On world tour, Idina Menzel aims to keep things fresh for herself and audience

Idina Menzel.
Idina Menzel. (Warner Bros Records)

Defying gravity, Idina Menzel has soared through a richly varied career since successfully auditioning for a new musical called "Rent" in 1995, her first real theater job.

She went on to create the role of the complicated witch Elphaba in "Wicked" in 2003 and catch the attention of TV viewers with her appearances on "Glee," before heating up Disney's 2013 animated film "Frozen."


Now 46, the singer/actress still seems to be flying high. She's in the midst of a six-month global concert tour — she'll alight in Baltimore on Tuesday for a show at the Modell Lyric — and will add a non-singing role to her resume next season in a new play.

"I'm in a very good place," Menzel says. "I feel so lucky."


With her high-wattage vocal cords and intense phrasing, Menzel makes a mark whenever she sings.

"Like other very significant Broadway stars, she has a voice that is very much her own," says Charles Isherwood, the former New York Times and Variety theater critic now writing for the website Broadway News. "It's totally distinctive. She has a great belt and a great range."

Add in her ability to dig into a character, and Menzel impresses as an actress, too.

Her portrayal of the bisexual Maureen in "Rent" earned Menzel a Tony Award nomination. She received another Tony nomination for her work as a divorcee trying to decide on new paths to take in "If/Then," the somewhat muddy musical that reached Broadway in 2014 after a tryout at Washington's National Theatre.

Gilman School graduate Bradley King won a Tony Award for best lighting design of a musical on Sunday night for his work on “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” 

Menzel's most defining work on Broadway earned her a Tony for "Wicked."

"One reason she has such a huge following is that she had the good fortune to star in two era-defying, hugely successful Broadway musicals," Isherwood says. " 'Rent' was, pre-'Hamilton,' the biggest game-changer on Broadway in decades. Then, in 'Wicked,' she connected just as deeply to a whole new generation. There's nothing inauthentic about her performances. She always seems like a real person."

That's true even when Menzel is only heard, not seen, providing the voice for Elsa the Snow Queen in "Frozen," the highest-grossing animated film. She memorably sang that character's anthem, "Let It Go," which won the Academy Award for best original song. (It's also associated with an infamous John Travolta faux pas the night Menzel sang the song on awards show telecast; more on that in a moment.)

Count on hearing "Let It Go" in Menzel's concert here, along with numbers from "Rent" and Wicked." There's room, too, for covers of hits by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin and the Beatles in the intermission-less program.

"Singing is hard," Menzel says. "You are constantly worrying about your instrument. I try to take care of myself. I'm very ritualistic and disciplined. I constantly steam and do vocal warm-ups."

She found a little extra motivation for keeping in shape when she caught the current Broadway musical "War Paint" starring two veterans of the musical theater, Christine Ebersole (as Elizabeth Arden) and Patti LuPone (as Helena Rubinstein), both in their 60s.

"Those women sounded flawless," Menzel says. "They were kicking butt. I was inspired. You hear about women getting older, like Judy [Garland] and Liza [Minelli], and lowering their keys, but not them."

Menzel appears to thrive on touring. Her 2017, 50-city world tour, which began in March in Japan, recently took her to England and Scotland; a couple dozen cities on this continent remain on the schedule into September.

"I have a great time," she says. "The musicians have been working with me for years. They are my friends, my family. And I bring my son when I can." (That's 7-year-old Walker, from her marriage to actor Taye Diggs; the couple divorced in 2014.)

With a fan base keen on reliving favorite songs, Menzel strives to please, but leave room for expansion.

"People want to hear what they like," she says. "I have to strike a balance. It's important to change things up. I want to keep things fresh for myself, creatively speaking, and for the audience. It's trial and error. I'm always playing around with new arrangements and challenging myself. I feel good about the balance [of songs] I have now."

That balance includes new material from Menzel's recent, power ballad-filled recording, "idina."

"I sprinkle in a bunch of songs from the album," she says, "which is my journey as a woman, a singer and an interpreter, a continuation of my searching for the truth. The songs have a different color and sound. I explore different beats."

And how have these songs been going over on the tour?

"I don't see a lot of people leaving," Menzel says with a laugh.

Awkward moments from the Oscars ...

Speaking of laughter, you'll likely hear lots of it during the concerts. Menzel is a pro at delivering stage banter and as quick on the draw with one-liners as seasoned stand-up comedians. Her rapport with fans can make a large venue seem quite intimate, and that rapport extends to the youngest in the house.

Like the late Debbie Reynolds, who used to invite kids to the stage to help her sing her hit "Tammy" at concerts decades ago, Menzel beckons children to join her up close for a likewise disarming group-sing of "Let It Go."

In such moments, it's easy to see the mom side of Menzel, who spends time with her son every chance she gets, on the road or in Los Angeles, where she lives with her fiance, actor Aaron Lohr.

"I'll jump on a trampoline with my son in the backyard," Menzel says. "Or we'll play 'Rocky' — we're not supposed to make contact, but somehow I always end up being kicked in the shin."

Next season, Menzel will return to the New York stage to star in the off-Broadway premiere of "Skintight" by Joshua Harmon, who wrote the much-admired "Bad Jews" and "Significant Other."

"It's a straight play," Menzel says. "I don't have to sing, just act, for a change."

She wouldn't mind getting in front of a camera again. During the run of the TV series "Glee," she had a recurring guest spot as Lea Michele's biological mother ("I would have rather played her older sister," she says.)

Menzel was in the 2005 movie version of "Rent" and, early this year, in the not-terribly-well-received TV remake of the movie "Beaches."

"I'd like to do more film," Menzel says. "There are incredible actors I haven't had a chance to work with. I would like to stretch and challenge myself, explore new things."

A cinematic version of "Wicked," long talked about and continually put off, will probably not have a spot for the original Elphaba.

"When and if they make that movie, they're going to want a couple of very young girls for the leads," Menzel says. "But with CGI [computer-generated imagery], they could erase wrinkles and make me young."

Any mention of movies and Menzel is likely to remind people of Oscars night, March 2014, when Travolta inexplicably introduced her as "Adele Dazeem."

"That was so crazy, but I'm not tired of people bringing it up," Menzel says. "I don't get bitter at those kinds of things. I've been around enough to know about the ebb and flow of a career. I know it's good to have a conversation going on about you, so it was actually great what happened to me. I welcome mistakes, John Travolta's or my own. Mistakes usually open a new door."


If you go

Idina Menzel performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Modell Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. $36.50 to $48.75. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.