Idina Menzel photographed Sept. 9, 2019 at The St. Regis in Toronto.
Idina Menzel photographed Sept. 9, 2019 at The St. Regis in Toronto.
Austin Hargrave

With 'Frozen 2,' Idina Menzel Returns To The Franchise That Began Her Hot Streak

For the first time in her career, Idina Menzel has a clear path of projects laid out ahead, starting with 'Frozen 2' -- and she plans to keep it that way.

In October, Idina Menzel released her latest holiday album, featuring a duet with one of pop’s biggest stars; in November, she’ll reprise her role in one of the most successful Disney franchises ever; and in December, she’ll co-star in a gritty drama in which her character discovers Adam Sandler trapped naked in a trunk after a deal gone wrong. The 48-year-old is refusing to stay in one lane, and it’s by design. “I want to challenge myself,” she says.

The actress-singer has long sought to diversify her projects after first breaking through on the theater stage. When Menzel was in her early 20s, she landed a breakout role as Maureen Johnson in the 1996 musical Rent. She gave her final performance a year later and hoped to translate her Broadway success into mainstream music stardom with a 1998 debut album on Hollywood Records. The LP flopped, and after the label dropped her, “I couldn’t get a job for years,” she says today. “And then, I finally got Wicked.”

It wasn’t long after her run as Elphaba in the 2003 Broadway retelling of The Wizard of Oz, however, that the same self-doubt she felt post-Rent returned. Menzel later scored gigs in the 2007 Disney film Enchanted and on TV’s Glee -- she acted and sang in both -- but nothing stuck. “I know how it feels to be in something really successful and then for it to go away -- to have to work yourself back up into the picture again,” says Menzel. “I’m always wrestling with the fact that I’m more comfortable in myself as a singer; as a regular human being, I tend to go inside and self-deprecate. But when I step into myself as an entertainer and a vocalist, I’ve always been larger than life.” Which is how Menzel landed her biggest role to date.

In 2013, Disney announced Menzel would be the voice star of a new queen, Elsa, in its animated film Frozen. The franchise immediately exploded: Frozen -- in which princess Anna journeys into the mountains to find sister Elsa, whose icy powers unleashed a magical, though threatening, winter on their kingdom -- became the top-grossing film of 2013, surpassing $1.3 billion in worldwide revenue, and, at the time, the top-grossing animated movie in box-office history. “I had no idea that it would become what it has become,” says Menzel, who is now excited to grow with a role instead of out of one. “This idea of harnessing your own power and not apologizing for what makes you really special as a woman in this world, that holds true no matter how old you are.”

Meanwhile, the soundtrack -- its 10 original songs were written and composed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez -- was the second-best-selling album of 2014 in the United States (second only to Taylor Swift’s 1989) based on sales alone, according to Nielsen Music, and spent 13 weeks atop the Billboard 200. Breakout track “Let It Go” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100; it earned the Lopezes a Grammy Award for best song written for visual media and became Menzel’s highest-charting hit. “It’s a conduit for people to come up to me and share what the song means and what time in their life it helped them through,” she says. “It keeps everything real.” Now, Frozen even has its own Broadway adaptation.

The unprecedented success of Frozen led Walt Disney Animation Studios to make an equally unprecedented move: In March 2015, it announced Frozen 2, Disney’s first-ever animated musical sequel. “It’s rare,” says Menzel, who cites The Lion King and The Little Mermaid specifically as massive franchises that in the past year have been remade but never given a sequel. “It was very, very important to [the creators] to have a real reason, a real story to tell,” says Menzel, “and to not just do it because they were trying to make money.” Just as Frozen 2 hits theaters Nov. 22, five years after it was first announced, the original will become available on the newly launched Disney+ streaming service.

Frozen 2 centers on the origins of Elsa’s powers, making Menzel’s role a much larger focus compared with the first film. Still, the theme is consistent: “I love that it maintains the story between these two really incredible, powerful sisters -- and this idea of unconditional love between family, not romantic love.” The film’s plot aligns with Menzel’s life outside of Frozen, too. The Long Island native born Idina Kim Mentzel (she later changed the spelling of her last name) is close with her younger sister, Cara. In 2017, Idina wrote the foreword to Cara’s memoir, Voice Lessons: A Sisters Story.

Menzel, 48, says she has always supported girl power, as further evidenced on her latest holiday album, Christmas: A Season of Love, on which she duets with Ariana Grande on a track rallying praise for Mrs. Claus. And in the coming years, Menzel will star in Sony’s Cinderella movie musical alongside Camila Cabello.

Until then, Menzel says she’s busier than ever. Come Dec. 13, she’ll reveal a “completely different” side of herself in Uncut Gems, a film about a celebrity jewelry dealer. Menzel calls it her first “artsy-cool film” and says that “it’s a nice juxtaposition to the Disney movie -- dark and raw.” (And no singing.)

That’s not to say she’s leaving musicals behind. While she has “no idea” if there will be a Frozen 3 (she’s absolutely interested), she’s confident the songs in Frozen 2 will resonate just as the music from the first film did. “Will [the songs] dominate the world exactly how ‘Let It Go’ did?” she says. “I have no idea, but I do know they are goose-bump moments.”


Do You Want To Build A Franchise?

Disney executives and Frozen producers on how the sequel came together -- and why its soundtrack will be a massive success.

Walt Disney Animation Studios had never greenlit an animated musical sequel prior to Frozen, but considering the blockbuster success of the 2013 film, there was no better time. “We didn’t want to leave the Frozen world,” says Frozen/Frozen 2 producer Peter Del Vecho. “These characters are real to us. We realized, ‘Now that the sisters are together, Anna and Elsa’s story was really just the beginning of an even bigger journey.’ ”

Of course, Frozen 2 needed music to match that journey -- and, it is hoped, the record-breaking success of the Frozen soundtrack. To do just that, Paulo DaCosta, Disney Music Group director of marketing, developed a three-point plan that maps out the key marketing objectives for Frozen 2, which will be released in a market dominated by streaming, whereas in 2015 digital music revenue had just overtaken physical sales for the first time. DaCosta’s plan includes streaming activations, social media promotions, user-generated content and collectible vinyl releases. Additionally, his plan includes “a comprehensive and global soundtrack campaign that helps drive awareness for the film and album across numerous music and entertainment channels” and, as such, aims to ensure continued engagement.

Tom MacDougall, executive vp music and executive producer of the Frozen 2 soundtrack, is well aware of the Frozen legacy -- and thanks to the return of Idina Menzel, as well as end-credit songs by Kacey Musgraves, Weezer and Panic! at the Disco, believes the new music will be received just as well. “When we started working on this film, we were only focused on making a follow-up that honored the love the world had for these characters,” he says. “Our early conversations focused on what moments we felt we could put to song, and in those conversations we didn’t quite realize all the questions we still had from the first film. When we started to explore those and how to express them musically, the songs came quite naturally -- which is the best recipe for creating [music] that will resonate.” -- LYNDSEY HAVENS

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.


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