The Schmooze

Idina Menzel Works to Create A Generation of Confident, Nonconformist Girls

As the days lengthen and the weather warms, Idina Menzel — star of stage (an Obie winner for “Rent” and a Tony winner for “Wicked”) and screen (on TV in “Glee” and, of course, a worldwide cartoon mega-smash on film in “Frozen”) — is thinking about summer camp.

At the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week, the actress and singer popped in for a Q&A with theater and film producer Marc Platt and waxed enthusiastic about her not-for-profit, A BroaderWay, which helps to send girls from under-served urban areas to sleep-away camp in the Berkshires.

“I sometimes felt insecure or timid at school,” she recalled, “but at camp, I felt like I could be a leader.” Seeking to give her campers a similarly empowering experience, she includes swimming lessons, rock-climbing excursions, and performing-arts workshops — including instruction from theater pros — in the camp’s activities.

“There’s a production at the end of each session, and the girls have a lot of ownership and pride in that,” she explained to Platt. “We really encourage them to write a lot, in preparation. They journal and write poetry.”

Her eyes are on helping to create a generation of confident nonconformists. “So often when we’re younger, we want to fit in—but the ones who change the world are the ones that have something different about them,” she said. “You have to be that person who jumps [into challenges], even when she’s afraid.”

In addition to discussing her goals for the program (including generating year-round support for campers), Menzel chatted about her multifaceted career and her 6-year-old son, Walker, and took questions from the crowd.

She also took a moment to rant, jokingly, about a certain phrase that will follow her forever. “You get into character,” she said about preparing for emotionally difficult roles. “You’re in it, you feel all that stuff, and then you get off and you have to let it go.”

The audience burst into laughter, to which Menzel mock-shouted, “It’s so unfair! It’s just a very ordinary saying that we’ve all used a million times. Now I can’t say it, ever, without having a funny response.”

Laughing seems to come naturally to Menzel, as does candid reflection. Here’s some more of what she had to say:

On her pre-“Rent” life as a wedding singer:

It was liberating to know that no one was really listening to me! [laughs] I could try new things without anyone worrying about it.

On caring for her voice:

I have to use and tend to my voice muscle. I’m jealous of people who can have a whiskey and then get up there and sing! I have a voice teacher I’ve worked with for 20 years.

On not having one defining niche:

My versatility makes it hard for people to figure out how to use me. For a long time, it was, “Who are you? How do you see yourself?”

On whether she knew her three most famous roles would prove memorable:

When I took “Rent,” I didn’t know much about it at all — I just needed a job! With “Wicked,” I knew the people involved would do something great. With “Frozen,” I thought, I’m in a Disney movie — cool!

On what she learned from “Rent” — and from the sudden death of composer Jonathon Larson just before it premiered:

We have to be in the moment, as the show’s songs say. It’s hard to be in the moment all the time, but we have to try. We [as a cast] learned that from the posthumous honors [Larson] was getting.

On the value of flaws:

Mistakes are people’s way into you, what brings them closer to you — not perfection.

On her role in “Glee”:

The gig came three months after I popped a baby out, so I felt fat…And I was playing Lea Michelle’s mom. Could I just be her older sister? She wasn’t as young as [the part] she was playing, so it was like, really, I’m her mom?… I was happy to be there and work with those people, but I had to get over myself a little bit — and then it was a great experience.

On John Travolta’s flubbing of her name at the Oscars:

The best thing that ever happened to me! [laughs] Seriously…I had meditated about that moment. And then he f-cked it up! I had to get my focus back, really fast. But John was so nice about it — and fans were so nice about it. And now, more people know me. So, again, I had to get over myself.

On motherhood:

I think it’s made me less neurotic. It’s hard to tell, right? [laughs]…I was worried about my voice all the time. Now there are other things to worry about. That’s liberating.

On talking with her son:

He likes the story of how he was born. He likes the story of how I was bullied at school by a girl named Sarah. He likes the real stories.

On her inspirations:

There’s Barbra Streisand, Annie Lennox, Chaka Khan — and my mother. My mom pushed me not to give up on myself.

On how she deals with rejection:

Not well, but it usually doesn’t last long. You’ve got to acknowledge it, your feelings about it — “That sucks,” “I’m not good enough” — and then go hang out with people you love.

On her successes:

I’m incredibly grateful. Sometimes I have to step back and say to myself — Hey! I’m really doing it!

Pamela Rafalow Grossman’s work has been published in Salon.com, the “Village Voice,” “Ms.” magazine, and Time.com, among other outlets. She lives in New York City.

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Idina Menzel Works to Create A Generation of Confident, Nonconformist Girls

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