When she takes the stage at Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa this month, Idina Menzel won’t be wearing a sparkly blue dress – though some audience members might be. Long known in theater circles for her show-stopping turns on Broadway, the singer’s fame skyrocketed last year after she voiced Queen Elsa in Disney’s “Frozen.” The character’s signature power ballad, “Let It Go,” became inescapable; it won an Academy Award, a Grammy Award and became the fifth best-selling song of 2014. Menzel welcomes the attention, which she has parlayed into a world tour that includes two stops in New Jersey.

“I knew it was a beautiful song when they sent it to me to learn, but I had no idea it would be the phenomenon it’s become,” she says. “It’s wonderful to have a song that’s obviously heightened my profile and that’s given me so much more opportunity.”

Idina-Menzel_general-2_credit-Robin-WongThe song’s success has also further widened Menzel’s audiences, which now frequently include young children. While she tries to tailor her show to appeal to the fans, the humble Long Island native can’t help but be unabashedly herself.

“Each defining project and role I’ve been a part of has garnered a younger audience; ‘Rent,’ ‘Wicked,’ ‘Glee’ and now ‘Frozen,’” she says. “I’ve always had to figure out how to navigate around a wide demographic, which can be tricky. I’m a 43-year-old woman up there, and all of a sudden I swear about something and there’s a mom in the front row with her 8-year-old daughter in an Elsa costume.”

Menzel still looks forward to performing “Let It Go,” because the message of the song resonates so deeply with her young fans, their parents and the singer herself.

“The really beautiful thing about ‘Let It Go’ is that as much as it speaks to young people, it also speaks to me as a woman,” she says. “It’s a reminder of the things I think are important, like the idea of not hiding the things that make us really powerful women. The things that make us a little different are what make us extraordinary and set us apart in the world. That’s something we grapple with – especially strong, fierce women – we take a step back because we’re afraid of seeming threatening or being disliked. The song is about being proud and not hiding those qualities.”

Younger attendees will certainly get their “Frozen” fix, but the set list will also include songs from the Broadway hits “Wicked” and “Rent,” in which Menzel originated the roles of Elphaba Thropp and Maureen Johnson.

“It’s funny, although ‘Let It Go’ is my only ‘hit song,’ I’ve noticed that I consider songs like ‘Defying Gravity’ and songs from ‘Rent’ to be my other hits,” she says. “My barometer is that if I can put the microphone out and people can sing along, then it’s a hit.”

Between the Broadway hits, classic pop covers and songs from her catalog, Menzel will recount personal anecdotes and talk about the unique significance songs in the set list hold for her.

“Every song, every show, it makes me reflect,” she says. “A certain song can hit me a different way on a different night. A lot of times I discover things in front of thousands of people. In the beginning, when I was young, that was frightening, but it’s the only way you can connect with people. The thing I’m most proud of is my ability to give a very intimate performance. People feel like they’ve really gotten to know me when they leave the venue. It’s important to me that even though I’m perhaps on a different level, and my profile has gotten bigger because of things like ‘Frozen,’ that I’m still able to connect with everyone in that audience.

“I want everyone to feel like they got something specific to that city alone. That’s more challenging to do the bigger the venues get, but I think it’s possible if I’m honest and authentic, and allow for spontaneity. Things go wrong in front of people all the time – like my boob coming out of my top at Radio City Music Hall – or people yell things from the audience, and it starts a conversation. You embrace those things, because it keeps things fresh and keeps you on your toes.”

Menzel’s rafter-shaking vocals render special effects and elaborate costumes largely unnecessary, and she says she approaches the shows on her tour the way she’s handled every performance over her 20-year professional career: by standing onstage and telling a story.

“I always take my shoes off at some point,” she says. “I think the heels make me look skinnier, but at some point I have to get comfortable. It’s easier for me to sing when I’m grounded. Only people like Beyoncé can walk down stairs and dance in heels and still look good – I can’t do that. When I was a little girl I saw Diana Ross perform, and she made about 12 costume changes. I thought that was amazing, but I never want to lose the momentum, so I never leave the stage. I’m just up there being me. Whether I’m in green makeup or just standing up there in jeans and bare feet, as an artist I have to take a risk, make myself really vulnerable and allow myself to be seen.”

Despite the recently boosted wattage of her starpower, Menzel is quick to laugh at herself, especially on the topic of the flub that launched a thousand Internet memes: John Travolta’s brutal mispronunciation of her name at the 2014 Academy Awards.

“We make a lot of jokes behind the scenes,” she laughs. “I had to introduce Mariah Carey at the Billboard Music Awards, and I thought, ‘Would people find it funny if I called her Maria Curry or something?’ We decided nope, that probably wouldn’t go over all that well.”

Idina-Menzel_general-5_credit-Robin-WongMenzel sticks to a rigorous vocal training program that ensures her voice is up to the challenges of a 54-stop tour, but she also balances that training with the demands of motherhood. Her 5-year-old son will accompany her for much of the tour.

“I’m not afraid of hard work,” she says. “People in the theater are like athletes, especially singers. We have to train and stretch. I have expectations for myself to stay at a certain level.

“The worst part of touring is being tired and worrying about your voice, if you’re getting a cold. It’s a constant worry you have as a singer, but now that I’m a mom and I’m bringing my kid with me, it’s different. If we’re going to be jet lagged and he’s going to keep me up all night, I might not have the best voice that night. But I’ve got my beautiful son with me, so I’ll just try a different melody that night. Having a child has helped put those things in perspective.”

Focusing on her family also helps Menzel ignore the criticism, which was particularly scathing after she missed a high note during her Times Square performance last New Year’s Eve.

“It does get to me, and I try not to read the stuff, but once in a while I cave in and I read something that’s really hurtful,” she says.

“Then I try to focus on my son and on things that are much more important in my life. You just have to keep getting up, doing the best you can and trying to connect with people. It’s hard for me because I want to be perfect all the time, but I know that the more interesting performances aren’t. You’re going to feel something so much more if someone is true and honest and idiosyncratic, and you can hear the texture in their voice. Those are the artists we love, that have moved us and changed us. So occasionally if I have to endure criticism because I missed a high note on a below-freezing day in the middle of winter, then as much as that hurt my feelings, that’s what I have to do.

“I’m not going to stop singing, and I’m certainly not going to lip sync. There’s no auto-tune happening here. When people come and hear me live and see what I can really do, they’ll get it.”

July 2015
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