You know her as Rent's wild Maureen and the real good witch in Wicked, but when Idina Menzel is just being Idina, the songstress puts on a show that's part power vocals, part story time. On her current tour, she joins some of the nation's best symphonies, including the Cleveland Orchestra on July 2, for what can only be described as a music geek's dream. Count on big-musical favorites, standards and most likely Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," which Menzel performed with Lea Michele on Glee. Between performances, the Tony Award winner called to talk about the tour, making Juilliard grads go Gaga and the future.
CM: How did this tour with the orchestras come about?
IM: I got an offer to do one of them, and I decided to take it on and get an hour and a half worth of material orchestrated and arranged for so many musicians. I wasn't sure what to expect because it's really important to me to maintain an intimacy with my audience. Thankfully, there's a way that I found to do it. I have this glorious orchestra setting behind me with this glorious sound, and we're in these gorgeous halls, and yet there's a way that it can still be quiet and bring people into my life and talk about why these songs mean something to me. I feel like I can connect with each person. It's been a really wonderful experience for me. And also, it maintains the theatricality that I love and that people are probably used to hearing my voice.
CM: This tour is a lot different than others you've done with a rock band.
IM: Exactly, and I love that. I'm noticing that the people get to know you from a theatrical place and a dramatic place, and having an orchestra behind me helps to illuminate that. I can step into those shoes and sing what I do on a Broadway stage, and I love it. I wear a gown so I don't insult the orchestra, but I take off my shoes. I'm more comfortable singing in my bare feet, so that's my way of making sure I maintain my identity up there.
CM: Your fans seem to appreciate your onstage humor and stories, which some people might not expect from a performance backed by an orchestra.
IM: I was really afraid I'd lose that, but somehow it's there. I talk to the orchestra like they're my musicians everywhere we go. I'm not sure if they appreciate that, but I certainly do because I like to feel like there's a family up onstage.
CM: What do you most look forward to singing during the performances?
IM: That always varies for me depending on what mood I'm in that night. Sometimes it's something that's vocally acrobatic that requires lots of technique, and other times it's something more subtle. What I really enjoy is getting the program comfortable to the point where I can go on tangents and always find my way back. I feel it's important if you're a spontaneous person that can erupt into any kind of story or tell any joke or talk to some audience member out of nowhere, the whole audience can feel that you're in control. So if that happens, you can steer the ship back. ... I guess I'm just trying to hone that part of my performance. ... Everyone can expect some real staple songs from shows I've been in, and we do some standards. We have a Cole Porter song and a song from an off-Broadway show I was in that a lot of people might not thoroughly know. Some songs from my childhood that I always used to sing that I've sort of rediscovered and reimagined with the orchestra. It's pretty eclectic, and yet I think it all fits together. The orchestra is a way of making everything sound as though they belong together as one story.
CM: And I've heard you've been doing "Poker Face."
IM: I'll probably do ["Poker Face"]. I have a lot of fun doing that.
CM: What do the orchestras think about doing Lady Gaga?
IM: They never say anything because I apologize to them live in front of everybody so many times that they probably feel bad for me. It's something people like to hear that I did with Lea Michele on Glee. But I have a take on it that is pretty unique to my experience of where I was at the time they asked me to do it. So I started to incorporate that into the performance. The musicians are pretty flexible, and we stop and we go a little bit. And I do apologize to them because I know they've gone through Juilliard or whatever. But I think they're cool with it.
CM: What will you always remember about your time on [Glee]?
IM: It marks the time that was a couple months after I had a baby, so it was the first time I was going back to work. I was glad that someone asked me to come back to work because you think when you're pregnant that no one is going to want you anymore. So that was exciting, and it was exciting to be on a show that I was a huge fan of. ... It was a lot of mixed feelings. I'll be honest: It's a great show, and the people were great, but leaving home was hard for me at that time.
CM: Kristen Chenoweth and Jonathan Groff have been back for Season 2. Any chance we'll see your character again?
IM: I'm hoping so. There's been talk of it. I think they just wanna give some air to our storylines. But we'll see. I'd love to come back.
CM: And how is your son, Walker?
IM: He's great. He's incredible. He's almost 21 months now, and he's starting to talk a lot and get a real definitive personality.
CM: Showing any signs of stardom?
IM: He likes to dance, actually. And he'll pick up on moves and turns. I sort of showed him the moonwalk. Yeah, he doesn't mind the spotlight. I don't wish that on him. He can do whatever he wants in life, but it'd be nice if he wasn't in the entertainment industry. But yeah, I'm sure he's destined to have music in his life. And it seems he can already match our tone. When you say things like, "Say thank you," he says it with the same notes. So I think he's got a good sense of that.
CM: You have an exciting summer because you also have your performance arts camp, Camp BroaderWay. Why did you and your husband, [Taye Diggs], start that?
IM: I was fortunate enough as a kid to go to camp for like six years of my childhood. And I always wanted to go back, and I always missed it. And I wanted to have a camp of my own. As I've gotten older, I've had different experiences, and I've realized all the people that didn't have that opportunity, so it became more about creating a place for young kids to come and to find themselves and to find salvation in the arts and their self-expression. ... The idea of being away from home and making those relationships and those bonds, nothing can parallel that. So finally, after years of talking about it, one of my best friends from college said, "OK, enough talk, let's do this already." ... Now, what do you know we have 10 days blocked off in the Berkshires, and we're going to put on an original play with them, and we put them on film. Last week they put poems together and songs based on a specific question I asked them, and we're going to put together themed stories around their ideas.
CM: Do you have any new musicals in the works?
IM: I'm dying to get back to New York to do another musical. My life is in LA right now. My husband is obviously on a successful show, and the baby is here, so for me it's not about splitting us up and going to New York to do it. So in the meantime I am developing some things that are in the really early stages. ... They're original pieces, and they're really creatively fulfilling for me. It's that experience that has always worked for me so well: being a part of an original production and creating an original character. Those things take longer, and they take more nurturing.