If luck is the confluence where opportunity meets preparation, then it’s clear that Idina Menzel has been going through life with the spiritual equivalent of a four-leaf clover hanging over her head.
Starting with a 1996 Tony-nominated debut as an original cast member of the off-Broadway and Broadway versions of Rent, Menzel later played Elphaba, the “wicked witch of the west” alongside Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked. Having won a 2004 Tony Award for that role, the Syosset, New York native received her third Tony nod for starring as Elizabeth in the 2013 musical If/Then.
All this happened before Menzel reached a new plateau, landing on the radar of little girls everywhere when she gave a voice to Queen Elsa in the 2013 blockbuster animated film Frozen, for which she sang the immortal Oscar- and Grammy-winning song, “Let It Go.” The groundswell of popularity and success that came with being part of that particular project has even the singer shaking her head.
“Professionally, [Frozen] is one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Menzel says with a laugh, during a phone interview with Folio Weekly. “When you can have success in your career and it really touches people and connects with young people especially, there’s something even more special and profound about that kind of accomplishment. I had no idea it would be as big as it is. I count my lucky stars and look forward to doing the upcoming sequel. Once every decade, I get a sort of a zeitgeist type of opportunity and I’m just very, very lucky.”
That’s the apex of professional acclaim Menzel has already reached. She’s currently touring behind last year’s Idina, her fifth solo album and first non-holiday recording since 2008’s I Stand. With a new batch of songs to promote, Menzel is eager to mix it up on stage this summer. She recently got to do just that at a newly renovated venue in her hometown backyard.
“The show on Long Island was a big deal to me, because I grew up going to Nassau Coliseum. I saw U2 play there. That was one of the first concerts ever. And the fact that Billy Joel was there two nights before me and opening it up was all very nostalgic and exciting for me,” Menzel explains. “Hometown shows are something I really look forward to, but they also make me very nervous and bring back a lot of mixed emotions from my childhood. All of a sudden, my songs took on different meanings because I was thinking about different things. I did all kinds of music that chronicles my career, whether it was pop songs, [material] from a show or great music that I’ve always wanted to do.”
Still very much a Long Islander at heart, Menzel has plenty of great—and a few bittersweet—memories of attending classes in the Syosset School District, where she fit within the social fabric of the schools.
“I have memories of [the district] being extremely supportive of the arts and being in an affluent area where people put a lot of money toward the arts. So I was able to really travel with a choir and put on school plays with great teachers, lessons and all that kind of stuff. That was one of the best things about growing up there,” says Menzel. “I remember plenty of kids having a lot of money and I was on the low end of middle class and so it was hard to grow up around that. There was a lot of entitlement. I think it’s hard for a kid to have an understanding and perspective of what they are lucky to have. I didn’t have as many Jordache jeans as someone else. I did understand that I was very lucky and that my parents gave me a great many things on my father’s pajama salesman’s salary and I remember some great teachers.”
Despite the successes and opportunities she has enjoyed in her career, including a lead role in Lifetime Network’s remake of Beaches last January, Menzel’s personal life has taken a beating in recent years.
After giving birth to son Walker Nathaniel Diggs, her decade-long marriage to fellow Rent cast member Taye Diggs ended in a 2014 divorce. Last September, she announced her engagement to actor Aaron Lohr, whom she met when both appeared in the 2005 film adaptation of Rent.
The latest emotional rollercoaster ride that is her personal life is reflected throughout the dozen songs on the new record she worked on with collaborators Greg Wells (Katy Perry, Adele) and Eric Rosse (Sara Bareilles, Tori Amos). Highlights include the piano ode “Last Time,” with Menzel going from a slow build into the lines, “Don’t let the last time I saw you / Be the last time” and “I See You,” a power ballad, not unlike Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” that hits home with aching couplets like, “Here’s to the lonely / To the broken-hearted / I want you to know I feel your pain / Here’s to the hopeless / The almost forgotten / To those who got lost along the way.”
This newest production allowed Menzel to revisit some of those hard moments and work through them.
“I had a lot to write about. I’d gone through a lot of changes in my life. I was going through a divorce while simultaneously, my whole professional life was taking off. I met someone that I love very much after I got divorced, so there’s a lot of rebirth and there’s a lot of sadness and regret. There was a lot to write about.”