She defied gravity in Wicked, but now Tony-winning Broadway belter Idina Menzel is defying expectations with her intimate and heartfelt pop album, I Stand. Still floating from the previous night’s surprise appearance at Splash, New York’s premiere gay dance club, the Long Island-born Enchanted star examined her queer career path and explained why she’s over the moon for her gay fans.
By Brandon Voss
HX: When did you first feel love from the gay community?
Idina Menzel: When I played a sexy gay performance artist in Rent, I got a lot of letters from young people coming out who liked being portrayed in a very fierce, strong way, so that was the beginning of that.
Were you concerned about being typecast as a hypersexual lesbian?
I never worried about that at all. I just wanted to do good material. This week we found out Rent was closing in June, and it’s been pretty emotional. I’ve been looking back, thinking about how it touched my life. That’s where I met my husband [Taye Diggs]. I got to spend time with Jonathan Larson before he passed away. It set a tone for how I want to be and how I want to experience life. It taught me to embrace every moment and appreciate what’s given to me. That show was a real gift.
Coincidentally, your first film role was as a bridesmaid in the lesbian comedy Kissing Jessica Stein.
I only had one line: "Are you a lesbian?" But yeah, Taye thinks there’s something to it.
Did you anticipate how much your character Elphaba in Wicked would resonate with the gay community?
No, I just knew it was something special that I wanted to be a part of, but I totally understand why. That’s what I love so much about the gay community: They’re outspoken and not afraid to celebrate their individuality, and that’s what Elphaba is searching for. She's beautiful, fierce, and magical, and yet she's an outcast.
Just when one thought Wicked couldn’t get any gayer, Tracy Young came out with a killer club remix of "Defying Gravity."
Defying gravity — I mean, what better words to describe partying in a club till two in the morning? Like the dance remixes of "Gorgeous" — I love the fact that my music can take on a different incarnation in the clubs. The idea of people dancing to my music is really unbelievable to me. I take a workout class in L.A. called Barry’s Bootcamp, and they play these really great mixes — it’s like a disco. We were on the treadmill, and all of sudden the "Defying Gravity" remix came on. The teacher rushed over and said, "Oh my God, I’m really sorry. I forgot that that you were on there." And I’m like, "Are you kidding? This is amazing! I have so much adrenaline now — I could run for hours!"
Last year you performed "Defying Gravity" at New York’s Heritage of Pride Dance on the Pier and at the White Party in Palm Springs.
It’s very important to me to connect to my gay audience because they’re the most supportive — and they also have the best taste. [Laughs] So it was an honor.
Your costar and fan Amy Adams said that she had to pester you quite a bit before you finally sang "Defying Gravity" with her on the set of Enchanted. Why did it take you so long to give in?
I loved Wicked, but I was excited to be in a movie, finally doing something else for a change! [Laughs] It was also six in the morning while we were getting our makeup done, and she’s fluttering around me singing the Glinda lines!
Did you love your cartoon likeness?
It was so cool. She was a Jewish-American princess! [Laughs] I also had a lot of fun learning how to do the waltz with Jimmy Marsden and Patrick Dempsey, which was pretty nice.
Too bad you didn’t get your own doll.
Yeah, but there might be a sequel, so we’ll see.
Does the backlash against the Rent film make you hesitant to be involved with the inevitable Wicked film?
I would love to play Elphaba on film, but I don’t think they’re even close to making it. Hopefully, by the time they do, I won’t be playing Elphaba’s grandmother. But it was such a coup to be asked to do the Rent movie, having been in the original cast 10 years earlier. I never expected that to happen, so I struck gold. I’m proud of what we did, but you can’t please everyone.
What made you want to work with producer Glen Ballard on your new album?
Well, he co-wrote "Man in the Mirror," you know. I was also a huge Alanis Morissette fan, but it was about more than her music; I loved hearing about their process of working together. Like me, she came from a different world — the young pop scene in Canada — but she really wanted to write her own music. He was patient and worked with her a long time. Likewise, he wasn’t threatened by my versatility, which often happens when people want to pick one road, one direction. We found a cohesive style, but he allowed all my influences to come into play. He said, "So what if you’re an actress and came from the theater? That’s great! You’re so expressive and you know how to be in touch with your emotions." It’s the first time that all the parts of myself culminated into one being, and it seems like everyone’s okay with it.
How does it feel to perform your own material?
It’s a nice change, but it’s scarier to sing your own songs. You can’t hide behind green makeup — it’s just you out there.
You named the album after the track "I Stand." What exactly do you stand for?
When I was writing that song I thought, Who am I? What do I believe? What do I contribute? I’m not the type of person who gets up on her soapbox and preaches about politics. Would I like to be eventually? Sure, and I hope that I can help change the world in some important way. And I don’t really know how I feel about God and spirituality, but I still pray every day. I guess I stand for people who are lonely, because I have a good life and I know I still feel lonely a lot. I feel really awkward and strange in my body sometimes, and I wanted people to know that.
Tell me about "Gorgeous," which is shaping up to be another gay anthem.
For me, "Gorgeous" is about Romeo and Juliet. It’s about Taye and Idina — a black man with a white woman. It’s about two lovers of the same sex. It’s about loving who you want to love despite what anyone may think.
How does Taye feel about you releasing love songs based on your relationship?
He knows as an actor and an artist that we always take little germs of ideas from our personal lives and then embellish them. It’s a very intimate and personal album, yet I also use my imagination.
Does coming home to that hunk ever get old?
[Laughs] No. Especially because we’re always traveling, so being home together is really rare.
It must get old to always have your gay friends drooling over him.
Oh, that’s okay, because let’s just say that we’ve seen each other at our best and our worst. But what I love about him is that he’s a really good morning person. He’s not grouchy. I’ve had boyfriends in the past who needed their alone time in the morning, but Taye always wakes up happy.
Your new single "Brave" begs the question: What are you afraid of?
I’m ashamed of this, but I’m afraid of people not liking me. I so want to be liked. I put my heart and soul into this album, and hopefully my core audience will take this leap with me.
HX, February 2008; extended online version.