Even before she voiced Elsa in Disney’s Frozen, Idina Menzel was fit for a queen.
A Tony winner for her performance as Elphaba in Wicked, Menzel can currently be seen off-Broadway in Joshua Harmon’s Skintight as a Jewish divorcée with a gay son (Eli Gelb) and gay father (Queer as Folk’s Jack Wetherall). It’s not a huge stretch for the 47-year-old Rent alum; as she puts it, the gay community “has always been family.”
Preparing to join Josh Groban on his Bridges arena tour this fall, the multi-platinum recording artist chats with NewNowNext about giving back to queer audiences. But giving Elsa a girlfriend in Frozen 2? You may have to let it go.
It’s nice seeing you on the Skintight posters during my subway commutes.
I know, my face is so big on that poster! Walking into the theater every day, I can see every pore.
Your last non-musical show was The Vagina Monologues in 2002. Is it a relief not having to hit high notes every night?
Oh, totally. When you’re singing every day, there’s always stress and anxiety about your health and taking care of your voice. Not having to worry about that, I’m able to wake up each day and enjoy myself in a different way.
Were you feeling pigeonholed in musicals? Did you want to remind people you could do more than belt your face off?
I guess I had some personal insecurities. I wanted to feel like I was still interesting, charismatic, and worthy of being on stage even if I wasn’t singing. I needed to reinforce for myself that my heart and soul were enough without wowing people with big notes. The response has been great, so I’m glad I took on this experience.
Fans were mad you didn’t have a song in the Disney movie Enchanted, but you were probably thrilled.
I was. I was excited to be hired as just an actress. I think they’re still working on an Enchanted sequel, so we’ll see what happens.
Well, if you have to do a straight play, at least Skintight is very gay.
[Laughs] I know, right?
In fact, you share the stage with a hunky actor, Will Brittain, who spends a lot of time wearing only a jockstrap. Is that distracting?
I find it thoroughly enjoyable. [Laughs] I mean, he has a really great ass. It’s just one of those nice, big, juicy butts.
Your character, Jodi, has both a gay son and a gay dad. Double the fun?
Yes, but they’re at odds with each other. There’s a generational disparity, so she’s trying to help them find common ground. Even though her father has come out later in life, he was married to a woman and had to hide a lot of himself for many years. Her son is very comfortable with who he is, so that triggers his grandfather and pushes some buttons, and he’s resentful of his grandfather not being there for him. Jodi’s feeling rejected and lonely, so she just wants her family to be closer.
I love seeing positive portrayals of relationships between mothers and gay children.
Yeah, I don’t think we see enough of that, where a child’s sexuality isn’t even an issue. I’m proud to be in a play about a mother who’s very accepting of her gay son. She feels she’s a very self-realized, open, modern mother who can talk to her son about anything and everything. He feels a little differently.
You have a young son with ex-husband Taye Diggs. As a parent, have you thought about how you might handle his coming out as gay?
I’ve actually thought about that a lot, because I would want him to feel 100% comfortable telling me as soon as he could. I never want him to feel any inhibition or shame to tell me anything. You want to lay that foundation without talking about it too much, where he’s like, “Mom, leave me alone!” For me, it’s about making sure he knows he’s perfect the way he is.
Skintight is also about our culture’s obsession with youth and beauty. How are you navigating ageism and lookism as a celebrity in her 40s?
I’m not doing such a great job of it, to be honest. I’m married to a man who thinks I’m gorgeous at any age, any weight, but it’s still a struggle.
But your husband, Aaron Lohr, was the cutest newsie in the Newsies movie!
He was also one of the Mighty Ducks. [Laughs] Listen, I’d love to say I’m totally comfortable with who I am at my age, but it’s hard. I’m constantly confronted with my own insecurities, but I do want to be a better role model and not be so obsessed with how I look. I have to remind myself to not talk about my weight or my looks in front of my child, because I definitely picked up on that stuff from my mother.
I recently turned 40. Aging sucks.
Yeah, but it’s a double-edged sword, because I know I’m a more interesting, creative artist because of the experiences and wisdom I’ve gained later in my life. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without those fears and insecurities that have made me more vulnerable and better able to connect with my audience.
“Defying Gravity” from Wicked and “Let It Go” from Frozen have been adopted as empowering anthems by the LGBTQ community in ways no one could have anticipated. Does that inform how you perform those songs in concert?
Yes. Every time I sing those songs, I feel gratitude and responsibility. I reflect on my career and how that community has always supported me. I sing those songs for the young girls and boys trying to find themselves. Some nights I sing those songs for my son. Some nights, when I really need to hear them, I sing those songs for me. I may be a grown woman, but I still need reminders that what makes us different is what makes us extraordinary. Those songs were gifts.
Do you ever get tired of singing them?
I really don’t. I can always rearrange them or find new ways to do them with my band, but they’re constant reminders of how lucky I am and of those who’ve been there for me from the beginning. In a time when it’s hard to stay present, when there are so many distractions, songs like that can reconnect you to where you come from and the people you love. What more could you ask for?
Before Elsa and Elphaba, you also resonated with queer audiences as Maureen, the bisexual performance artist in Rent. How does it feel to have originated these characters that mean so much to so many people?
I don’t look a gift horse in mouth. When I was doing Rent, my first fan letters were from kids struggling with their sexual identity, and that helped define my career and who I am. Did I somehow attract these characters? Is it a coincidence? Was something in the universe telling me I had to learn about myself before I could represent other people? I don’t know. As performers, we want to portray characters and sing songs that mean something to us. But I feel incredibly lucky that these characters have resonated with young people, giving them permission to feel and be who they are.
Will Frozen 2 include another anthem for queer audiences?
I hope so. We’re still in the early stages, but our songwriters, Bobby [Lopez] and Kristen [Anderson-Lopez], have an uncanny way of writing songs that speak to everyone. I think the message is really about owning and not hiding who you are, so I definitely wouldn’t rule out another LGBTQ anthem.
Many fans are pushing Disney to out Elsa as a lesbian with the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign. Conservatives, meanwhile, are petitioning against it. What’s it like to play a character people are fighting over?
Well, it’s difficult because I’m not the writer, you know? I’m just so freakin’ grateful to have this amazing gig. I don’t know Elsa’s destiny and, to be honest, I don’t think Elsa knows her destiny yet either. She’s still trying to figure out who she is, where she comes from, why she’s the way that she is, so I think that’s more of the journey that will be explored.
We can put a lot of pressure on our icons, especially when striving for greater mainstream representation.
I don’t mind that pressure. I understand. Getting to know my gay fans has been one of the most wonderful, joyous things about my career. All the gay people in my life have taught me so much about empathy and tolerance and inclusion.
Your gay fans were very conflicted about this, but I personally supported your 2017 Lifetime remake of Beaches.
[Laughs] Thank you. Hey, nobody else can be Bette Midler, but it was still fun.
Skintight runs through August 26 at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre in New York.