BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Naturally, Idina Menzel will perform Defying Gravity during her concert Saturday in Tampa. It's the anthem of Elphaba, the green-skinned witch Menzel played in Wicked, and she never tires of singing it.
"I've taken it through many versions," she said in an interview last week. "On my own album, we made more of a jazz version of it. We made an acoustic version. Now we're back to more of a big, orchestrated, theatrical version. But whatever it is, I always get something out of it when I sing it, whether it's reminding myself of what a gift it brought me professionally and personally in my life, the whole experience with Wicked, or it's just singing to some 13-year-old girl that's hearing it for the first time."
Elphaba is one of two iconic Broadway roles associated with Menzel. She also originated Maureen, the lesbian performance artist in Rent.
"Believe me, I don't take that lightly," she said. "To have struck gold twice with Rent and Wicked. I know it's rare and I'm very lucky to have that kind of phenomenon in my life. They're not just great shows, they're shows that resonate with young audiences."
Menzel's new DVD and CD, Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony, was taped last year in Toronto and aired on PBS. Marvin Hamlisch, who died in August, conducted the concert.
"I had a kind of ominous feeling," Menzel said. "Marvin had been sick on and off. But it happened very suddenly and it's been very sad for me. That someone of his stature saw something in me really penetrated deep in my soul. It has just been very surreal to be on stage without him. He was the perfect match for me because he really encouraged the humor and spontaneity. Sometimes it seemed like we were just two old Jews from the Catskills."
On tour Menzel has been performing songs from Hamlisch's score for A Chorus Line, such as What I Did for Love. Her program has also included songs from Rent and Wicked, covers of the Police's Roxanne and Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now, Broadway standards like Don't Rain on My Parade from Funny Girl and her own songs. She also has been performing Poker Face, the Lady Gaga hit she did as an acoustic duet with Lea Michele on Glee.
Saturday's concert will be conducted by Menzel's music director, Rob Mounsey, who will lead the orchestra from the piano.
Menzel, 41, lives in Hollywood with her husband, Taye Diggs (who originated the role of Benny the bad-guy landlord in Rent and portrays Dr. Sam Bennett on TV's Private Practice), and their preschooler, Walker. A Long Island native, she yearns to be back on Broadway.
"I'm in the early stages of things that excite me, in readings and workshops," Menzel said. "I'm trying to focus on original material. That is what I've had my luck with. I like to originate new roles and characters for musical theater. I definitely want to get back to New York City and do another show. I'm really missing it."
Menzel's concert is part of the Straz Center's 25th anniversary gala, which is separately ticketed ($650 and up) and includes a cocktail reception, live auction, dinner on Ferguson Hall's stage, postconcert dessert and dancing.
"That will be such an honor," Menzel said of performing for the black-tie gala. "I hope they can cut loose a little bit."
Menzel will do her part by coming on stage barefoot.
"It's nothing Joan Baez didn't do," she said. "I'm just more comfortable. All these shows have been so formal, the gowns and the whole thing, and one day, I just couldn't wear my heels. I was traveling with my son and my back was killing me, so I went out there barefoot and had a great show, and nobody cared, and I felt more myself. For me, it's just a nice balance between the formality and grandiosity of the evening and also keeping things intimate and personal."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.