Idina Menzel lives in a musical kingdom where she rules as the Queen and her uber-fans are of many facets – her disciples, her defenders, her watchdogs, her court jesters, and her steadfastly dedicated army. Dare, if you will, to publicly state that the Emperor has no clothes, and you will be harangued, and scolded, and her votary will wish you banished to the tar pits of another land.
Yeah, they’re nutty like that.
I’ve often taken to Twitter and FB to complain (ok, mock, really) Menzel’s status as a theater (and gay) icon. Loathing the bloated, yet seemingly beloved, Wicked, it’s always been a curiosity that so many have elevated her to the status that she thrives in (more recent examples include her “screeching” at the Oscars and her “Live: Barefoot At The Symphony” PBS special and album). But I live with someone who adores her, so, as a good boyfriend/partner/whatever – and thanks to my work connections – I was able to finagle two free tickets to her sold out Radio City Music Hall one-night only event. (As an example of that snark, here’s what I posted once the tix were secured: I was just comped 2 free tix to Idina Menzel’s Radio City Music Hall concert on June 16th. Lucky me. I get to endure 2 hours of shrieking. All for Rob. What a man suffers through for love. #HeyItsFree #IHaveAHeadacheAlready.Yeah, I know – no boundaries.)
Now, to be fair, and completely honest, I’ve always liked Menzel as an actress and a personality, where, whenever interviewed, she was lovely, earthly, un-manufactured, if you will, despite her vocal “styling” seldom pleasing my ears. (Of course I never meant the literal definition of “screech” or “shriek” in my description. It was always colloquially.) Her high belts were, and remain powerful, yet always thin – often bordering on shrill, rarely full, or robust. Every power note hit often results in a tinny tone, resulting in her wavering off-course, missing the landing. Her propensity to slur many of her words together leaves some lyrics indecipherable. When she hits her highs in head register, it always bamboozled me at the almost biblical reaction of the audience. (Although, I’ve always admitted that her tone was gorgeous when she sang in chest register.) Though such gut reaction is a personal emotion and cannot be negated by snark (especially mine), like the aforesaid emperor, I’ve sat in abstract awe at the rapturous response, always wanting to bellow, “She’s naked!!!!!”
In the three times I saw her in Wicked (don’t ask) her act-1 show-stopper, “Defying Gravity,” was bombastic (not her fault), anticlimactic (sorta her fault) and strident (yeah, her fault). Sure, she could’ve had an off-night, but three? I admired her in Rent a few years prior to Wicked (though admired no one from the disastrous filmed version), she was fine in (Andrew Lippa’s version of) the otherwise meandering The Wild Party, and liked her arc in Glee. (Forget about the insults hurled my way when I audaciously, apparently, declared that Lea Michele out sang Menzel on the latter, though Menzel’s performances were always stellar.)
So, night of the concert, I hurried Rob (he didn’t like Wicked either, but he became enamored with Menzel from Glee), packed my earplugs and Advil and hoped for the best.
And while I didn’t get ‘the best,’ I was surprised as anyone that I was besotted and instantly smitten – faults and all – during her Radio City debut. I can’t explain it, really. But after a rough start (that damned “Gravity” song opened the show and was problematic), with every successive word spoken, story strung and song sung, she was kinda sorta magical. As seemingly unrehearsed (she does, after all, perform 8 shows a week in the dreadful If/Then and, I suspect, didn’t get much rehearsal time for this show), scattered, unusual, inconsistent as it all was, to my ears and eyes, this eternalized the charm.
Perhaps I was expecting a banshee jamboree – a nightmare filled with the sounds of dinnerware clattering on the classic Radio City stage, mired in yelps and scowls. Instead I witnessed a woman who was charming, sweet, hilarious (having losing a week earlier to foregone conclusion Jessie Mueller, she gave a fantasy Tony Award acceptance speech, which was lovingly heartfelt and very funny) and totally aware of her fallibility. She cursed at whim, despite the audience scattered with children (thanks to the treacly muck that is “Frozen” – hey, she didn’t ask to be a role model for children – and that damned Oscar winning song), performed a hooker mash-up (“Love For Sale” and “Roxanne”), kept all the “fucking special“‘s in Radiohead’s “Creep,” and, during one of her costume changes where her right breast was partially exposed, before an audience member let her know, said, “Fuck it, they’re real.” Oh, yeah…and she sang her guts out. Sure, bum notes were in profusion but I come to realize that’s part of her métier. And she doesn’t give a shit, and that’s refreshing in a genre stifled with constraint.
Midway through the show, Menzel quoted a recent review, which lambasted her “screechy” tendencies (and for a brief moment, I imagined that she was calling me out – yeah, I know, me. A miniscule, nonexistent blip in the blogosphere. I got over myself swiftly). That this was a preamble to a misguided Ethel Merman tribute almost proved that particular reviewer correct (Menzel is the polar opposite of Merman).
Personal highlights include 2 Menzel concert staples; a haunting, emotive reading of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” which brought Rob to tears, and a song that always brings me to emotional overload, “No Day But Today,” from Rent. Through these performances – as well as “Creep,” and a U2 cover (“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”) – Menzel was adamant to break away from that misbegotten role as the Tween Queen thanks to Wicked and Frozen.
If her one night at Radio City proved anything, it’s that she might have finally broken free from such shackles. Despite how many ghastly covers of “Let It Go” the world will be saddled with eternally thanks to YouTube.
Sigh. Let it go, Jeffrey. Let it go.
Both Sides Now:
No Day But Today:
Her faux-Tony Award Winning speech:
Take Me Or Leave Me: