Three generations of audiences have come of age to Idina Menzel’s voice. She originated the role of Maureen in “Rent,” Elphaba in “Wicked” — both Broadway musicals — and Elsa in the animated film “Frozen.” Her other film roles include everything from “Uncut Gems” to “Enchanted” and its sequel, “Disenchanted,” among others.
A Broadway powerhouse, Menzel gives audiences a peek into her career in her new documentary “Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage?” on Disney+, which goes on the road with her while she tours with Josh Groban. The film traces the arc of her career but also shows her juggling various aspects of her personal life: Being a mother to a young son and embarking on IVF in the hopes of having another child.
“There’s a fine line between how much you want to show the public and how much you want to keep to yourself,” she said of the film. “I do feel like in order to be a good performer, you need be able to take risks and be willing to make yourself vulnerable. Because that’s when people in an audience really connect with you — and I think they can pick up on when you’re inauthentic. So I’m really comfortable letting people in.”
A willingness to be vulnerable is the very hallmark of this column. When asked about a worst moment in her career, Menzel recalled a night on stage when things didn’t go quite as planned.
“I welcome mistakes,” she said. “And I find that they are usually a window into who you really are and an opportunity to learn something — and an opportunity for other people to learn something about you. Especially when it happens on stage.”
My worst moment …
“I had this big concert at Radio City Music Hall on my day off from a show I was doing on Broadway called ‘If/Then.’ This was 2014 or 2015. I was going through a divorce. And for some stupid reason, I decided to put together a concert on my only day off from doing eight shows a week.
“Radio City is an incredible place to play and I put this show together pretty quickly. I decided I wanted to do this funny thing where I make a quick (costume) change. I had my dresser Joby with me, and she’s one of my closest friends. She’s done every show with me, so she knows how to get me in and out of a costume very quickly. So I just thought, we’ll be able to do it, Joby and me.
“So it’s night of the show. I run off while the band is playing and I come back wearing this great sequined dress that has a black leather bra that’s part of the outfit. It’s a silver sequined one-piece dress with a low back, but I was kind of wearing it backward on purpose, so it had this low scoop in the front with a black leather bra. So it was classy but also rock ’n’ roll.
“What I forgot is that I normally wouldn’t have a microphone pack on my spine — it’s normally in your wig or something like that when you’re in a Broadway show. I hadn’t taken that into consideration. So I go offstage to change, that falls off, we put it back on. We’re rushing.
“And I get back on stage. And I start to sing, I think it was ‘Defying Gravity’ from ‘Wicked.’ And I hear the audience saying, ‘Idina! Idina!’ and they’re pointing at me and I don’t understand what they’re saying.
“And I realized my boob is halfway out.
“What is that called? It’s not bottom boob. All the girls wear their bikinis like that — underboob, that’s it! But it was really exposed.
“So I go, ‘Oh! My boob is out!’ And I fix the bra.
“I just didn’t think it was a big deal. I thought it was funny and an opportunity to make a joke. Maybe the old me would have thought: Oh my god, this happened at Radio City! And in the middle of a show! It’s supposed to be a classy show!
“But I’ve learned over the years, when things happen, it just endears you to your audience. So I fixed it and continued on and it didn’t plague me for the rest of the night. I was able to laugh it off and make jokes about it for the rest of the show — and it ended up making the show better and funnier.
“I have this rapport with my fans where I go off book. I never do the same show twice. I talk to the audience a lot; I let them talk to me sometimes. So I’m not stuck. I’m not rigid about what happens in my shows. I have a shell — a shape and a structure to my show — and then I allow for it to go into tangents. So it’s not uncommon that fans will yell out and say something to me. But this time I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It took me a minute. And the whole time the boob is still out.”
Audiences these days are often filming at shows, did that cross Menzel’s mind?
“(Pause) Yes, because everything is social media. It’s actually out there I think: There’s pictures of me with the bottom boob just sticking out.
“That’s another thing. As performers, we’re still getting accustomed to people recording all the time. It used to feel invasive. Like, they were taking advantage, in a way. When you’re on Broadway, you can be in the middle of a serious scene and if you see that someone’s filming, you’re just so exposed. It used to really bother me. But as years have gone by now, you just let it go (laughs). So now I’m used to it.
“If this kind of issue with my costume happened in the middle of a Broadway show, it would be different because a Broadway show is like a runaway train. Once it starts, it’s just going. You definitely try not to stop, unless something falls on your head and you have to break the fourth wall with the audience, which does happen sometimes. But knowing me — the director would get mad at me — but I probably would stop a show and make it a thing and then get back on track, just because I love a good laugh. But if it was in the middle of a serious dramatic scene, I don’t know what I would do, to be honest.”
That instinct to engage with the moment and joke about it is a way to get the audience on your side.
“Yeah, because everyone’s distracted anyway. So they’re not going to hear what you’re singing or saying, so you might as well embrace it.
“And when I got home that night, (any anxiety or embarrassment) was gone. Because I had a great show and a standing ovation and I was proud of myself for accomplishing what I accomplished, knowing that I had so much on my plate outside of that show. I felt really good about it.”
The takeaway …
“To keep reminding myself to keep welcoming mistakes. They almost always give you an opportunity to show a side of yourself that other people may not see.
“It also makes people feel really special. That they were at a particular show where only that thing happened.
“Imperfection is more beautiful than perfection.”
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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