'Glee's' Idina Menzel on Parenthood, Being Pigeonholed and Her PBS TV Special
TORONTO - Stage and screen star Idina Menzel has originated the role of the green-skinned Elphaba in Wicked and Maureen in Rent.
And the Broadway belter has a recurring guest star role as Rachel's biological mother on Fox’s Glee.
But nothing compares to when Menzel and husband and Private Practice star Taye Diggs had a baby son, Walker Diggs.
“To me, it was a gift to have this intense love for someone that I’d never felt before, for a child, that makes you feel better than anything else you’ve done,” Menzel said backstage after performing over two nights for an upcoming PBS TV special recorded in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall.
She explained parenthood has changed her from a talented, yet self-absorbed artist bedeviled by doubts to enjoying first-time fulfillment.
“Ever since I had my son, I have more of a cup half-full perspective on life that he (Walker) has given me,” Menzel said with a broad smile.
“If I screwed up a high note, I go easier on myself,” she added, knowing as a mother she has a baby boy back home who loves her.
Menzel marked another milestone in Toronto, taking the Kitchener-Waterloo Orchestra and legendary maestro Marvin Hamlisch through a medley of hit songs from Glee, Wicked and Rent, and stories from a career that took her from a wedding singer in Long Island, New York to arousing bravos on Broadway and screen appearances.
For Menzel, a first-time TV special is about showing fans that connect her success with role-playing that she’s far more than just a Belle of Broadway with an acting bug.
“Everyone wants to pigeon-hole you, in my case as a green witch for Wicked or a rock singer for Rent,” she said.
“This (PBS special) gives you an opportunity to be myself and be genuine and to show a wide spectrum of talents,” Menzel added.
That proposition will be tested soon enough as Menzel’s PBS TV special to air in March 2012 will be followed by a live album and a DVD release.
The chance to be herself also follows Menzel and Hamlisch polishing her one-woman concert show performed with a host of orchestras in the U.S. and at Royal Albert Hall in London, England.
Her solo numbers are intertwined with set-up stories that recall being told by a bandleader to carry on singing during a wedding gig as a man had a heart attack on the dance floor “because the band always plays on, like it’s the Titanic,” or embarrassing herself in university by singing Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” to impress a teacher she had a crush on who turned out to be gay.
She also tells, and colorfully embellishes, a story about being ignored at a dinner table by Barbara Streisand after she performed for her at a Kennedy Center Honors concert, only to learn at the end of the meal that the Broadway legend forgot her glasses and didn’t make out Menzel performing on stage.
Menzel also told of meeting Taye Diggs in 1996 on the Broadway set of Rent – “Did a little too much flirting back-stage, you know what I mean ladies?” – and of landing a recurring role on Glee after doubting she’d ever get work again after her pregnancy.
“I was having a baby, I was really fat and I get a script for Glee,” she recalled before the Gleeks in the Toronto audience erupted with cheers for her rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
“I think it’s important to be vulnerable and intimate with an audience,” Menzel says backstage as around her the PBS production crew packed up for the morning flight back home across the border.
As if to underline that point, Menzel towards the end of her PBS special walked to the front of the acoustically perfect Koerner Hall stage, dropped her microphone, and filled the silent hall with an a cappella version of “For Good” from Wicked.
“’For Good,’ that’s my favorite part of the show. It’s stripped down, there’s no orchestra you can hide behind,” she explained.