Broadway star defying odds in quest for pop success

Idina Menzel
Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel is trying to do something that is surprisingly rare these days: cross over from Broadway musicals to pop music stardom.

On Broadway, Menzel is as big as it gets, having originated roles in a pair of huge hits. She was Maureen, the lesbian performance artist in "Rent," and Elphaba, the green-skinned witch of "Wicked," for which she won a Tony Award. Now she is making a bid for pop success with a new CD for Warner Bros. Records of her own songs, "I Stand," and a concert tour that comes to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco on Aug. 14.

In the pop music world, musical theater doesn't carry a lot of weight. The list of Broadway stars who have become pop stars in the past 40 years pretty much begins and ends with Barbra Streisand, though a somewhat specialized case could be made for Sarah Brightman, who played Christine in "The Phantom of the Opera" before becoming PBS' answer to Enya.

"I think people assume that if you're from the theater that you're going to sing with a certain kind of sound, and it's going to be overly emotional and have lots of vibrato," Menzel said in a recent phone interview. "Pop music now has come to be the anti-voice or something."

Nobody would ever think of Menzel's voice as anything but a powerful instrument. In fact, her performance of Elphaba's signature song, "Defying Gravity," was spoofed by Forbidden Broadway as "Defying Subtlety," with lyrics that went, "I am the loudest witch in Oz/And no one's gonna turn/My volume down."

For career inspiration, Menzel, who starred in the screen version of "Rent" and had a supporting, nonsinging role in the Disney movie musical "Enchanted," looks to Streisand and Bette Midler, another singer who went from theater — in Midler's case, gay bath house revues — to concert, recording and film success. For stylistic inspiration, her role model is Annie Lennox.

"She's extremely theatrical and very emotional when she sings," Menzel said of Lennox. "She was sort of my template for being able to come from the theater and still write original music.

"She kind of combines the worlds for me and gives me permission to say, 'So what if I come from a Broadway show? I can touch you with my own lyrics, I can be soulful, and I also can be very dramatic.' "

Menzel, 37, is doing her tour up right, driving from town to town in a well-appointed bus.

"This is something I've always wanted to do," she said. "Performing my own music from my own album on the road."

"I Stand," produced by Glen Ballard (whose credits include Alanis Morissette's Grammy-winning "Jagged Little Pill"), has a sleek, powerhouse sound, but Menzel is touring with more intimate arrangements. She has two backup singers and a band with drums, bass, guitar and keyboard.

Menzel co-wrote nine of the 10 songs on the album, mostly with Ballard. "They're all songs we wrote on the spot in the studio," she said. "Maybe I had some lyrics in my journal, or he had some chord progressions. We just came in every day and started writing."

"I Stand" is dominated by soaring ballads such as the title song ("I stand for the power to change"), "Brave" and "My Own Worst Enemy." Menzel said another song, "Gorgeous," is about her interracial marriage with actor Taye Diggs, who played the landlord Benny in "Rent" and now stars in the TV series "Private Practice," and the relationships of gay friends.

"For me, 'Gorgeous' is about Romeo and Juliet," she told HX magazine. "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."

Menzel performs songs from "Rent" and "Wicked" on the tour, and she covers pop hits like The Police's "Roxanne."

"I take them out of their element a little bit," she said. "I put them in a context that I feel fits with the sound of the rest of the evening."

There's a charming clip on YouTube from Menzel's concert in Santa Barbara, where she brought a girl from the audience on stage to perform "Defying Gravity" with her. She wasn't surprised that the girl knew the words of the song perfectly.

"I get videotapes sent to me from kids singing the songs from the show at the dinner table. It's the cutest thing ever," she said. "I feel a real connection with some of these young girls."

"Wicked," which continues to play to sellout crowds on Broadway and on tour, and Elphaba are a phenomenon. "I think parents are grateful because it's not a Britney Spears thing," Menzel said.

"It's based on a green girl who ends up being powerful and strong and beautiful. It is a nice symbol for young kids."