‘It’s really f***ing hard to be a role model’

Broadway and Disney legend Idina Menzel is sitting onstage at Los Angeles’s Grammy Museum, chatting with Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker about her cleverly titled new disco album, Drama Queen. The record is packed with bangers, not her usual ballads (“Hey, I can do ballads till I’m 90 — I’m going to be doing ‘Defying Gravity’ and ‘Let It Go’ when I’m in Vegas, when I’m in the B-lounge and nobody’s hiring me,” she quips), but it is not a total departurefor Menzel. After all, the You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah star got her start covering hits by “amazing, huge, dynamic, big-personality” disco divaslike Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor at actual bat mitzvahs, and she remembers those pre-Rent/Wicked days fondly, as “a great stomping ground for me to learn all kinds of genres of music, to practice while nobody was listening and make mistakes.”

But now Menzel is really letting it go, so to speak. After years of trying to cross over to pop with only modest chart success, she’s finally “made the album I really wanted to make — for me, not caring about what a lot of people in the industry thought I should be doing, not overly strategizing and not overly thinking about it… just really not giving a f***, honestly!”

Menzel stops herself and chucklingly apologizes for her F-bomb, aware that several tweens — who of course mainly know and love her as Frozen’s Elsa — are sitting in the Grammy Museum’s Clive Davis Theater audience. She admits, “When you’re a Disney queen… it does cause problems for me, being a 52-year-old woman who finds my husband really hot and likes to have a drink once in a while and not just talk to 12-year-old girls. … So, sometimes I have to curse! I have to let it out. I mean, I’m an East Coast girl. It’s really f***ing hard to be a role model.”

Menzel knows such concerns are “champagne problems,” and stresses that Frozen has been “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I was a little girl that dreamt of this from the time I was 6 years old, and my dreams have come true. … I love performing and I couldn’t have even imagined all of these things. And to be able to connect with young people, especially since I’m a mom, to be able to see it from all sides of the spectrum, is just the greatest gift. But yes, if you’re singing about empowering little kids and you’re 52 and you can’t get up in the morning sometimes, there’s a little hypocrisy there. You’re forced to have these songs or scenes or things that make you better, walk the walk, talk the talk — or at least be a really good actress. It is hard to be a role model sometimes. But [“Let It Go”] is actually one of my proudest, proudest moments.”

But now on Drama Queen, Menzel is showcasing different, decidedly less Disney-esque sides of her personality. For instance, there are two brassy and bitchy empowerment anthems, the house music bop “Beast” (“I woke up that day and I had some balls,” she says of that song’s recording session) and the pointy-fingernailed “Make Me Hate Me” (about an unnamed “f***er that I compromised myself and lost a sense of myself for — and getting it back”) There’s also the sexy, “MacArthur Park”-esque coda track “Madison Hotel,” which was inspired by Menzel’s early courtship with current husband Aaron Lohr, when the couple would rendezvous at their favorite Manhattan “haven” (a sleek hotel with “a really sexy bar and rooms with bathtubs in the middle of them”). The single “Move,” while deceptively frothy and Minogue/Lipa-esque, lyrically explores Menzel’s insecurities and “this idea of wanting to really step into my own runway of life, my own spotlight… to really own that light and not be afraid of my own power, which has been something that I find as a woman I am always wrestling with.” Menzel believes it’s important, even if it’s sometimes “terrifying,” for her to be able express herself in these new ways.

“Kids have to know, and women need to know, that we’re all trying to just be so strong and so powerful, and it’s not easy to always do that,” Menzel says. “People need to know that yes, you can try and you can succeed, but then there are other days where you’re just not going to get it together. And that’s just is what it is. But you can’t be a good artist — you can’t connect with an audience, you can’t make people feel things or get chills, or have empathic, connected experience with a theater or a community or in society — if you’re not making yourself vulnerable and willing to take risks and make mistakes.”

Drama Queen features some of Menzel all-time greatest vocals, notably on a pair of collaborations with Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters: the “dark side of disco” lament “Funny Kind of Lonely,” which Menzel says depicts a “drama queen in the bathroom taking off her makeup” after “a hard night” of “too many bourbons,” and the glass-shatteringly wailing floor-filler/fist-pumper “Dramatic.” But even though the album places Menzel on a level with her dance-diva idols like Summer, Gaynor, Diana Ross, Cher, and “No More Tears”-era Barbra Streisand, she admits that she’s still a harsh self-critic — especially “in this day and age when everyone is up our butts with social media and they don’t miss a thing.”

Menzel still ruefully remembers that time when she “completely botched notes” during her 2015 New Year’s Eve performance of “Let It Go,” when she sang the Oscar-winning Frozen smash in Times Square’s freezing elements and was bashed on the platform then known as Twitter. “Deciding not to lip-sync, to sing a song in its original key with little hand-warmers and extra layers so that I can sing at midnight. Zero-degree weather. And then I hit the last note and sounded like Bruce Springsteen or something,” she laughs. “And then people wrote such mean things — and I read them! That was stupid.”

Menzel continues, “My identity is so wrapped up in being a singer, and I’ve often felt, ‘Who am I if I’m not a singer? What is my worth? What makes me different, sets me apart in the world?’” So, when it’s time for her perform live, she gets stressed out if she can’t be at “a hundred percent.” An “all-or-nothing girl” who likens herself to an “athlete” when she’s preparing to sing publicly, she rattles off a list of “many little variables” that can throw off a performance: not just frigid outdoor temperatures, but laryngitis, heartburn, a crying jag, being up late with her son or on a red-eye flight, or even one “TMI” reason. “I mean, imagine having your period!” she exclaims. “Think about opera singers — they only do a certain amount [of performances] a week [because of their menstrual cycles]. Sorry, but it’s one of the most annoying things about singing for woman!”

Menzel says it has taken “some years of experience” come to this realization, but lately, while performing her party-starting disco fare at Pride events, she has “learned that it isn’t just about my high notes — that it really is about storytelling for me. I’ve had audiences just getit and feel it, [even when] I didn’t do all that stuff that I thought they wanted to hear.” It has also taken her a while to get used to disco-dancing and singing live at the same time — “There’s a reason why people lip-sync!” she laughs — but she’s managed by avoiding wearing the towering platform shoes featured in the aggressively glamorous Jerry Hall/Kate Bush/Roxy Music-like visuals of Drama Queen’s album art and videos. “That way, I can hit the notes and breathe, and then dance around. I’m learning that you sing the big notes and then you dance, and then the easy stuff is lower in your voice; that’s when you can actually do a little step/together/step/together.”

The release of “Move,” Drama Queen’s first single, coincided with Pride Month, as a love letter of sorts to Menzel’s supportive LBGTQ+ fanbase. And that community loved her right back with “the most amazing album release party” at Brooklyn gay club 3 Dollar Bill, where a delighted Menzel watched a cast of drag queens slay and sashay to her tracks. (One drag queen with especially deep-cut Idina knowledge even donned the famous red Adidas tracksuit that Medina wore for Wicked’s final night, which Menzel had to sit out in 2005 because she’d fallen through a stage trap door and broken her ribs the night before.) “[The drag queens] learned my album, which was so incredible… and then they did a bunch of songs from my life with full-on production, choreo, dancers, costumes, the whole thing. It was such an incredible night, but I felt like crying most of the time,” Menzel gushes. “It was really just so… I don’t know, I just felt good about myself.”

Menzel derived a lot of validation from her new album’s impressive collaborators as well. Along with the two co-writes with disco prince Shears, she experienced a “pinch-me moment” recording with the king of disco, Nile Rodgers’s Chic, on the “Good Times”-inspired “Paradise” (“I begged him to work with me … I wanted him to give me street cred, honestly”), and she also teamed with superstar songwriter Justin Tranter (Selena Gomez, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber, DNCE, Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa) for the sweetly Olivia Newton John-like “My Love for Life.” She is hugely grateful for all of the “wonderful writers and producers that worked with me and said yes to my ideas, and didn’t say, ‘But you’re from Broadway!’ … For a long time, people in the business, and the music industry especially, were always worried about me being too ‘versatile,’ because if you’re not just very specific for them, it makes their job harder to market you and all that stuff.” But now the multi-hyphenate entertainer, who’s played everywhere from the Catskills to Broadway to the Oscars to Lilith Fair, realizes that having a varied “body of work that you can be proud of” is “much bigger than just one album or one song.”

And disco queen — or drama queen — is seemingly Menzel’s role of a lifetime, and the role that the Tony Award-winner was born to play. She admits there have been times in the past when she could feel herself “retreating or diminishing… and I don’t like that. I’m very aware of that, because I’m neurotic and always thinking about these things.” But now she’s “reclaiming” the words “drama” and “diva,” and celebrating her “biggest, loudest, boldest self. … I think it’s pretty awesome to be a drama queen! It means that you feel things deeply and intensely, and you are passionate and you’re fiery and you’re romantic and you can be a mess, and you can be sensitive and vulnerable and all those things. And it makes you really cool to be married to — it keeps people on their toes! But really, it makes us better artists and better human beings. So, I’m all for just embracing it.”

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The above interview is taken from Idina Menzel’s appearance at the Grammy Museum on Aug. 22, 2023.

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