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'Wicked' transition for Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel is trying to do something that is surprisingly rare these days: cross over from Broadway musicals to pop music stardom. On Broadway, Menzel is as big as it gets, having originated roles in a pair of huge hits. She was Maureen, the lesbian performance artist in Rent, and Elphaba, the green-skinned witch of Wicked, for which she won a Tony Award. Now she is making a bid for pop success with a new CD for Warner Bros. Records of her own songs, I Stand, and a concert tour that comes to Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Sunday. In the pop music world, musical theater doesn't carry a lot of weight. The list of Broadway stars who have become pop stars in the past 40 years pretty much begins and ends with Barbra Streisand, though a somewhat specialized case could be made for Sarah Brightman, who played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera before becoming PBS's answer to Enya.

"I think people assume that if you're from the theater that you're going to sing with a certain kind of sound, and it's going to be overly emotional and have lots of vibrato,'' Menzel said in a recent phone interview. "Pop music now has come to be the anti-voice or something.''

Nobody would ever think of Menzel's voice as anything but a powerful instrument. In fact, her performance of Elphaba's signature song, Defying Gravity, was spoofed by Forbidden Broadway as Defying Subtlety, with lyrics that went, "I am the loudest witch in Oz/And no one's gonna turn/My volume down."

For career inspiration, Menzel, who starred in the screen version of Rent and the Disney movie musical Enchanted, looks to Streisand and Bette Midler, another singer who went from theater — in Midler's case, gay bath house revues — to concert, recording and film success. For stylistic inspiration, her role model is Annie Lennox.

"She's extremely theatrical and very emotional when she sings,'' Menzel said of Lennox. "She was sort of my template for being able to come from the theater and still write original music. She kind of combines the worlds for me and gives me permission to say, 'So what if I come from a Broadway show? I can touch you with my own lyrics, I can be soulful, and I also can be very dramatic.' ''

Menzel, 37, is doing her tour up right, driving from town to town in a well-appointed bus. On the day of the interview, she was in Nashville, and after that night's show, she figured she would probably skip staying at a hotel and just sleep on the bus before heading to Atlanta early the next morning.

"This is something I've always wanted to do,'' she said. "Performing my own music from my own album on the road.''

I Stand, produced by Glen Ballard (whose credits include Alanis Morissette's Grammy-winning Jagged Little Pill), has a sleek, powerhouse sound, but Menzel is touring with more intimate arrangements. She has two backup singers and a band with drums, bass, guitar and keyboard.

Menzel co-wrote nine of the 10 songs on the album, mostly with Ballard. "They're all songs we wrote on the spot in the studio,'' she said. "Maybe I had some lyrics in my journal, or he had some chord progressions. We just came in every day and started writing.''

I Stand is dominated by soaring ballads such as the title song ("I stand for the power to change''), Brave and My Own Worst Enemy. Menzel said that another song, Gorgeous, is about her interracial marriage with actor Taye Diggs, who played the landlord Benny in Rent and now stars in the TV series Private Practice, and the relationships of gay friends.

"For me, Gorgeous is about Romeo and Juliet,'' she told HX magazine. "It's about Taye and Idina — a black man with a white woman. It's about two lovers of the same sex. It's about loving who you want to love despite what anyone may think.''

Menzel performs songs from Rent and Wicked on the tour, and she covers pop hits like the Police's Roxanne. "I take them out of their element a little bit,'' she said. "I put them in a context that I feel fits with the sound of the rest of the evening.''

There's a charming clip on YouTube from Menzel's concert in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she brought a girl from the audience onstage to perform Defying Gravity with her. She wasn't surprised that the girl knew the words of the song perfectly.

"I get video tapes sent to me from kids singing the songs from the show at the dinner table. It's the cutest thing ever,'' she said. "I feel a real connection with some of these young girls.''

Wicked, which continues to play to sellout crowds on Broadway and on tour, and Elphaba are a phenomenon. "I think parents are grateful because it's not a Britney Spears thing,'' Menzel said. "It's based on a green girl who ends up being powerful and strong and beautiful. It is a nice symbol for young kids.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

If you go

Idina Menzel

The singer performs at
7 p.m. Sunday at Ferguson Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $38.50. (813) 229-7827; toll-free
1-800-955-1045;
tbpac.org.

'Wicked' transition for Idina Menzel 07/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2008 8:45am]

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