Idina Menzel needs no introduction to theater fans, who revere her Tony-winning performance as Elphaba in Wicked, as well as her recurring TV role as Lea Michele's birth mother, Shelby Corcoran, on Glee. The 41-year-old star is a favorite of London theatergoers, as well, who have cheered her in Wicked, a concert version of Chess at the Royal Albert Hall and a solo concert at the same venue last October. Broadway.com caught up with the ever-effervescent actress and singer on the eve of a week of new shows at the Apollo Theatre, backed by a 25-piece orchestra, prior to returning to New York for her Carnegie Hall debut on October 29. She gamely answered questions about those enduring Funny Girl rumors, memories of Marvin Hamlisch, the challenge of juggling her career with that of her TV star husband, fellow Rent vet Taye Diggs, and lots more.
Welcome back to London! Is the city starting to feel like your third home, after Los Angeles and New York?
I love the fact that I have some experience here, starting with the friends I made when I was in Wicked. Also, being a New Yorker, it feels like a smooth transition—except when I get hit by a car [laughs]. This time, I’m here with my three-year-old son, so it’s bound to be a very different experience.
You played the Royal Albert Hall for one night last October, but now you’re doing a week-long run [at the Apollo through October 14].
Yes, this is a mini-UK tour. I’m doing eight shows on the West End to try something different in a smaller house, the Apollo, that should be really intimate and fun, and then I’m going up to Edinburgh and Manchester, which I really don’t know at all. What feels great is the idea of coming to another country and being able to sell tickets; it feels good to know that what you’re doing is reaching beyond your own country. That’s something to be proud of.
You’re here as a singer. Have you ever felt that you’ve had to make a choice between singing and acting?
I see myself these days as definitely both—in other words, as a performer. I have a hard time whenever it says “occupation” on a form. I used to write “entertainer,” but then it started to sound like I was a stripper; I really feel now as if I’m both an actress and a singer. When I was younger, I would switch in and out of mindsets if I was acting in something or singing my own music, but it’s felt recently as if all of my worlds are colliding. I can’t just get up and jam anymore: Any time I do a song, I have to have a story to tell.
Has that had an effect on your performing style?
I keep my eyes open more when I sing, since I’m aware that people need to see what I’m feeling. I had found when I was nervous that I would close my eyes, but that can shut the audience out.
Do you worry that being a singer keeps you from getting chosen for dramatic projects, given how the industry likes to typecast?
These days, I feel the industry knows that anything goes and that there are fewer rules. When I was growing up and starting in the business, everyone wanted to define who you were, so if I sang rock music, they would say I was too theatrical and when I was in Rent, they said I wasn’t trained enough. But now, with Glee and things like that, I feel as if you can be on TV and sing, which used to be taboo.
Singing must feel especially liberating for you.
I love just standing at the piano and singing a song. That’s where I can escape and find solace. Also, as I’ve gotten older, that sense of independence and autonomy has been very empowering. No matter what happens—what gig you could get fired from, or god forbid, my husband left me—I could always go out and make a good living for me and my son from singing. It dates back to when I was doing weddings when I was 15; I always wanted to be the chick singer that makes the paycheck [laughs].
Your Albert Hall concert was conducted by the late Marvin Hamlisch. Do you have an abiding memory of him?
My greatest memories of Marvin are mostly of sitting at the piano bench with him. At any concert, we would take an encore, he would come out and sit at the piano, and I would kneel down at the bench right next to him. It’s one thing to stand at the mike and sing a song, but it was something altogether different to snuggle next to someone like that at the piano bench—to be invited into the sacred space of such a legend.
Does the fact that your husband, Taye Diggs, works on TV in L.A limit your schedule for concerts or a longer stint on Broadway?
Ever since we’ve had the baby, for sure. Our limit is, like, two weeks away from each other, and it’s actually quite liberating to know that I’m going to say “no” to this job or that one because I cannot expect him to be away from his son for that long. When we were dating, we used to take jobs all over the place, and that was very difficult, as you can imagine.
So, what about Broadway?
We’re going to see. I definitely plan on getting back to the theater, and there are a few things in embryonic stages that we’re excited about. Taye does want me to get there.
For a while you were spoken of as a natural Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Does that remain an actual prospect?
That’s come up in so many different incarnations throughout the years. Ms. Streisand when she did it was 18 or 20 or something like that, so I feel just a little bit over the hill [laughs]; it just seems more suitable for a younger generation of girls. But I’m having fun singing music from it sometimes, and that’s what I give myself: I own as much of it as I can knowing that it’s never really mine.
In fact, you sing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” near the very start of your show.
I used to never dare sing that song, but I always knew I could sing it and put a cool take on it. Actually, I shouldn’t take the credit. It was my husband who said, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Go sing it! You have an association with it, so just do it; people want to hear your take on it.” But I think that ship has probably sailed for me on stage, I really do, and I like originating new roles. On the other hand, it’s like Hillary Clinton saying she’ll never run for president again. We’ll see.
Do you think it’s difficult to Broadway stars to “break through” as pop singers?
I don’t think I have [laughs]! I have one single that got to number 15, and that is the closest I got. The songs I’ve done that are the most popular—that’s to say, where I can hold the mike out to my audience and they know every word—are not ones I wrote myself. They’re “Defying Gravity” and songs from shows. Sure, I’d love to have one big song that crossed over, and I keep aspiring to that so that people who don’t go to the theater would know me because of the song as opposed to other things. But, you know, when I go on tour, I also realize how I have been gifted with some of these iconic songs, and I think, “Screw it!” What an honor to have a song like that [“Defying Gravity”] that you are expected to sing every night.
You’ve got Carnegie Hall coming up when you get back to the U.S.
Yes! That feels good, and I’m so excited for it. Then I’m doing the Walt Disney Concert Hall [in Los Angeles] on New Year’s Eve, and then I’m giving myself a rest.
Will we see you back on Glee?
Well, I think I’m finished, but Ryan Murphy keeps everything close to the vest. I could get a call tomorrow saying, “they want you for eight episodes,” though I haven’t heard anything of late. I loved that experience; it’s such a groundbreaking show. But, in terms of my career, I don’t overthink things anymore. It’s like, this is my destiny, this is how people will connect with me the most, and I’m taking one thing at a time.
Has being a mother mellowed you?
Oh yeah! I mean, I arrived yesterday morning off the red eye, where you don’t sleep, and you know you have a morning TV show to tape and you’re going to sound horrible but you just think, “Fuck it, what can I do?” I do the best I can, and usually I do better than I think I can. I’m more laid back about things instead of being overly rigid and disciplined.
Sounds to me like the new zen Idina.
[Laughs.] The Prozac zen Idina!
Speaking of your son, I love his name: Walker Nathaniel Diggs. He sounds like a magazine editor at The New Yorker.
I used to say he was either going to be a great jazz musician or justice of the Supreme Court.
How is he shaping up as a singer?
He already has this sense of pitch. He can repeat something that I sing to him: I sing it and he repeats it right back!