and I’m just not the kind of person to deny it. I just treat it as a very normal part of life. There was no big coming out.”
Reineke isn’t sure why the “classical closet” (cultural critic K. Robert Schwarz’s term for the dearth of classical musicians who are openly LGBT) still persists so strongly. He does note, “I do wish that more people would treat is as a non-issue, whether they’re in the arts, or sports figures, or television or whatever.”
Staying in the closet, he says, only perpetuates myths.
“That’s one thing that keeps the stigma about it. People staying buried instead of saying, ‘Here I am, deal with it.’”
His sexuality has not played a major role in his musical career. As a composer, he often takes his cue from the visual and visceral imagery he finds in mythology and nature. Reineke, who initially wanted to be a film composer, says he needs a visual image in mind before he starts composing: “Basically I’m creating a soundtrack to my own movie in my own head.”
As a conductor and music director (he’s also music director of the New York Pops and the principal pops conductor for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra here in Washington), Reineke says his focus is on the audience and the musicians.
“I have no particular agenda other than the health and success of the orchestra and the good times had by an audience.”
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