Idina Menzel's Fairy Tale Journey: From Broadway to 'Frozen' and a 'Gorgeous' Note From John Travolta (Cover Story)
The "Frozen" star has a top 10 hit, 'Fanzels' who follow her every move, a new Broadway smash and a name (even when mangled) that has gone household
"Hey, it's me." The whistles and screams that greet this bit of dialogue are more Madison Square Garden than Broadway. And in fact, the crowd looks younger than usual at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. This house is dotted with tweens who call themselves "Fanzels" and who have helped make "Frozen" the top-grossing original animated film of all time, with worldwide box office of more than $1 billion, and pushed the soundtrack to six nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
They might prefer an uninterrupted Idina Menzel concert, but if they're disappointed at this matinee preview of the new musical "If/Then," they don't show it. When the show finishes with a sustained standing ovation, little girls dart past slower audience members out into the cold to wait for an autograph. They join an already-robust group crowding the stage door, holding CDs, pictures and posters.
Menzel, a Broadway fixture known for her turns in "Rent" and "Wicked," is having a moment more fit for a rock star than a theater actor. The soundtrack to "Frozen" - in which she voices the misunderstood ice queen Elsa - is the first album to sell more than a million in 2014, and the hit "Let It Go," which won the best song Oscar on March 2, has made Menzel the first Tony-winning actor to have a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. (Adding to all this, Disney reports it sold 3.2 million units of the "Frozen" Blu-ray and DVD on March 18, its first day of sales.)
It's a long time coming for Menzel, 42, who has been trying to establish a pop career since starring in "Rent" in 1996 - her debut on the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, "Still I Can't Be Still," came out in 1998 and has sold only 18,000 albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Four years later, a Warner Bros. album saw Menzel collaborating with Glen Ballard, producer of Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill." It sold better (80,000) but not enough to keep her from getting dropped by the label.
After chasing pop success on its terms and failing, she connected with a song from theater composers (Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) that was written to play to her strengths as a Broadway belter. "There are so many rules in the record business, and this just breaks them," says Menzel. To be sure, her version of "Let It Go" - anchored by piano and her voice - has sold 1.8 million downloads, while the Demi Lovato power ballad included on the soundtrack has sold 738,000.
"How can you plan these things?" she asks. "For years, I've tried to pursue a recording career. I've been signed and dropped a million times. People say Broadway actors can't cross over, but it seems society is ready to accept a theater person singing a song on the radio." But radio hasn't driven the success of "Let It Go," which has charted based largely on sales and streams and is only just now starting to make progress at adult contemporary and mainstream top 40 radio. "I'm just excited to see it break some rules," she says. "People have often closed doors because they didn't think we were capable of a hit song or some kind of pop-culture moment."
There's an unintended parallel between Menzel's life and her new show. "If/Then" is about a woman in her 40s whose life is at a crossroads. Menzel finally is basking in the pop-culture glow she arguably has chased her entire career. But there might be a better way of ministering to the Fanzels than a Broadway show that features an unplanned pregnancy as a plot point and a song (about trying to have sex with three men in one night) called "What the F-."
"I'm committed to my show," says Menzel firmly. She developed "If/Then" with writers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who both won the Pulitzer for "Next to Normal." "I'm not going to abandon a show that I've been a part of creating for years." And the mainstream success she has found cuts both ways. Menzel worries that her newfound fame might be a detriment to her theater street cred. "I'm a little concerned that critics will use me as a target," she confesses. "Just because there might be a bunch of young girls waiting outside doesn't take away from this amazing piece of work."
It's 10:30 on a Monday night, the end of Menzel's one day off from the grueling eight-show-a-week Broadway grind. She's unwinding in downtown Manhattan, comfortable in black pants, a heather-gray T-shirt and an army-print cardigan, which she wraps around herself. She sips a cup of tea and speaks quietly to save her voice, seemingly Zen for someone amid one of the busiest times of her life.
On March 2, three days before the start of preview performances for "If/Then," she flew to Los Angeles to perform "Let It Go" at the Oscars. Admittedly, she was nervous - "Just let me park and bark," she said to the producers - but she focused on her 4-year-old son, Walker, whose father is actor Taye Diggs. (The couple met when they starred in "Rent" together and in December announced their separation after 10 years of marriage.) It couldn't have helped her nerves when John Travolta mispronounced her name as "Adele Dazeem" in his introduction. ("THANK YOU, JORN TROMOLTO!" read one of the many tweets in response.) "That threw me for a minute, but then I just got back on track and reminded myself of where I was," says Menzel. "He was really gracious and sent this gorgeous email, and we're buddies and it's all cool." (The actor also sent flowers.) The result of all the social media chatter and coverage of the flub is that she's now a household name - two of them, in fact. "Please. I mean, I've only benefited from it."
Notes Robert Lopez: "You can tell that [people mispronouncing her name] always kind of bugs her, but she won't say anything about it. But now the entire world was corrected in one fell swoop!"
Two days after the Oscars - and just before "If/Then" previews began - Menzel got to blow off some steam on "The Tonight Show" when she did a toy-instruments version of "Let It Go" with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. The resulting video has more than 8 million views on YouTube (furthering the song's chart climb). "In a week of very nerve-racking moments, that was a way to let loose," says Menzel. "But it was also nice to reinforce that I'm really a live performer and I can sing that f-ing song. In a day and age where a lot of people have to be fixed with [Auto-Tune], it's refreshing for people to know that some of us are not perfect all the time. But that's the thing. It's not about being perfect."
(Page 2 of 2)
Menzel definitely isn't about perfection, and that's something she has struggled with as she's worked to figure out her identity as a performer. She arrived on Broadway as a raw talent, not a carefully trained singer. A New York native, she grew up going to Broadway shows with her parents - a therapist and a salesman - and as a teen took a job as a wedding and bar mitzvah singer. Trying to learn enough songs to make it through a four-hour reception turned her into a walking "music lexicon," as she spit back favorites from Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Billie Holiday. And it furthered her career - the song that helped her nab "Rent" right after receiving her bachelor's from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts was a wedding classic. "She sang the hell out of 'When a Man Loves a Woman,'" the show's director, Michael Greif - who also is helming "If/Then" - recalls of her audition.
"Rent" was a pop-rock sensation that was supposed to redefine Broadway, but Menzel points to the music business' prejudice against the stage - "No one is going to let a theater person in," she says - when talking about her deal with Hollywood Records. It yielded an album of mostly forgettable, generic songs that weren't quite rock, pop or R&B, and it focused on the breathy, raw qualities of her lower register instead of the bold, belting upper range that got her attention in the first place.
When Hollywood dropped Menzel, she was left looking back longingly at the parts she passed up. Trying to balance those two ambitions still troubles her. "I feel really badly," says Menzel of the break. The theater community welcomed her back, though not with carte blanche - she still had to audition, eventually landing the role of Elphaba in "Wicked" that would win her the Tony.
Menzel's pop dreams never faded, but subsequent albums failed to light up the charts, and she had even more trouble ditching her theater label. Aside from a popular guest arc as the biological mother to Lea Michele's character on "Glee" and a supporting role in Disney's "Enchanted," those years brought a lot of rejection. Even her journey to "Frozen" began with a "no." Menzel initially tried out for Disney's 2010 animated feature "Tangled." That didn't work out, but the casting director recorded her audition singing The Beatles' "Blackbird" on her phone, which led Menzel to come in for early readings of "Frozen." She and Kristen Bell, who voices Elsa's sister, Princess Anna, in the film, recorded "Wind Beneath My Wings" around the piano at Menzel's L.A. home, and that helped solidify her involvement in the project.
Now, with the success of "Frozen," the "If/Then" producers have a different type of star on their hands. "To have the movie and this song become national phenomenons right as we were about to start performances is unprecedented," says "If/Then"'s lead producer David Stone, who also worked with Menzel on "Wicked." "She's made me look smarter than I actually am." Stone says he's not expecting younger ticket buyers and discourages parents from bringing kids, given the show's adult themes.
"I'm a 42-year-old woman who likes to talk about sex, and I've got a foul mouth," says Menzel unapologetically. "Moms bring their little 6-year-olds to my shows in Elphaba costumes or Elsa costumes, and I have a responsibility. Sometimes that's challenging to figure out how to continue to be myself even though there's a little girl in the front row."
Once "If/Then" opens March 30 and Menzel's days free up from rehearsal, she'll have more time to focus on her fans and possibly make another album, this time with a hit song to her credit. "When I feel like I can handle singing in the studio in addition to eight shows a week, I'd love to," she says. Box-office sales for "If/Then" are strong. The first week earned $909,159, 85 percent of potential gross, a rarity for a new musical early in previews, and that number grew to $929,267 in the second week ending March 16, with houses at 99 percent capacity.
Menzel can trust that her theater devotees will continue to support her stage career, but if she wants pop-star power, she likely will have to find a route outside of Broadway. In a way, it's an old story: Be careful what you wish for. Only this time, Menzel is resolute that her days of compromise are over. "I feel grateful people are giving me a shot. It's not something I take lightly," she says. "Maybe people didn't know me before John Travolta f-ed up my name, but I'm not going to chase anything anymore. ... Every time I've ever tried to do that, I've missed it. When you sit back and you just do what you love, things happen."