Since I started publishing Weekly Music Commentary and Florida Music Letter, I get an opportunity every once in a while to interview a featured artist. Each interview offers interesting facts about the artist, and that makes the article even more intriguing. Over the past few months, I came close to requesting an interview with this weeks’ featured artist Idina Menzel. As this week approached I thought about some of the questions I might have asked. She has done everything one might imagine in the entertainment industry. However, I’m one hundred percent sure my first questions would have been about her role of Maureen Johnson in the musical Rent. For Idina Menzel, the Broadway stage is a good starting place for any interview. Her resume is full with diverse projects, with more to come. Most recent, September 23, 2016, Menzel released her fifth studio album titled Idina. She claims it is a “personal” album. Why? We will discuss that after an introduction for those who may not be familiar with Menzel’s work.
Idina Kim Mentzel was born on May 30, 1971. She grew up in Syosset, New York with her parents and younger sister Cara. Menzel’s family is Jewish, and her grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe. Idina changed the spelling of her surname to Menzel to better reflect the pronunciation the Mentzel family had adopted in America. When Menzel was 15 years old, her parents divorced and she began working as a wedding and bar mitzvah singer, a job which she continued throughout her time at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Drama.
The fact that she attended The New York University Tisch School of the Arts did not get past me. Founded on August 17, 1965, Tisch is a training ground for artists, scholars of the arts, filmmakers, and creative entrepreneurs. The school merges the technical training of a professional school with the academic resources of a major research university to immerse students in their intended artistic disciplines. I saw a list of notable graduates of the school that read like a who’s who of the entertainment industry. Certainly, if someone has aspirations of a career on the Broadway stage, Tisch is certainly a good academic choice. The school is located at 721 Broadway in Manhattan, New York City.
In 1995, Menzel auditioned for Rent, which became her first professional theatre job and her Broadway début. Rent opened off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop on January 26, 1996, but it moved to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre due to its popularity. For her performance as Maureen Johnson in the original cast of the musical, Menzel received a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. One of my early posts of Weekly Music Commentary was an examination of the impact on Broadway when Rent made its début. After viewing the film adaptation of Rent, which also cast Idina Menzel in the role of Maureen, I stated the importance of the musical then. I also felt Rent, because of its dealing with the subject of AIDS, was an important work for Broadway. For Menzel, it was the beginning of an amazing career.
Idina Menzel’s entertainment career is like a tree with several branches. Interestingly, she did not complete work on Broadway and then concentrate on music, or film. Menzel has worked all aspects simultaneously. She performed at the 1998 Lilith Fair summer concert festival and continues to write and perform original music. She produced and released her début album, Still I Can’t Be Still, for Hollywood Records in 1998. Following the album release, she embarked on her Still I Can’t Be Still Tour, but after selling fewer than 10,000 copies in the US and missing the Billboard 200, Menzel’s label put the album out of print, and she was dropped from the label. However, the album was re-released once she began to rise to a greater fame with her Tony-winning performance in Wicked. Her second album, Here, was released independently by Zel Records in 2004. Menzel contributed to the soundtrack of Desperate Housewives in 2005. She also appears on Ray Charles’s album Genius and Friends, which was also released in 2005, on the track “I Will Be There.”
After minor roles in Kissing Jessica Stein and Just a Kiss, Menzel had supporting roles in The Tollbooth and Water in 2004. Her first major role in a major film was in 2005, when she reprised her role of Maureen Johnson in the film adaptation of Rent. She was nominated for several critics circle awards for the part. In 2007, she played Nancy Tremaine in the film Enchanted. Menzel had a recurring guest star role in the television series Glee playing Shelby Corcoran, the coach of the rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline. In 2013, Menzel starred as Elsa in the animated film Frozen. Menzel’s performance received praise from film critics. The film became the highest grossing animated film of all time, and one of the highest grossing films of all time. Menzel gained particular notice for her song Let It Go, which won an Academy Award and a Grammy Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Menzel herself won a Grammy Award for the film’s soundtrack.
Then came September 23, 2016, Idina Menzel released her album Idina. Of the release, Menzel stated: “I poured my heart out and used my music as a place to kind of figure some things out. It’s a really personal album.” I understand why she might feel this way about this album. After performing at a high level continuously for over twenty years, I’m sure Idina feels there is a lot of personal story to tell. This album gives her an opportunity to present something to her fans unscripted. Idina Menzel is free to tell her story instead of conveying the ideas of others.