Idina Menzel is touring the nation, performing "No Day But Today," her signature song from the musical Rent. That show made Menzel, playing the flirtatious performance artist Maureen Johnson, famous in the late-1990s. She followed with her Tony Award-winning role as the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West in the musical Wicked. More recently, she's had a recurring spot on the TV show Glee.
When Menzel takes the stage on this tour, she sings standards and pop covers in front of symphony orchestras. Recordings from the tour have been collected on an album called Barefoot at the Symphony, so named because she's discovered that's the secret to her best performances. She spoke to Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about this latest turn in her unpredictable career.
"I always like to sing barefoot, but when I first started doing these dates with the symphonies, I of course thought I should clean up my act, being a Jewish girl from Long Island with a little bit of a trucker mouth. So I wore a gown and some high heels," she says. But she's also a mom with a 2-year-old son, and after a day or two of hauling stroller, car seat and child on and off airplanes, she gave it up.
"My back was killing me, and I thought there's no way I'm putting on those heels," she says. "I went out there, and I had the best show I've ever had. I was hitting notes I've never hit. I felt like I was being more myself, and I was funnier. I was just more comfortable, so that was the end of that."
Menzel started working as a wedding singer when she was 15 years old. "I lied to all the bands so that they'd hire me, and I drove around illegally in Long Island and New York and Connecticut to get the gigs," she says. "So I was always having to do other people's music."
Even though her bread and butter was singing songs the way people expected to hear them, Menzel says she was aware that imitation wasn't enough. "I know I'm known for singing some of those high notes, but that's really not what giving someone goosebumps is all about," she says. "It's about really trying to find what makes you unique."
Onstage she goes for laughs, especially when she's covering Lady Gaga's "Pokerface," backed by Juilliard graduates. "They're always so serious, the orchestras, you know?" Menzel says. "It's always a fun contrast of that song and the genre of music. And me."