The Internet defines the word diva as a celebrated female singer, a woman of outstanding talent in the world of opera, and by extension in theater, cinema and popular music. Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross are two names that easily come to mind when one thinks of a diva. This writer believes there’s a new worthy name to add to that list: Idina Menzel.
If you do not know who she is before today, this writer will make sure that by the end of this story you will be googling her name and scouring iTunes for her songs. And when you do, you will not be sorry; you may even thank this writer.
Truthfully, this writer didn’t know her by name until some five years ago either. It was only after someone told me, after watching the touring production of the Broadway hit Wicked in Los Angeles, that the original singer behind Defying Gravity, my favorite song from that musical was her and that she was the same actress who originated the role of Maureen in the groundbreaking and heartbreaking musical Rent!
Idina is a diva, an award-wining diva! (She won the Tony in 2004 for originating the iconic role of Elphaba, the wicked witch in Wicked, which will be staged early next year in Manila.) And when you take out the negative connotation associated with the word, you will find the real diva in her. You don’t need to see her perform live to feel the power of her voice. Just listen to her and you will find yourself transfixed and transported to that place where her character wants to take you — and this talent is never more evident than in her new movie, Frozen, the latest animated film based on the Hans Christian Andersen classic The Snow Queen from Disney Animation Studios.
In Frozen, Idina voices the character of Elsa, a variation of the titular Snow Queen from the source classic. In the movie, Elsa is a poised, regal and reserved Princess hiding a mighty secret — she was born with a power to create ice and snow. She is forced to hide in her room for most of her life until the day of her coronation when her magical gift would prove to be catastrophic and, in a fit of rage, she accidentally sets her entire kingdom into an eternal winter.
The actress described Elsa as “stereotypically regal because she couldn’t… so afraid to move and feel anything that it would come out and hurt people.” She added that she had fun physically doing the character. “I was holding my hands in the studio and not letting my hands move too much when I was talking.” Her character has the power to transform anything on her hands into ice.
Frozen is Idina’s second Disney animated movie. She had a non-singing part (yes!) in Enchanted and this marks the first time that she will be providing her singing voice to a Disney princess — and, boy, what a princess she is! There’s a scene in the middle of the movie when her character finally decides to let everything go, bare her hidden secret and embrace her true self and just sing it all out that’s a real showstopper. Her rendition of Let It Go is so powerful that I instantly pictured Idina performing the song at the Oscars come March. (The song will definitely get a nomination for Best Original Song!)
“Oh, from your mouth to God’s ears,” she humbly replied when I excitedly informed her of my prediction as soon as she entered our room for our roundtable interview. “It’s an honor to have such a beautiful song and be asked to play the character that sings it. It was really fun to record it in the studio. It’s a collision of a bunch of forces that are all coming together in the right way. The character, what she is singing and what she is experiencing; beautiful lyrics, beautiful melody and a little bit of me.”
To achieve some level of realism, the animators studied Idina’s breathing pattern when she sings and asked her many of what she considered were her trade secrets. “I try not to use my shoulders when I am singing because I am trying to breathe from here not from here (this writer failed to take notes what she was pointing to when she said this) and I actually try to take a smaller breath for a bigger, longer note because there’s less air that will come pummeling out.”
She shared more details of her singing secrets that if this writer had only some talent in singing, I would have asked for a brief singing lesson from her but my talent is limited to just observing her and trying to share with the readers what I gathered from our interview — and that I will happily do.
First, she somewhat identified with her character Elsa. “I struggle with those forces every day of my life,” she said referring to Elsa’s fear of her own magical gift. “I have the potential to be very strong and powerful, sometimes angry, sometimes passionate, and also can be shy and withhold back because I am afraid I don’t want to freak everybody out with my passion — I like to say passion, it’s a good word – so, I struggle with that all the time.”
“I think women, especially, wrestle with finding a balance between standing out and being really powerful and using their gifts even though deep inside we are afraid that we are going to be too threatening, hurtful in some way or alienate ourselves from people,” she added.
Second thing this writer learned is that no matter how many times she has been asked about the iconic character she played in Wicked she would always welcome any questions about and related to Elphaba.
“It is the same thing with the acting, the dialogue. You can work on a couple of lines at a time, you can perfect them, whereas, in theater, you know, you get to do eight shows a week but that one show goes and whatever happens those people in the audience saw it.”
Third revelation, the Broadway community is actually like a close-knit family. Idina has been an actress for many years now but this is the first time that she gets to work with the husband-and-wife tandem of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, whose credits include Tony-winning works in Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Avenue Q, incidentally, won over Wicked for Best Musical during the 2004 Tony Awards.
“We’ve crossed paths many times and we admire each other,” Idina disclosed. “We’ve known each other for several years now. Anytime I can work with composers that I haven’t worked with before is a real coup for me. I feel like I grow and they are just incredibly talented! They just didn’t write the songs, they were in the studio as well and they were helping to find the character and come up with melodic choices and keys — we can sing in a lot of keys, I know I have this big range, the point is to find a key that emotionally connects with people.”
There were other key revelations from her during the roundtable but what this writer considers most interesting is that, like other singers, she also constantly struggles with the fear of losing her voice. “It’s part of my psychosis that I have to think of these stuff. Most singers, you wake up in the morning and you test your voice. I’ve learned not to obsess because sometimes you can warm into it and be great in a couple of hours.”
On days when her voice is not in the best of shape, she has what she and her vocal coach call an A, B or C type of performance.
“The A show is the show I’d really wish you’d hear every night. It’s the best notes! But, you know, I am getting my period, or I have a bad cold, or my son brought home some crazy germs… so she’s taught me to come up with some other alternate melodies and things so that when you’re up there in front of all these people, you don’t feel like you are failing. When you sing something a little lower, you’ll feel like you are doing the best version of B or best version of C because, honestly, you guys probably wouldn’t notice the difference so this way your self-esteem, your confidence feels good because it’s all psychological.
“I have people that support me and having a child has really helped my outlook,” she continued. “I realized that everything is not that important. If I can’t be there or I sound like s—t, or I miss notes, you know, I have my son and he loves me and there’s just, you know, perspective on things.”
Idina, 42, is married to actor Taye Diggs and they have a son named Walker.
At the top of this story, I challenged myself to introduce Idina to new fans — this writer hopes he did his part, or, perhaps, I should have just introduced her as Rachel Berry’s long-lost mom in the hit TV series Glee.