Broadway legend Idina Menzel on new album, Rent’s queer legacy, and life lessons from LGBTQ+ fans
Broadway superstar Idina Menzel has spoken to PinkNews about her Pride performances, the bond she has with LGBTQ+ fans, her new album and the extensive queer legacy of hit musical Rent.
Menzel is currently on an unofficial, global Pride tour. Best-known for originating the role of Elphaba in the Wizard of Oz stage musical Wicked, she has already ticked off several cities across North America.
On stage during her Pride performances, you’ll find Menzel wrapped in a rainbow shawl or waving a Pride progress flag, belting out her Oscar-winning Frozen single, the irrepressible lesbian anthem “Let It Go”.
“Seeing you tonight for St. Pete Pride has given me more happiness than I’ve felt in a long time,” one person tweeted. Clearly, so far, she’s gone down a storm.
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“I get so much love and support,” Menzel tells PinkNews of her relationship with the queer community. She’s keen to stress that it’s not a one-sided affair, either.
“I get overwhelmed and moved because I feel I’ve learned so much about myself and how I want to live my life through this audience,” she explains. “They have taught me so much through their courage to live an authentic life.”
Menzel is a rare case, in that her connection with the community has been fostered since her first showbiz role.
Before boarding Elphaba’s broom in 2003, Menzel starred opposite Anthony Rapp as the bisexual performer Maureen in Broadway beast Rent, during its official opening in 1996 (she would later reprise the role in the 2005 film adaptation).
The stage show swiftly became a cultural titan, garnering four Tony Awards, and marking the start of Menzel’s rise.
While there has been much debate regarding the authenticity and accuracy of Rent’s depiction of queer lives against the shadow of the HIV/Aid crisis in the late ’80s, it’s irrefutable that the show marked a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ representation.
Alongside Maureen, who is in a relationship with Joanne Jefferson, there’s drag queen Angel and her boyfriend Tom, a gay philosopher professor – both of whom are living with Aids, which at the time was often considered a death sentence.
When Menzel took on the part though, she wasn’t fully tuned into how seismic it was for the community.
“I started to feel that it was happening, that it was having an impact. But I didn’t know it would in the beginning. I had no idea that Rent would become the phenomenon that it did,” she admits.
“The more I received letters and heard young people’s stories, the more I realised the impact and the connection the show and the character were having with the audience.”
If fans were to strip Menzel’s career down into her three key roles, Maureen would be one, while the other two would without doubt be Elphaba and Frozen’s Elsa – the last of which arguably propelled her to even higher heights thanks to the film’s record-shattering box office figures.
Although Maureen is the only explicitly LGBTQ+ character of the three, if fan theories are to be believed, both Elphaba and Elsa have queer tendencies.
There are rumours that Disney is considering introducing a girlfriend for Elsa in the film’s upcoming third instalment. Meanwhile, Elphaba is seen by LGBTQ+ fans as being heavily queer-coded, and in love with her on-stage counterpart, Glinda the good witch. As one blog puts it: “Elphie is totes bisexual”.
For Menzel, there’s something else about the three characters that pulls the queer community towards them. “They’re all linked in some way by this incredible force and power that they have,” she says, “but they perhaps are tentative about sharing that for fear it will alienate or hurt people.”
Like queer people, she suggests, once they “accept their beautiful individuality and uniqueness, then they become sorceresses”.
A cynic or casual observer might argue that, as a straight woman whose most notable roles are mainly heterosexual, it’s a tenuous link from her acting career to her status as an LGBTQ+ legend. But true fans know Menzel’s shown up for the community countless times; she’s not just in it for the pink pound.
“There’s so much adversity and there’s so much hatred, cruelty and you meet that cruelty with love,” she told the crowd at St. Pete Pride, alluding to the anti-LGBTQ+ bills currently being pushed by Republican politicians across the country. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, is leading the charge.
“If you are feeling alone and like nobody sees you, we see you. We are here for you,” she added, before belting out her Wicked showstopper “Defying Gravity”, which she dedicated to trans and queer youth.
Music has always been the link between Menzel and the community, be that on stage or on Spotify. She’s currently gearing up to release her seventh studio album, Drama Queen, featuring the groovy, disco-inspired single “Move”.
Writing the album, she drew heavy inspiration from some of the world’s greatest disco divas, including Donna Summer and Cher, while she approached the “godfather of disco” Nile Rodgers for his guidance and “blessing” – and walked away with him featuring on two of the album’s tracks.
Discos were a place for her to “express” herself, she says, and while the album’s lyrics are based on her life, she sees how they could mirror “the universality of the gay experience”.
On the flip-side, the “gay experience” provided a launch pad for Drama Queen in another way.
“When I was thinking about what kind of music I wanted to make next, I was really thinking about a lot of the shows I’ve done in London, specifically at Heaven, G-A-Y,” she recalls, referring to London’s famous gay nightclub.
She’s performed at the venue several times, and will do so again in a post-Pride show on 1 July.
“[I] showed up at one in the morning and surprised everyone. The place was packed and everyone was pressed up against the stage,” she remembers fondly. “We were singing, we were crying and we were reminiscing, and I wanted to make an album that I could bring into those kinds of venues and have so much fun.”
These aren’t just words, either – the impact of Menzel’s time in London’s queer clubs is evident in the music video for “Move”.
The clip sees the star don a glittering, rainbow mini-dress, while she shuffles through a gay bar among members of the community. RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Jan performs on the stage behind her, and disco balls are not in short supply. She’s dancing around queer culture, and obviously having a lot of fun doing so.
Almost 30 years on from that revolutionary performance in Rent, Menzel’s love for her LGBTQ+ fans has only grown and evolved.
“They’ve supported me since the beginning of my career and shared so much of their lives or stories with me,” she says. “I feel very honoured that they would allow me to be an ally.”
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