Idina Menzel was born on May 30, 1971 in Syosset, New York. Menzel is Jewish, her first name translating to “gentle” in Hebrew. She is an actor and singer-songwriter, well known for her roles in Rent and Wicked. In addition to her fame on Broadway, she has also become quite popular among the younger demographic from her role in Frozen. Menzel has historically taken roles of strong, relatable, and empowering characters. Her hits “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Defying Gravity” from Wicked prove to be anthems among women of all ages.
But it didn’t all start this way. “Menzel was interested in singing and performing from her earliest days, but her parents would not let her work professionally as a child, so she appeared in amateur productions. By the time she was in fifth grade, she was playing Dorothy in a school production of The Wizard of Oz.” (Gale) (this is ironic!). Menzel began her career as a wedding and bat mitzvah singer. “‘I’d drive myself illegally with my junior license to the Temple Beth Shalom ballroom and work with all these older men,’ she told Boris Kachka for New York magazine” (Rich 365). She continued her music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After many years of weddings and playing in bands, Menzel landed her first major role as Maureen, a bisexual performance artist, in Rent in 1996. Though the show ran for twelve years, she left in 1997. She earned her first Tony Award nomination as Maureen.
Taye Digg’s who planed Benny in Rent ended up marrying her in 2003. They are now divorced, and Menzel is happily married to Aaron Lohr, who also appeared in Rent.
Following this role, Menzel was involved in several smaller performances, “including the Off-Broadway production of The Wild Party, the Encores! production of Hair, Aida, and The Vagina Monologues.” (Gale). But within a few years, Menzel landed her well-known role as Elphaba in Wicked. In 2003, she and Kristin Chenoweth, as Glinda, debuted the show. Elphaba has had a huge impact on girls all around the world for 15+ years, all starting with Menzel’s portrayal of the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West. Menzel’s performance of “Defying Gravity” is still to this day admired and what has helped Menzel’s career soar. It is intentionally the most powerful song in the show, as she literally and figuratively defies gravity (and her “otherness”). This relatability is what has empowered anyone who feels like an outsider, including women, Jews, and African Americas.
In “I’m Not That Girl,” Elphaba realizes her love for Fiyero. “It is also the first time she openly acknowledges the limitations of her green skin, and the downcast melodic line reflects both her depression and the seeming impossibility of her situation.” (Boyd 110). This scene “humanizes” her and displays her vulnerability, making it particularly relatable, as we have all felt defeated at some point.
Once Menzel and Chenoweth were casted, the writers and lyricists essentially wrote the parts for the women, which is why they are still known for their roles as the original Elphaba and Glinda 15 years later. All the Elphaba’s and Glinda’s following Menzel and Chenoweth have been incredible, but their performances are incomparable. Menzel won a Tony in 2004 for her portrayal as Elphaba.
In what was supposed to be her second to last performance, Menzel fell through the trap door used when Elphaba “melts”. The next day, she came out for the last few lines of the show and in an Adidas red track-suit. “Menzel’s final performance ‘as’ Elphaba was actually herself…was at once wholly accidental and entirely appropriate to this musical, this role, this performer, and especially to her ardent fans” (Wolf 220). She came out on stage as herself, vulnerable and displayed her true relationships to the cast, giving an even more powerful performance. No one will ever forget it! She left the show in 2005 and “reprised her performance as Elphaba in the London production of Wicked from June to December of 2006.” (Gale)
In that same year, she also starred as Maureen in the film Rent. In the following years she landed various acting jobs in movies, such as Enchanted in 2007 and Private Practice in 2009. Additionally, she appeared in Glee in 2010 as Rachel Berry’s biological mother, Shelby Corcoran, in a few episodes. Throughout this time, Menzel released three solo albums. The first two were not too successful, however, as Menzel grew in popularity, the third, called I Stand, reached “number 58 on the Billboard 200 chart” (Rich 366).
In an interview from 2011, it is stated that while looking for a new original musical to do, she has turned down many Broadway shows. “There have been a bunch that didn’t feel like me. I worry because I’d like to get back there, and I don’t want people to forget about me.” (Heyman). This really speaks to Menzel’s character; she is not going to take just any role because it comes her way, but rather will take a role she know she can deeply convey and connect with.
In 2014, Menzel starred in Disney’s animated Frozen as Elsa, portraying another woman who feels as though she doesn’t belong. This role brought Menzel recognition to a whole new demographic of young children, who still cannot stop singing “Let It Go,” which spent six nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. This song is about self-expression and allowing yourself to let it go, as the title implies. Lyrics state, “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know. Well, now they know. Let it go, let it go. Can’t hold it back anymore.” as well as “And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.” Children and adults all over the world have related to this ballad and the song hit new levels of popularity. It is easy to feel alone and sometimes we all need to be reminded to be strong and, well, “let it go”! Menzel’s portrayal as Elsa is emotion and emphasizes staying close to those we love and not letting our differences keep us on the outside. Menzel won an Oscar in 2014 for “Let It Go”. There have been countless viral covers of the song, proving just how impactful the song, and Menzel, have been. In an interview with Fox, Menzel speaks about John Travolta’s introduction for her at the Oscars, in which she was to perform the ballad. He mistakenly called her “Adele Dazeem.” Already nervous for the performance, Menzel had a moment of frustration, but noted in the interview that she had to let her ego go (ha!) and prove she is a great singer, and she did just that.
She was always told that she would never have a pop hit as a Broadway singer, but she proves that a Broadway performer is not stuck in theater and can be successful on the radio as well. “Let It Go” “has made Menzel the first Tony-winning actor to have a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100” (Evans). Menzel also performed the hit song on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve Special. She missed a note or two and got major backlash from critics. But her response was perfect: “there are about 3 million notes in a two-and-a-half-hour musical; being a perfectionist, it took me a long time to realize that if I’m hitting 75 percent of them, I’m succeeding. Performing isn’t only about the acrobatics and the high notes: it’s staying in the moment, and connecting with audience in an authentic way, and making yourself real to them through the music” (Twitter). Two days later she performed the same song on The Tonight Show and noted, “In a week of very nerve-racking moments, that was a way to let loose, and 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.” (Evans).
Menzel was on her “Barefoot at the Symphony” tour from 2010 to 2013. In this show and in concerts she did later on, Menzel would invite all the children up to the stage to sing songs, such as “Let It Go.” She has also done this at her shows. Not only is she portraying a strong woman in the several roles she has done, but she’s empowering young children to express themselves and be confident, and to never feel like an outsider; women empowerment both on and off stage.
In 2014, Menzel starred in If/Then, a show about a woman who is struggling with starting over in a new city. She does not know which decision is the right one as she starts her new life in New York, and the show follows her journey through these two paths. This show, essentially written for and tailored to Menzel’s needs, allowed her to deliver a powerful portrayal of a relatable women who is having trouble making choices in her life. Life doesn’t always end up how you plan but things work out; something we can all learn from and relate to. This role targets an older crowd than Frozen, landing her fame among all ages at this point in her career. Menzel received her third Tony nomination as Elizabeth in If/Then, where she performed “Always Starting Over,” an emotional ballad from the show.
Though now divorced, Menzel and Diggs founded A Broader Way, a camp “which is dedicated to providing arts programs for young girls from urban communities.” (Rich 367). The organization is dedicated to offering girls from underserved communities an outlet for self-expression and creativity.” (idinamenzel.com). Menzel co-founded this philanthropy in order to empower women to express themselves, build self-esteem, develop leadership skills, and gain confidence. Pellegrini states, “the American Jewish female tradition of ‘charity work’ served as a critical foundation” (Pellegrini 253). This is evident in Menzel’s commitment to this foundation, whether intentional or just part of her character from growing up in a Jewish family.
“Changed for Good argues that U.S. women’s history, women’s roles, and representations of women in other media have conversed and resonated with the Broadway musical in its form and content since the 1950s” (Wolf 12). This holds true in many of Menzel’s roles, which focus on inspiring individuals, especially women, who feel as though they do not fit in. It is not just anyone who can convey the emotion and character that Menzel puts into her roles. Her strong vocals and commitment to her character are incomparably impactful.
This past summer, Me starred in Joshua Harmon’s Off-Broadway show, Skintight, a playwright about a divorced women trying to find her way in life. “Skintight assays the nature of love, the power of attraction, and the ways in which a superficial culture persists in teaching its children that all that matters is what’s on the inside.” (Playbill) Menzel once again staring in a relatable show about empowerment. Currently Menzel is on her Idina Menzel: World Tour.
Menzel finds something in every character and role she has portrayed to relate to. In fact many of the shows she has been in have been tailored to suit her strengths both vocally and emotionally. She has had a flourishing career and still remains a huge name in the Broadway community.
“I’m not someone who stands on a soapbox, but having done Rent and Wicked and seeing how important those projects were to young minds, especially girls’, I do feel a responsibility. Kids still come and follow us around because Rent changed their lives how they viewed their sexuality or their race. Of course, at first you take the work you can get, but now I feel like if I have the choice, it shouldn’t be taken lightly I’m appreciating the responsibility I have in helping people honor their individuality and play the underdog, and I’d like my album to reflect that as well.” (Hayek).
Evidently Idina Menzel is committed to using her gift to empower others!
“About.” Idina Menzel, idinamenzel.com/about/.
Angeles, FOX 11 Los. “Idina Menzel Discusses Her Stage Role in ‘If Then’.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Jan. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xi8YB5xzExY.
BroadwayTVArchive. “If/Then’s Idina Menzel Profiled on CBS Sunday Morning (16-Apr-2014).” YouTube, YouTube, 19 July 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGf2-otSwV8.
EVANS, SUZY. “IDINA MENZEL, Unfrozen. (Cover Story).” Billboard, vol. 126, no. 11, Mar. 2014, pp. 28–33. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=95117427&site=ehost-live.
Gottschalk, Marla. “Frozen’s Idina Menzel Is Over Perfectionism. You Should Be Too.” Government Executive, 9 Feb. 2015, www.govexec.com/excellence/promising-practices/2015/02/frozens-idina-menzel-over-perfectionism-you-should-be-too/104418/.
Hayek, Salma. “THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD STORY – IDINA MENZEL – She’s Been a Wedding Singer, a Wicked Witch, and Has Fallen through a Trapdoor. Now She’s in on the Bet That Rent Will Make History on the Big Screen -.” Interview, 2006.
Heyman, Marshall. “Heard & Scene: Taking a Hike with Actress Idina Menzel.” Wall Street Journal, Jan 31, 2011. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.lehigh.edu/docview/848288565?accountid=12043.
“Idina Menzel.” Gale Biography in Context, Gale, 2010. Biography In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1650007161/BIC?u=lehigh_main&sid=BIC&xid=9805ea25. Accessed 24 Nov. 2018.
MICHELLE BOYD. “Alto on a Broomstick: Voicing the Witch in the Musical Wicked.” American Music, vol. 28, no. 1, 2010, pp. 97–118. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/americanmusic.28.1.0097.
Pellegrini, Ann. “Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (review).” American Jewish History, vol. 92 no. 2, 2004, pp. 253-255. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/ajh.2006.0012
Rich, Mari. “Idina Menzel.” Current Biography , vol. 76, no. 1, 2015.
“Skintight Off-Broadway @ Roundabout Theatre Company – Laura Pels Theatre – Tickets and Discounts.” Playbill, PLAYBILL INC., www.playbill.com/production/skintight-roundabout-theatre-company-laura-pels-theatre.
Wolf, Stacy Ellen. Changed for Good: a Feminist History of the Broadway Musical. Oxford University Press, 2011.