Idina Menzel: Streisand, Hamlisch and me

The musical theatre star tells Brigit Grant how she was snubbed by her idol, and how her heart was broken by the death of her close friend


Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel

As she waits in the wings at London’s Apollo Theatre on Monday night, Idina Menzel will be a little more anxious than usual. Not about her performance, for the Tony-award winning star of Wicked is more at home on the stage than anywhere else and never fails to bring a rapturous audience to their feet. But this UK tour is different because she is doing it without Marvin.

The entertainment community is still reeling from the premature and seemingly unexpected death in August of the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, but for Menzel it was like losing a father.

“The fact that he has gone hasn’t completely sunk in with me yet,” says the musical star faltering over her words. “It was sudden, although he was not feeling well here and there throughout the year. But when it happened I had to pinch myself, and now my heart is broken. The last time I performed in London was at the Royal Albert Hall with Marvin conducting, and when I come back I fear I will feel a terrible sense of loss. I keep trying to prepare myself for it, but I can’t.”

As her orchestrator, conductor and, perhaps most importantly, close friend, Hamlisch was always there at Menzel’s side just moments before she walked on stage. “We would hold hands and he would give me a kiss and say: ‘Have a great show’. When we recorded a special for [American TV network] PBS he was my warm-up man and wrote songs on the spot as members of the audience called out a subject. We had a very similar sense of humour and we would throw the banter back and forth off-stage as well as on.”

The alliance between the composer and his muse echoed the relationship Hamlisch had with Barbra Streisand, Menzel’s idol. “He was the session pianist for Funny Girl and so their friendship was historic, but the fact that he was passing me the baton was such a confidence booster.”

This mighty boost enabled Menzel, (well known to TV audiences as Rachel’s birth mother, Shelby, in Glee) to find the confidence to perform Don’t Rain on My Parade in front of Streisand at the Kennedy Centre Honours in 2008. The impressive performance, which has been watched by 331,340 on YouTube, makes for slightly awkward viewing due to Streisand’s somewhat critical expression and tentative applause.

“I was very nervous because I am her biggest fan and I wanted her to dote on me, but after the show I was lucky enough to be seated at her table and she ignored me,” recalls Menzel with a measured laugh. “She later attributed the lack of recognition to the fact that she hadn’t been wearing her glasses so she couldn’t see anything. I really wasn’t sure that she liked me because she acted like I was going to bite, but then I got this nice thank-you card so maybe she did like me.”

Streisand’s reaction has in no way impeded Menzel’s rise. She has starred in the film Enchanted, is all set to be animated in the 2013 Disney movie, Frozen and has remained on the most-wanted list of successful musical composers since making her 1996 Broadway debut in Jonathan Larson’s Rent.

It was sitting on the piano stool beside Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman during the creation of the Wizard of Oz-inspired musical Wicked that enabled her to get first dibs on playing the maligned witch Elphaba and make Defying Gravity her song.

Not bad going when you consider that the New York-born Menzel came from a family with no obvious musical talents, though she is convinced her father — Stuart Mentzel (she changed the surname to make the pronunciation easier) — had singing potential.

“I was lucky because my parents took me to teachers to help me sing, but my father has been known to go out to dinner and then find his voice in the middle of the city streets after midnight. We just let him shout it out,” says the 41-year-old daughter of the Seventh Avenue pyjama salesman. “One thing I was never short of was a nightgown,” she adds. “My drawers were overflowing with onesies and cute tops and bottoms.”

By the time Menzel was 15, she was working part-time as a wedding and barmitzvah singer and more in need of ball gowns than baby dolls.

“No one really listened to me at functions, “she says. “They were far too busy getting drunk and to be honest, I’m not sure I was that good back then. I didn’t have much of a repertoire — Madonna, Whitney, one bossa nova, one Motown and the two standards: Someone to Watch Over Me and Our Love is Here to Stay. I don’t think I ever really knew the right words to Hava Nagilah, which isn’t great for a Jewish singer. But like I say, no one noticed. During the salad course I would work on other songs and listen in my car to Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, so I could copy their phrasing. It was a great education and even though the older I got and the more frustrated because I hadn’t got my big break, I still miss those days because I was what I think of as ‘chick gig singer’. I still think of myself that way, only now the gigs are a bit fancier.”

Fancy is right. She is about to perform songs from her album Barefoot at the Symphony on tour in the UK. When she finishes she will be taking the show to New York’s Carnegie Hall.

“The show is very anecdotal — in fact I probably talk too much,” says Menzel, who is married to musical actor Taye Diggs with whom she has a three-year-old son, Walker. “I like the audience to feel each night is different and they are getting something special. Most of the songs are the same give or take, but they often relate to a feeling or emotion that chronicles a moment in my life.”

One such moment was when she performed at the Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan on August 14 2012. It was there in front of a coffin covered with yellow freesias that she sang At the Ballet from Marvin Hamlisch’s musical A Chorus Line to a group of mourners that included Bill Clinton, Liza Minnelli and Richard Gere.

“It was Marvin’s favourite composition and he wanted it to be the last song played at his funeral,” says an emotional Menzel. “I didn’t know how I would do it, but I sang the opening and was then joined by hundreds of choral singers. There was a levity that occurred at the synagogue, the whole place was resounding in song and I knew Marvin’s spirit was there. It was only afterwards, seeing his wife Terre and so many others who loved and knew him that made it hard and we cried. ”

When Menzel arrives in the UK on Monday, her show will include a personal tribute to Hamlisch.
“I’ve been thinking about what songs to sing and plan to do What I Did For Love as we performed it together at the White House,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine not seeing him before I go out on stage or hear his words of reassurance. He was my comfort zone. I really hope other people enjoy the tribute, but this one is for Marvin.”

Idina Menzel will be at the Apollo Theatre, London from October 8-12, at Edinburgh on October 16 and The Palace Theatre, Manchester on October 17. Details at www.idinauk.com. ‘Live: Barefoot at the Symphony’ is available on CD and DVD

Last updated: 9:57am, October 4 2012