How Idina Menzel’s star keeps rising

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Being dropped by her record label was one of the best things that ever happened to Broadway star Idina Menzel. The experience was painful at the time, but it empowered the performer to redirect her energy to the stage, where she’s achieved an enviable career as both a singer and an actor.

“I had just finished ‘Rent’ and thought I was going to be a big rock star,” says the singer/songwriter, who earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance as the revolutionary Maureen Johnson in the groundbreaking show. “After just one album, Hollywood Records dropped me.”

The move forced Menzel, who turned 41 on May 30, to reexamine her career. After a few fallow years, she found her way back to Broadway and to her 2003 Tony Award-winning role as the green-skinned Elphaba in “Wicked.”

“I learned that I loved the theater and I always feel good about coming back,” she says. “I feel I belong there.”

“Defying Gravity,” Menzel’s breakout number from the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman show, will no doubt be part of the song list June 20, when the celebrated performer brings her “Barefoot at the Symphony” show to Uihlein Hall at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Menzel has performed the mix of pop songs and show tunes numerous times, often with composer/conductor Marvin Hamlisch at the helm. In March, she released both a CD and DVD of the performance that was recorded at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.

“The Milwaukee show will be the result of a year-and-a- half of concertizing,” Menzel says. “There will be a lot of new material, but I’m still barefoot. I really can’t stand singing in high heels.” Menzel may well have been barefoot when she first started singing as a little girl on her native Long Island, N.Y. At 15 she got her first “professional” job as a wedding singer and worked her way through New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts by singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“After graduation, a friend helped me audition for ‘Rent’ and I got the job almost as a fluke,” Menzel says.

Composer Jonathan Larson’s rock adaptation of Puccini’s “La Boheme” opened off Broadway on Jan. 26, 1996. Larson died the day before of an aortic dissection caused by undiagnosed Marfan Syndrome. Posthumously, he won both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize for the hit musical.

Larson’s death profoundly affected the cast of “Rent,” Menzel says, helping to create a strong work ethic among the performers.

“Jonathan’s passing kept us all very grounded,” says Menzel, who ended up marrying “Rent” costar Taye Diggs. “The work ethic was incredible because we had to be true to his vision.”

Her work ethic drove Menzel to a high level of versatility as a performer, making it difficult for producers to categorize and market her. Her return to the stage opposite Kristen Chenowith in “Wicked” helped cement her identity, both as a performer and as a woman.

“Elphaba has given me a higher profile and I love playing her,” Menzel says. “As women, we’re often afraid of our own power and fear alienating people. The character mirrors that aspect, harnesses it and turns it into something beautiful.”

Elphaba is one of Menzel’s favorite characters, but so is Vera, the alcoholic, codependent character she played in

“Ask the Dust,” which she describes as “the best movie you’ve never seen.”

“Vera is the opposite of Elphaba – she’s a mess,” says Menzel, who acted opposite Colin Farrell in the Robert Towne film. “I like her because I am known for playing empowered women, so it was nice to explore that balance. I found my confidence as an actor in that role.”

Menzel’s best-known role may be that of Shelby Corcoran, the driven coach of Vocal Adrenaline on the hit FOX television show “Glee.” Her experience on the program has been unlike most Hollywood productions, she said.

“It was a wonderful experience and great to be surrounded by so many talented people in one place – just like in New York,” she said. “The show is groundbreaking and courageous in the issues it tackles and is giving a new generation of young people a chance to be themselves.”

Such empowerment is part and parcel of Menzel’s career, one that’s been inspired, like those of so many of her contemporaries, by the music of Barbra Streisand. “I was inspired by Barbra’s incredible range, her breath control, and especially her emotional grasp of her material,” Menzel says.            “ ‘A Star is Born’ was the first record album I ever owned.”

She’s lived up to the title.

On stage

Idina Menzel’s “Barefoot at the Symphony” tour stops in Uihlein Hall at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on June 20. Details: