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On New Album, 'Drama Queen,' Idina Menzel Hits The Dance Floor
Out Aug. 18, 'Drama Queen' continues the personal storytelling that’s a trademark of Idina Menzel's original discography, but with a pop-disco lilt.
Idina Menzel can’t be put into a box.
On the Broadway stage she originated iconic roles like Maureen in "Rent" and Elphaba in "Wicked," the latter of which earned her a Tony Award. Her reputation for musicals continued to the silver screen with the juggernaut success of the ongoing Frozen franchise, which Menzel leads as Elsa. But despite that remarkable track record, musicals (on and off the stage) are only one facet of Menzel’s eclectic and expansive career.
In between creating those tentpole roles, she’s starred in television and film projects like Glee, Enchanted, and Uncut Gems, all the while consistently writing and releasing her own original music — a notoriously tricky leap for Broadway stars to make. It was her 1998 debut pop-rock album Still I Can’t Be Still, released after the success of "Rent," that first demonstrated the challenge of being accepted in the mainstream music industry as a performer synonymous with theater. After its poor commercial performance, she was dropped by her first label.
Nevertheless, she stayed the course, finding more success with pop offerings like I Stand (2008) and Idina (2016), and hit Christmas albums like 2014’s Holiday Wishes — refusing to ever just be one thing or restricted to any one lane.
That versatility has been both a blessing and a curse. "So many people in the music industry wanna put people in a box because it makes their life easier if you’re just one way," Menzel tells GRAMMY.com.
Menzel is again breaking new ground, sonically and otherwise, on her disco-inspired seventh album Drama Queen. Out Aug. 18, Drama Queen — featuring singles like "Move" and "Beast" — is a showcase for Menzel's powerhouse vocals.
The album is the latest entry in that genre’s resurgence, fitting right in amongst new offerings from Kylie Minogue and Jessie Ware, and sees Menzel collaborating with GRAMMY-winning songwriter and disco legend Nile Rodgers. Though a new genre for Menzel, the songwriting is a seamless continuation of the personal storytelling that’s forever been a trademark of her original discography.
"The music comes from stuff that I feel I need to write for myself as an artist and a woman, a lot about really owning who I am," Menzel says, adding that she hopes her personal message will prove universal — particularly for her devoted LGBTQ+ audience. It’s a community that’s not only been with her since the beginning, but one that she’s already gotten to share this new music with at recent Pride celebrations.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to express my gratitude to the LGBTQ+ community. They've always accepted me, but more than that it's what they taught me through their courage to live their lives authentically," she continues.
Ahead of Drama Queen’s release, Menzel spoke to GRAMMY.com about this latest genre-shift, what she credits for her versatility, and the challenges that come with breaking out of the Broadway box that people continually try, and fail, to put her in.
This is now your seventh album, but the first time you’re exploring this new genre. What drew you to making a disco-inspired dance record?
I really wanted to make music that grooved and got people up to dance, and not overthink what I was doing or what was expected of me. But also make music that would still be a good foundation for a big voice. So many of my favorite singers, like Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, Gloria Gaynor, they had this disco moment that was incredible. They could still sing really big and yet get people moving, so I felt like that was an organic transition for me.
It feels like this kind of disco-inspired music is really having a resurgence right now, what do you attribute to the timelessness of this genre?
I think because they're just real songs, as far as the structure of songwriting. They're not as linear as everything is today. They'll go through a verse, a pre-chorus, a chorus, and then a bridge. They might even have a modulation, so for singers it's exciting because it allows us so many places to go and ways to be expressive with our voices. I think that probably resonates with people.
What’s it been like performing these new songs live? I’d imagine it’s a very different vibe than your usual setlists.
I'm having a blast. I have dancers, I have amazing background singers, we're just like throwing down up there. The bass and the grooves are so loud that I feel that vibration from the floor all the way through my solar plexus.
I used to be worried that I had different genres that I explored in my career, and would that confuse people? I thought that maybe it was going to be incohesive in some way. But as I've gotten older, I realized that my common denominator is less about the music style and more about the storytelling and my life through the music. So I can get on stage and do this disco music, and then do "Defying Gravity" and something from "Rent" and it’s actually pretty seamless.
In your documentary that came out last year, Which Way To The Stage, you talk a lot about the challenges that you’ve had releasing original music as someone known for Broadway. Why do you think it’s so difficult to make that jump?
Versatility has often been my curse. If you’re an artist that wants to explore different avenues, you often get people saying, "Oh I don’t know if you should do that," or [they] assume that people from theater are going to be overly expressive. The truth is, you can always figure out what medium you’re in. In the theater world, people want you to be a little bit more perfected, and in the pop world they want you to be more raw. But I feel that the commonality is the ability for a performer to make themselves vulnerable and take that risk and allow people to see inside you — in whichever medium, that’s the thing that resonates with people.
I also remind myself that there's a lot of really theatrical artists in the pop and rock and hip-hop world. I love Annie Lennox, she's completely theatrical. David Bowie is theatrical, even Mick Jagger. And so, I think it's just the context people get in their head about.
You grew up performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs. What role do you think that had in fostering this versatility and equipping you to bounce around these different genres?
That was everything! To me, the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit was my education. It was sort of my laboratory for experimenting with all kinds of music. You have to emulate different artists all the time and do covers, so I'm learning how to hit the songs in the right range and use my voice in all these ways.
But also then you start to realize, okay, what am I bringing to this as a vocalist? What's me now, being informed by all of these influences? But people aren’t listening most of the time, let's just be honest, so you really build a thick skin. And you have to fly by the seat of your pants when people request stuff, so I think my ability to be spontaneous and improvise was fostered in that setting. I owe all of it to those jobs, I really do.
When it comes to Broadway, you have a history of originating iconic characters. Is the creative process of developing a new story why you tend to favor original musicals over revivals?
Yeah, I got my start in original musicals and the process of standing at the piano with a young composer like Jonathan Larson, let's say, and having them bring a new song that they've written for you, your character, your voice, your inflections, and impulses…there's just nothing like that. It's also a little selfish because my life's actually easier when a character's written with me in mind.
I'd rather not do a revival where I'm walking in the footsteps of legendary other women, it makes it a lot harder. But I just really love creating new stuff that gives young composers an opportunity to share their work.
Speaking of which, one of those original shows was "Wicked," which is of course now being turned into a film. What’s it been like seeing its longevity and now handing over the baton (or broomstick) for the movie?
Well, there's a tremendous amount of pride that comes with the fact that it's going onto its next incarnation, having been a part of originating it and seeing it come to life. For me and Kristin [Chenoweth] to hand it off to such capable hands and see what they do with it is a beautiful thing, and Cynthia [Erivo] and Ariana [Grande] are perfect for it.
The bittersweet part for me is the aging thing. As a woman, to not be able to play your role because you're aging out of it is what makes it hard, and I've just been trying to be honest about that. But if anyone's gonna do it, I mean, Cynthia's gonna knock it outta the park. They're not gonna remember me after she does it!
The story is timeless and to have another generation enjoy and be changed by this musical is just what we hoped for back in the beginning.
We talked a lot about versatility and genre-hopping, is there any box left for you to tick? Anything that you haven’t done yet that you still want to explore?
Well, you mean in my career, right? Because personally, I enjoy being a basketball mom and I wanna have a farm and rescue racehorses one day. That's really where my focus has been lately.
But honestly, just to keep working with really incredible creatives. You know, people that are much better than me so that I can get better and keep learning and evolving as an artist. Nile Rodgers was my mentor on this album, and there's Justin Tranter, and Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters, who’s someone I worked with on this that really helped guide me.
I just hope people can listen with an open heart and fresh ears and hear the music for what it is and feel the joy that was intended with it.
Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
"Rise Up New York!" COVID-19 Relief Benefit To Feature Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Tina Fey, Bon Jovi & Many More
Tina Fey is hosting the star-studded May 11 TV special raising money for the most in-need New Yorkers during the coronavirus crisis
On Mon. May 11, famous New Yorkers will gather together virtually to share music, jokes and stories to support their most in-need neighbors on behalf of local non-profit Robin Hood's COVID-19 Relief Fund. "Rise Up New York!," an hour-long fundraising special, will be hosted by Tina Fey and feature performances from GRAMMY-winning legends Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Mariah Carey and Sting. Jennifer Lopez, Barbra Streisand, Ben Platt, Bette Midler, Idina Menzel, Trevor Noah and many more are also slated to appear on the show.
More performers will be revealed, but iconic director Spike Lee, actors Chris Rock, Christopher Jackson, Robert De Niro and Jake Gyllenhaal, along with NY Giants Super Bowl champs Eli Manning Michael Strahan, will also make cameos. N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and N.Y.C. Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as some of the city's brave frontline workers, will also speak.
According to their website, Robin Hood is the biggest poverty-fighting organization in N.Y.C., working with over 250 local non-profits that support food, housing, education, legal services, work opportunities and more. Their COVID-19 Relief Fund was created to ensure that the city's most vulnerable can survive the harrowing pandemic, with 100% of donations going directly to the orgs working on the frontlines, as overhead costs are paid by board members.
With "Rise Up New York!," which is co-hosted by iHeartMedia, Robin Hood is aiming to raise $10 million for the fund. They are asking for $10 donation from individuals and hoping to get at least 1 million out of over 8.5 million New Yorkers on board.
"New York City is at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis has created a whole new set of challenges for the millions of New Yorkers who already struggled to make ends meet," Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore said in a statement. "This is a moment where we must all come together and rise up together as a community in support of our neighbors and in support of one another."
The show will air on Mon., May 11 at 7 p.m. ET on all local TV stations, iHeartMedia and Entercom broadcast radio stations, News 12, Spectrum News NY1, SiriusXM and nationally on CNBC.
Photo: Alison Buck/Getty Images
TLC, Chicago, Kelly Rowland & More Announced As Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Performers
The 93rd annual Thanksgiving celebration will make its way through Manhattan, with musicians, astronauts, Broadway stars—plus a gigantic Snoopy and Spongebob—helping spread the holiday cheer
Today, Nov. 1, Macy's announced details for their forthcoming 93rd annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The performers slated to bring festive cheer to the colorful parade floats include GRAMMY winners TLC, Kelly Rowland, Chicago, Ciara and Black Eyed Peas.
Current Latin GRAMMY nominee Ozuna will also be joining in on the fun, bringing his joyful reggaetón to the Sour Patch Kids float. You can find GRAMMY- and Emmy-winning "Pose" star Billy Porter looking fierce atop Coach's "Rexy in the City"—a fancy T-Rex and the first-ever luxury brand-sponsored float in the historic parade. Rexy will join the ranks of the huge Snoopy and Spongebob, as well as a new smiling sun float from world-renown artist Yayoi Kusama, featuring her ever-present polka dots.
Broadway—including "Wicked" and "Rent"—star Idina Menzel is also set to appear—you likely know her as the voice of Elsa in Frozen and the Disney film's ubiquitous "Let It Go." Singer and former "Glee" lead Lea Michelle, rising Nashville-based, Canada-born country artist Tenille Townes, and 12-year-old Houston-born, Atlanta-based rapper That Girl Lay Lay will also perform.
Oh, we’re not done yet. @NCTsmtown_127, @KELLYROWLAND, @natashabdnfield, Josh Dela Cruz, @DebbieGibson & @chicagotheband will be there, too! Watch all your faves on Thanksgiving morning starting at 9am on @NBC. #MacysParade https://t.co/D5DLVeEshV pic.twitter.com/bEjxV5UsNi— Macy's (@Macys) November 1, 2019
The event takes place the morning of Thanksgiving, Thurs., Nov. 28. It will air on NBC from 9 a.m. to noon during all time zones. More info can be found on Macy's site.
Photo: George Rose/Getty Images
Brittney Johnson Is First Black Woman Cast As Wicked's ‘Glinda’
The actress' Jan. 10 debut in the GRAMMY-winning musical was monumental; no black actress had ever portrayed the good witch in an English-language production
Brittney Johnson has made history as the first black woman to portray Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in the Broadway show Wicked.
"My heart is bursting with gratitude. Thank you, thank you! God is so good!" Johnson said in a tweet. "I am so humbled to be the first Black Glinda and honored to fulfill the dreams and hopes of so many! I feel like my feet have yet to touch down."
The actress made her official debut on Jan. 10. Prior to that, no black actress has ever played “Glinda” in an English-language production of the GRAMMY-winning musical, according to several reports. Johnson joined the cast in June as an understudy.
My heart is bursting with gratitude. Thank you, thank you! God is so good! I am so humbled to be the first Black Glinda and honored to fulfill the dreams and hopes of so many! I feel like my feet have yet to touch down. The importance of this moment in history is... pic.twitter.com/503uPIAq1O— Brittney Johnson (@sunnybrittney) January 11, 2019
"Representation is so important and I'm honored to be a representative here on Broadway and in the theatre community. My hope and prayer is that people all over the world can see my story and have faith that they can achieve their dreams too. Nothing is impossible!" she continued in another tweet.
Wicked is a musical spinoff of Gregory Maguire's book Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West, which is inspired by L. Frank Baum's classic The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz. Wicked debuted in San Francisco in 2003. It is the sixth longest-running musical ever.
In the past, Kristin Chenoweth and GRAMMY winner Jennifer Laura Thompson have played “Glinda” onstage.
Jessica Vosk, who plays “Elphaba,” aka The Wicked Witch of the West, had her own thoughts to share about the history-making accomplishment on Instagram:
"Miss Brittney Johnson is gracing the Gershwin stage as the first Glinda of color on Broadway. This is both deserved and integral to this show and the entire theatre community. The fact that she inspires all of us here is one thing. The fact that she is inspiring women all over the world to follow their dreams is simply life changing all around. This is what a Glinda looks like."
Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Still "Wicked": Celebrating 15 Years Of The GRAMMY-Winning Musical
"Wicked" is being honored by Ariana Grande, Pentatonix and more for its 15th anniversary
The GRAMMY-winning Broadway musical Wicked is turning 15 this year, and it's still going strong. The musical that won Best Musical Theatre Album at the 47th GRAMMY Awards is now bringing together GRAMMY nominees Ariana Grande, Ledisi and Adam Lambert as well as GRAMMY winners Pentatonix to perform with original cast members Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth to celebrate the 15 years of magic.
Fellow Ozians—it’s official. The 10/29 #Wicked15 Anniversary Concert on @nbc will feature @IdinaMenzel, @KChenoweth, @PTXOfficial, & @ArianaGrande! Stay tuned for more info & thrillifying surprises! @TODAYshow #Wicked— Wicked the Musical (@WICKED_Musical) September 27, 2018
The musical debuted in San Francisco, Calif. in 2003 and is based on Gregory Maguire's book, Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West influenced by L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz. To honor the humorous and touching story about a green witch named Elphaba, a special called A Very Wicked Halloween is airing on Oct. 29 and will feature an all-star line-up.
"The themes of the show, the love and friendship aspects," Chenoweth told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We can look at these two characters looking forward to seeing everything."
Mitch Grassi from Pentatonix says it's full circle for him performing in the special. "It's a full circle moment, we grew up with this show and the [album] kind of shaped us as performers," Grassi told Playbill.
Indeed, 15 years later, the show is still a hot ticket, still touching audiences and still wicked!