‘Chess in Concert’ diva Idina Menzel feels no need to compromise.
By Gregg Shapiro
Idina Menzel is best known for playing two memorable and powerful women on the Broadway stage. In Rent, Menzel played lesbian Maureen, who inspired a whirlwind of emotions in girlfriend Joanne and ex-boyfriend Mark. Surpassing the constraints of Maureen, Menzel’s portrayal of the misunderstood Elphaba in Wicked is the stuff of legends. She went on to win the Best Actress Tony Award for the role. For Chess in Concert (Reprise), in which she appeared in the concert version of the stage musical in London alongside Josh Groban and Rent co-star Adam Pascal, Menzel took on another powerful woman, Florence, the long-suffering girlfriend of egotistical chess champ Freddie. I spoke with Menzel shortly before she and husband Taye Diggs welcomed their first child in early September 2009.
Gregg Shapiro: I attended your House of Blues show in Chicago in August of 2008. One of the things that was so amazing was that, in addition to all the gay men, there . . .
Idina Menzel: [Laughs]
. . . was a huge number of young girls standing at the foot of the stage. What do you think of your devoted following of young girls due to Wicked?
I’m just glad to be able to go on tour and perform and sing my music. I feel a responsibility to some of the young girls, because I think that they look to me as some kind of role model. I always felt that way, even when I was in Wicked. I felt it was important to show up to work as often as I possibly could, even on the days where I didn’t feel well. For someone like me, who’s in her late 30s, to have young fans, it’s a pretty special thing. It gives my fan base a wider spectrum and more opportunities to all kind of music. They’re a sophisticated bunch. They’re open to all kinds of styles of music that I sing, and they’re really smart girls who have a great energy. I kind of find myself feeling really fortunate to have them.
I Stand was released in January of 2008, and you quickly went into rehearsals for Chess in London. Do you feel as though you were able to give I Stand the full attention it deserved?
Oh, yeah. I went on tour for an entire year. I actually, if anything, made a lot of sacrifices. I didn’t go in for a lot of acting roles for a year. I really dedicated myself to my record company and my music career and wanted them and my fans to feel, to know that my music was very important to me. A lot of time actors can get a bad rap, and they take the next job and ditch their album. I wanted to go on the road and support my music and play with my band and get on a tour bus. What was great about it [Chess] was that I was able to do a lot of press in London for my album and do some international meeting and greeting, and I think I sang at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s birthday concert. It’s always been very important to me that I be taken seriously as a musician and a songwriter, and sometimes you have to make sacrifices so the community will take you seriously.
Was there ever a full-scale revival of Chess in the works, or was the plan to always do Chess concert-style?
I think they talked about lots of different incarnations, but the only thing that I was involved with or knew was happening was this concert version at Royal Albert Hall.
Did either of the other Florences—Elaine Paige or Judy Kuhn—have any influence on your portrayal?
Yes! I mean I listened to everyone. I hadn’t seen the show, so if there’s any research I can do, I always listen and try to emulate and really absorb all of their goodness [laughs]. I’m not afraid of that, because I know I’m going to sound like myself. I think it is the best learning tool to try to soak in people that you respect, whether it be in this case or the singers and songwriters that I love. You know, why not? Especially since you only have eight days to learn the whole thing. Why not listen to the best? Then I got to meet her [Paige]; she came to the concert in London, and that was really exciting. She has her own radio show where she talks about musical theater music, and I got to sit with her for an hour on her radio show.
I think you have the best numbers in Chess, including “Nobody’s Side,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” and “I Know Him So Well.” Do you have a favorite number?
I did. Actually, because the whole show is so powerful and really big and really loud at times, I really love singing “Heaven Help My Heart.” It is a real moment to just be intimate and sing a beautiful melody. It’s a quiet moment for the character to really show her vulnerability.
What was it like to be reunited with your Rent co-star Adam Pascal?
It was wonderful. I grew up with Adam. We lived around the corner from each other, and not everybody knows that. We took the same school bus to elementary school. Through the years we have had a lot of moments where we look at each other and say, “Wow, we’re doing some really cool things together.” We’ve gotten really close through the years, and his wife and my husband as well, we all hang out together. When we were in London, there’s a moment on stage when we were in a dress rehearsal and I leaned over to him and I said, “We’re in London doing Chess.” [Laughs] We just kept getting these great opportunities to sing together. And he said, “I know, babe.” I just love him so much. He’s a great guy. I feel really fortunate to keep this professional relationship with him.
Now that you’ve done the show, do you feel like you have some perspective on why Chess didn’t have the kind of success on Broadway that other musicals did?
The only thing I can think of is that, for Americans, we don’t identify with chess in the same way, with the game itself. They’re much more obsessed with chess in Europe and have much more of an affinity for it, and it’s more commercial and in their daily lives. It’s a hard game. It’s so small to bring to life on a stage. That aspect didn’t appeal to people as much, perhaps, but that’s why once you get past that and you let the music seep into your soul, then people can’t resist it, and that’s why the music kind of lives out the show itself.
Are there aspects of doing a concert version of a musical versus the daily grind of it that you like or dislike?
I think the perfectionist in me likes it less, to be one-hundred-percent honest, than if we had a real five-week rehearsal period, because you don’t have as much time. You’re holding scripts and you’re memorizing, but you’re not completely off book, and you’re trying to develop relationships with your fellow actors on stage. And, yet, it’s Royal Albert Hall, and you have to sing for the million people that are there. [Laughs]
I don’t like compromising. I like to feel one-hundred-percent prepared. It feels like you’re walking a fine line between really developing those relationships and then just singing for the sake of getting it heard. I’d rather just know that I’ve put in the work with my fellow actors and things are coming out of spontaneity and preparation, as opposed to just getting up there and going for it. [Laughs]
The first day that we were actually on stage was the night that we sang the first concert. It was daunting. It’s exhilarating and all that and has its wonderful moments. If you’re going to ask me to compare, I would much rather take the longer rehearsal process. [Laughs]
Is it too soon to ask about the movie version of Wicked?
Oh, you can ask. Everybody asks. [Laughs] I think that they’re waiting longer before they do something like that, so I have a feeling that they will tell Kristin [Chenoweth] and me that we’re too old.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to your LGBT fans?
First, I would want to say thank you for all their support and their love. But more importantly than that, I want to say hang in there. It feels like there is a lot of change going on—five steps forward, three steps back. It feels like something special is happening, even if it feels like it’s been an eternity for them. But that we’re out here supporting them and trying to spread a consciousness to evoke change, and I just admire all of their strengths and their fight for an equal world.
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of LGBT performers.