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Before The Voice, there was Idina Menzel

Regularly hailed as one of the voices of her generation, Idina Menzel has never met a high note she couldn't hit. Bryce Corbett meets the Glee star and Broadway songstress.
Idina Menzel

Even down the long-distance phone line from LA, the voice is unmistakable. It has the exact tone, timbre and tendency to purr as you’d expect.

“Yes, this is Idina Menzel,” it says.

Unless you’re a keen follower of musical theatre, a Broadway aficionado or a regular watcher of the TV series Glee, it’s possible the name may not be instantly recognisable. But to hear Idina Menzel sing even once is to have her voice imprinted upon your memory.

Regularly hailed as one of the voices of her generation, the American songstress has never met a high note she couldn’t hit. Power ballads quake in her presence, show tunes tremble. And for a series of nights in June, Menzel is bringing her famous vocal chords to our shores, performing with an orchestra in capital cities around Australia.

“There’s nothing quite like standing and singing in front of a group of eighty incredible musicians,” she says. “When you are on a Broadway stage you have a terrific orchestra but they are in the pit, whereas being on stage with a full orchestra means you are literally lifted by the music. The show is very theatrical and big, but still manages to have a sense of intimacy to it.”

She’s all but sold out multiple shows at venues no less impressive than the Opera House in Sydney and the Festival Centre in Adelaide, yet the thought that anyone in Australia even knows who she is genuinely amazes her.

“I performed in Scotland last year and couldn’t believe there were people there who knew the words to my songs and know who I am.

“It still freaks me out a little. I can be in the middle of nowhere in mid-West America and I cannot believe people are showing up. I try to take those moments in and really appreciate them.”

She makes it sound like she’s an overnight success, unworthy of the following she has built up. But if Idina has arrived, it’s only after having paid her performer dues.

As a fresh-faced musical theatre aspirant from Long Island, New York first commanded attention on Broadway as one of the original cast members of the musical Rent. (The same production on which she met her husband, fellow thespian Taye Diggs, with whom she now has a three-year-old son, Walker). Her breakthrough came with the lead role in another Broadway musical – the original production of Wicked, in which she played (and set the benchmark for) the lead role of Elphaba, the much-maligned and tragically misunderstood Wicked Witch of The West.

Her rendition of Wicked’s signature tune, Defying Gravity has been a YouTube hit of dancing cat proportions and helped earn her a coveted Tony Award.

And though her powerhouse voice has been her ticket to ride for as long as she can remember, she’s all too aware of its tendency to drown out the rest of who she is.

“To be honest, it sometimes feels like it is too much of who I am,” she says.

“Obviously I am grateful that I have this instrument, and I love that I get to use my voice to make a living, but for me the most important thing is to be honest as an artist. The shows and concerts that have most affected me have been the ones where the performers have given a piece of themselves. So while I can sing acrobatically and hit a few high notes, my focus really is on being as honest as possible out there on stage.”

Involvement in the pop culture juggernaut that is Glee has recently been a boon to Idina’s profile (not to mention her iTunes singles sales). And while she says she loves that a top-rating network TV show exists that is all about music, the show’s celebration of the outsider also speaks to her.

“Just like Wicked, Glee is a show that says it’s okay to be different,” she says.

It’s a lesson Idina learned the hard way as a child. Embarrassed by her powerhouse singing voice, she tended to hide it and downplay it rather than be teased about it.

It was only a summer camp for musically-oriented kids, that she was encouraged to give her voice full flight. And in the spirit of paying it forward, she’s established a summer camp all her own in upstate Massachussets.

“It’s called A Broader Way,” Idina explains. “Each year I take a bunch of girls from Harlem and the Bronx up into the country where they swim and do sports and put on a show.

“To watch their transformations is the most rewarding thing you can imagine.

The girls come back to New York city and perform the show for their parents who see them as they have never seen them before.”

“I was a wedding and bahmitzvah singer. Even when I am stage these days, I sometimes find myself remembering the 18 year old me, back on Long Island, wearing the black, slutty sequinned-dress pretending to be older than I am singing Madonna covers. It’s nice to be able to give something back.”

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