Idina Menzel on her PBS special and Ravinia concert

Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel

Broadway star Idina Menzel is known for creating roles in two of the biggest musical-theater phenomena of recent decades, playing fiery performance artist Maureen in Rent and misunderstood, green-skinned Elphaba in Wicked, winning a Tony Award for the latter. She's also recognizable to Glee fans as recurring character Shelby Corcoran, the biological mother of Lea Michele's character. The Ravinia Festival announced last week that Menzel will perform in concert there on July 8, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by another Tony winner—actually, an EGOT winner—Marvin Hamlisch.

Chicago audiences can get a preview tonight of what that July bill might look like, as WTTW airs the exclusive premiere of Menzel's new PBS special, Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony, which also features Hamlisch along with an appearance by Menzel's husband, Taye Diggs. Menzel will be live in-studio to introduce the special, which airs at 9pm; she'll also appear on Chicago Tonight at 7pm. She called me this morning, just after guesting on Windy City Live, to talk about the special, which will hit PBS affiliates in other markets beginning March 3, followed by a DVD release.


How did the concert special come about?

It’s my first TV special that’s sort of all by myself. It’s my baby. We filmed it in Toronto; it’s the culmination of about a year and a half of touring, with orchestras and symphonies all over the country and international—we had a big concert at Royal Albert Hall in London. I felt really proud of the show, and when PBS came and wanted to film it, it’s so rewarding for me to be able to have it and look back on it, have something documented.

What kind of material can viewers expect to see?

It’s somewhat eclectic. I do songs from the shows that I’ve been in; I do some standards.

Is there anything that might be unexpected to audiences that are familiar with your work?

Yeah, I think. What I’m told, anyway, that’s most unexpected is that I think people having seen me in the green makeup or something and this big, big voice expect everything to feel very theatrical and dramatic. [The special] has that, but everything is grounded in a very intimate place. No matter how big the symphony is behind me, I try to maintain an intimacy with the audience. I really share a lot of personal stories.

I understand your husband makes an appearance as well?

He does. We love to sing together but don’t get to do it very often. It’s how we met, in Rent. He does a wonderful job; we have a little fun with each other.

The orchestra for the special [Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony] is conducted by Marvin Hamlisch—

The legendary Marvin Hamlisch.

He’ll also be appearing with you at Ravinia this summer, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Exactly. Because he’s the love of my life. We’re having an affair. [Laughs]

Do you two have a longstanding relationship?

We’re relatively new. We met in this process, over the last year and a half. We’ve done—I don’t know how many shows, ten, 15 shows together? After the very first show, which was down in Wolf Trap in D.C., it was just sort of love at first sight. When I’m onstage and he’s conducting, I have to pinch myself. It’s such an honor. But then when you get to know him in person, he’s the sweetest, most authentic, generous man, with the greatest stories.

Aside from the Ravinia concert, what else is coming up for you? 

Well, this has sort of monopolized my time all through the holidays, getting this PBS special in the can as they say, because what goes along with it is a live DVD and a live CD. So that’s been actually really exciting—it’s the easiest album I’ve ever had to make because it came out organically: It’s live, it’s there, once you do it you can’t overthink it too much. It’s been fun to work on a live album and keep the imperfections that are perfections, you know?

On top of that, I’m a mother of a two-year-old. I took him to Disneyland with my husband over the holidays. And I’m in and out of Glee, and working on other possible Broadway or theater endeavors in New York City that wouldn’t be ready for a little while. But mostly I’m just a mom of a two-year-old, with an album coming out.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)