‘Cathartic,’ is how Idina Menzel describes performing the anthemic ‘Let It Go’ from Disney’s upcoming animated film, Frozen. With powerful lyrics scribed by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Menzel’s soul-searching performance as Queen Elsa proverbially brings the house down at every screening. Thus it seems hard to believe that someone with a voice so strong and the raw emotion required to bring justice to these words can — at times — appear to be demure and not so self-assured.
‘There’s more moments that I remember as a kid of trying to hide my talent and not wanting to be threatening or alienate people from me,’ she recalled at a recent press event held in New York City for the upcoming film. ‘If I was with a bunch of girls in the car listening to the radio, they’d all be singing and I wouldn’t ‘cuz I didn’t want anyone to know that I really could sing because I wanted them to like me and when you’re younger, you don’t want to stand out and that’s the part that I feel like kids have to start to learn when they’re young; that’s the thing that’s going to make you special your whole life. The third grade — the first solo I got in the choir and all the teachers were raving about me, but that was also weird ‘cuz then the kids didn’t like me, you know, but now as an adult you learn to own it. But even so, sometimes I have to remind myself to get up there and kick ass.
‘So you’d think even in ‘Wicked’ where I’m supposed to be this strong sorceress woman — I was afraid of my own power, my anger — the things that made me soar. Sometimes to tap into that, it was scary for me and the director would come up to me and say “the name of the show is ‘Wicked’ — the spotlight is right there, step into it, do your thing.” It’s those days where you don’t feel worthy.’
Although Menzel first found success originating the role of Maureen in the Broadway sensation ‘Rent’ — and would later reprise her role in the film adaptation along with husband Taye Diggs — she is perhaps best known for originating the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘Wicked’ which is now in its tenth year on Broadway. As it turns out, both Elphie and Elsa have quite a few things in common, the powers of magic just being the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. On taking on the role of Elsa after tackling her more greenish Ozian counterpart, Menzel said, ‘The whole character and the sentiment of the movie is something I feel very proud to be a part of … the idea that young people can see people struggling with their power and their gifts and when to shine and how liberating it is when you finally do let the world see what makes you extraordinary.’
‘I’m not immune to the fact that I’ve played these misunderstood characters and people that struggle to harness their power and their magic and life,’ she added. ‘There’s always something in a project I’m doing that mirrors something in my personal life that I need to look at or explore. I think that strong women are always wrestling with how to be on top of their game — tough and powerful and still vulnerable and taken seriously in society.’
When asked if she’s afraid of being typecast, or pigeonholed, into those types of roles, she at first responded with, ‘As being witches?’ and let out what can only be described as a slight cackle. ‘I’m not afraid of being pigeonholed, no, not at all. Especially with [‘If/Then’], it’s just a completely different creature. I’m also proud of the pattern because for some reason the products I’ve been in really connect with young audiences and they’ve been sort of zeitgeist projects for the last three decades and if I can be a role model or some kind of instrumentative to spur conversations about kids and their self esteem and stuff like that, so be it.’
One thing Menzel is certain of, however, is voicing (and singing) a Disney animated heroine. Menzel described the experience as ‘a dream come true and now having seen it, to know that it’s a stunning, traditional Disney movie and [‘Let It Go’] is really resonating with people — I’m just really proud.’ She added, ‘It was just a really enjoyable experience for me in so many ways: nostalgically, because I’m a part of its history and the Disney family; personally, because I can watch this movie with my son; and professionally, the process is something that I really enjoy — I love being in a recording studio and singing and speaking and playing with my voice and the craft and the art of all that is literally something I have fun with, it’s not monotonous to me. I just enjoyed every minute of it.’
She also spoke a bit about the process, including meeting with the animators at the Walt Disney Animation Studios during one of the ‘Inside the Actors Studio’-type sessions they held with the film’s talent. ‘I thought it was going to be like three guys and it was 70 people in a conference room up at Disney and they asked me all about my technique — my vocal technique — how I breathe, how I move, how would I stage this if I was in a theatre. I told them that I really will notes with my body.’
Where Menzel appeared to be most comfortable when speaking and became almost animated herself is when it came to her own family, in particular her four year old son, Walker. I asked her whether he recognizes Elsa as is own mother: ‘I think so. He’s seen it once now. I had to explain to him ‘cuz he’d be weirded out, he’d know it was my voice ‘cuz he’s heard me sing so much. I don’t know exactly what he’s putting together yet, so we talked about how it’s a character that I play and it’s pretend just like when we do T-rexes and cheetahs at home, Mommy gets to do it for a job and I get to pretend that I’m this princess or queen of this land and I have this — it’s all about magic power right now anyway. So he’s understanding about that pretend is what we do.’
As for what Menzel and her son enjoy pretending during their together time, everything the light touches in New York’s Central Park becomes her kingdom. ‘There’s such huge boulders and every one is Pride Rock and I’m Mufasa and he’s Scar — he likes to be all the bad guys, which really bothers me because I’m trying as a mom to teach him that things aren’t bad and good, but somehow boys are just boys.’
Menzel will soon be returning to Broadway in ‘If/Then,’ an original musical which will open in spring 2014. Menzel stars in the production as Elizabeth, a 40 year old who returns to New York City for a fresh start. The official Facebook page describes it as ‘set at the intersection of choice and chance, where the road you take meets the road you didn’t.’