Idina Menzel "I haven't been shy about talking about my anxiety, and I'm afraid it's gotten worse as I've gotten more successful, unfortunately. I think because I feel more people are watching. And I think when you're more successful, you've got further to fall."
Madison Drew | 18/06/2023
Idina Menzel is more dramatic than ever.
When you think of the Tony-award winner Idina Menzel, one of the first things to come to mind is her belting out "Defying Gravity" or "Let it Go," or maybe it's her rendition of "Seasons of Love" from Rent, where she made her Broadway debut as Maureen. Her iconic role in theatre history and pop culture is undeniable. Over thirty years into her career, the multi-platinum-selling singer/songwriter is now in her disco dance era, adding a new colour to her music repertoire with the release of her seventh studio album Drama Queen filled with dance anthems that are sure to be on repeat all summer.
On a LA morning (precisely ten o'clock), the powerhouse that is Menzel has figured out how to pop the video on Zoom before jumping into a candid discussion about dealing with the anxiety that accompanies her huge success and how sometimes it's not that easy to sing 'Defying Gravity'—reflecting on her role in people's lives, especially the LGBTQIA+ community, and the importance of nourishing the arts to help mental health. Idina talks to HATC's Alice over in London, who finds herself fangirling as the two meet online.
A: Growing up, I've watched everything, Wicked whilst ugly crying to your music. So, this is really great for my inner child right now.
I: It's great for my inner child too. That's what I like to hear!
A: What better place to begin than with your legendary status as Queen of Broadway. You were 25 when you debuted in Rent, which would then go onto Broadway in 1996. What were your first impressions when you took the role?
I: Well, I was pounding the pavement at the time trying to get a job. I was singing at lots of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs with bands and just making a living like that I was hosting in restaurants. Then I got a call from a friend who was working at an agency. And they said they were looking for unknown talent for this little off-Broadway show called Rent. The play would be in January and February, quiet months for those kinds of parties because the weather's so bad. So, I thought, Okay. And I went in, and then I booked that job. And we thought it would just be a short run at the New York Theatre Workshop, which is this small but prestigious off-Broadway house down on East Fourth Street, and it was the moment I was there, it felt like something special. I didn't know what it would become.
We were all very close. I got to meet Jonathan Larson, the composer. He wrote music for my voice once he got to know me. That was very special. And then, on the night of our very first audience, he passed away at a very young age, and so that was traumatic for all of us. I think it changed all of us and informed who we are as people and artists. Because when we lost a friend, we had an incredible responsibility as it became more and more successful, to really make sure we did right by him. It really put our priorities in order as young kids getting a lot of fame early on. And then it was life imitating art, and the show was all about artists and losing people before their time and community, and loving who you want to love. And so, all of that, the meta of it all, really resonated with all of us every night on stage. It was a reciprocal experience for the audience as well as for the cast.
A: I'm guessing it must have been a magical way to remember him alongside the trauma.
I: Yes, it continues to be with every anniversary and every story, and everyone whose life he touched are at all our concerts or projects that we do. So we're constantly reminded of him.
A: When you entered the role of Elphaba in Wicked, it became a whole new universe. Theatre is a community that really touches people's lives and is escapism for many people. Do you feel a responsibility as an artist towards these people who come and want to transfer into these worlds?
I: Yeah, that's how I feel when I go to the theatre. So, since I was a little girl, the lights would go down, the overture would begin, and I'd get goosebumps. So, I know that feeling of wanting to immerse myself in another world, and what is so beautiful about art, in general, is how it promotes empathy. You know, especially us as performers and actors, and getting the walk in the shoes of other characters and other experiences. It helps us have compassion and understanding for what other people experience, which is what it is for anyone attending the theatre.
That's why art is so important, why we need to make sure that schools and communities have their arts programmes because it's how we really understand humanity. And, for me, from a mental health standpoint, it's a sanctuary. I feel a sense of community and family when I'm preparing a show, and I'm in rehearsal, when I'm onstage with my cast, with the audience, there's this magnetic, unspoken energy and connection that we all have together.
When I'm performing, I'm on the best days; I am transported somewhere where if you asked me how I did something or how I was feeling, I couldn't tell you because I'm so in the moment. And to me, although I'm not religious that's the closest thing I have to feeling something bigger than myself.
Of course, there are other days when I can't achieve that. And all I can hear is the noise in my head and my anxiety, but that's the gift and the curse of performing, putting yourself out there, and taking the risk, making yourself vulnerable.
A: You've spoken out about the vulnerabilities. I've got Bipolar, and as a teenager, that was difficult for me and others around me. Music was especially a form of escapism and being active in that world. I think it's incredible, but it must also be incredible to be able to perform and onstage and give back to people but also for yourself.
I: I haven't been shy about talking about my anxiety, and I'm afraid it's gotten worse as I've gotten more successful, unfortunately. I think because I feel more people are watching. And I think when you're more successful, you've got further to fall.
I have to work extra hard at trying to stay moment to moment, stay appreciative of where I am, and try to enjoy my process. I have to love myself more because otherwise, why am I even doing this?
You know my body does things to me that make me uncomfortable, and I try to channel that through my singing, my voice, and my acting. I put emphasis on who I'm trying to reach as opposed to how it's affecting me. How can I change someone else with what I'm singing or saying? I have all different techniques.
A: It's about finding that middle ground, which can be quite difficult, especially when you're in the moment with anxiety.
I: Well, it's because your mind starts working in your body, your heart beats faster, and the naysaying in my head gets worse. So, I have to work hard at that, and I'm not averse to taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicines. I'm supportive of that and hope that people that have don't feel shame because it can really help people. We can be just more present and enjoy our life and the process much more.
A: I can't even imagine the pressure; it must have been sky-high. And then you went into Frozen. It's obviously for the kids, even though I will admit very happily, I've watched it many times. No shame there. What an incredible way to introduce them to a new world. l watch my godchildren when they see it and how they light up, and it must be a wonderful thing to be involved in.
I: The greatest gift I've had in my career is how all the roles through each decade have resonated with young audiences and that the projects I've participated in have sent strong, important messages for people. Embracing our unique qualities about embracing our power and not being afraid of our power.
What's been wonderful is that I'm growing up with my audience. So, the Rent fans are now grown-ups and have kids or fans from Wicked. So, we can experience this together. And that's something I'm just super proud of.
A: Did you ever think it was going to get to this kind of level?
I: No, when you land a Disney princess role, that's obviously a huge accomplishment, and it's exciting. That would have been plenty. For it to become such a phenomenon was unimaginable that it would take on this life. I was so excited to work on this big Disney film in the studio.
A: You play all these powerful women, but there's a depth of vulnerability and journey in harnessing their power. What has the experience been like in such roles?
I: We learn as grown-ups just as much from young people as they learn from us. So the interaction I have and the feedback I get from young people and how they've been touched by an Elphaba or an Elsa and the music and how it's been the score to their lives, it's beautiful to hear all that.
It's also a reminder to me every time I sing the music. Every time I go on stage and sing the songs, people ask me do you get bored of singing them? No, because it's like a little reminder that I need to walk, talk, and practice what I preach to these kids.
I may seem confident and have a lot of self-esteem, but there are good and bad days, and it's not always easy to just Let it Go or Defy Gravity. It takes work sometimes, so I also need to be reminded of that as well. And I get to see great courage in the audience I play to, whether it be kids in the LGBTQIA+ community, or young women, in general, trying to calibrate their power and how they are received. All of us are just trying to be who we are.
A: The new album is coming out in August. First of all, the artwork is beautiful. There's like disco, confidence, brightness, and it's bold.
The songs released so far are so good. 'Move' is an absolute bop. I'm not going to lie.
I: Thank you!
A: The songs are also really uplifting, and they're so much fun as well. Did it feel like that when you were writing this album?
I: I always felt great when writing, and just because I'm a glass-half-empty person, I knew that I didn't want to adhere to rules or expectations people have of me musically. And I wanted to make music that would inspire people to get up, dance and celebrate and allow me to do the same.
And I am also very aware that I'm known a lot from the theatre, and I am dramatic in my life. And dance and disco music is a great genres for connecting those two because there are great grooves, lots of joy, and a big melodic thing. And so, I was excited to do that.
I named it Drama Queen because, well, for one, I've played many things. I like to think I'm a queen in my mind on a good day. But also, I'm trying to reclaim the word. Because we all have multitudes, and we have many things and many emotions that make up who we are. That's what makes us really interesting, evocative, and provocative. That's the exciting stuff, and so all of that in one recipe passionate, loving, sensitive, fragile angry is all a part of you know who I am, and I wanted to celebrate my love for that.
A: I love that it's unapologetic. Growing up as a drama queen, I got told many times but in the best way. My mum always said, "Be out there, be bold."
I: Yeah, feel things! There's nothing wrong with that.
A: Now you have the album you've created. It's all ready to go. What are you most looking forward to now with the body of work?
I: I'm looking forward to performing it. I'm doing pride festivals essentially all over the world. And I'm looking forward to sharing that with the LGBTQIA+ community to start. I'm excited that the timing is working out with the release so that I can show my gratitude and thanks to a community that has been with me since the beginning, has accepted me, and has taught me about living authentically. I'm excited to give that back, have fun, and celebrate that together.
Idina's album Drama Queen is out on 18th August!
Interview Alice Gee
Words Madison Drew
Photography Steven Gomillion