NEW YORK – Long before she defied gravity, Idina Menzel was just dancing through life.
In her late teens and early 20s, the “Wicked” star was a wedding singer for hire, often closing her sets with sumptuous club classics such as Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Now, Menzel is returning to the genre that shaped her with euphoric new album “Drama Queen,” which finds her unleashing her inner-disco diva.
“It was always in me,” she says over coffee. “What’s so great about this album is that it’s less methodical. It’s music that I love to sing and grooves that I love to move to.”
Idina Menzel is reclaiming ‘Drama Queen’ with disco-inspired new album
Menzel, 52, has flirted with pop stardom before. As the voice of Elsa in Disney’s “Frozen” movies, she scaled the Billboard Hot 100 with multiple songs, reaching the Top 5 in 2014 with the Oscar-winning sensation “Let It Go.”
But her original music has had spottier success: Coming off her Broadway breakout as Maureen in “Rent,” she was dropped from her label after rock-tinged debut “Still I Can’t Be Still” in 1998. Her last solo record, 2016’s “idina.,” bowed at No. 29 on the Billboard 200 album chart, although it fell off after two weeks.
“No matter how good something might be, if you’re coming from the theater world, people listen with different ears,” Menzel says. “It’s more challenging for myself – and other people like me who are versatile – to break down those preconceived notions.”
So with “Drama Queen,” the Broadway icon decided to just embrace her theatricality and lean into the dynamic power of her voice. The album is a sparkling love letter to the LGBTQ+ community, with thumping odes to self-love and empowerment. “Funny Kind of Lonely” is a hypnotic sad banger featuring one of Menzel’s most spectacular vocals yet, and her signature belt takes center stage on the funk-laden “Paradise” with Nile Rodgers.
“Dramatic,” a sultry and soaring album highlight, is “reclaiming this idea that having all these emotions is negative in some way,” Menzel says. “Being a drama queen means that I feel things really intensely. I have fire and passion and vulnerability, and all those things that make us who we are. So the song ‘Dramatic’ is (saying), ‘If you want me, that’s the package.’ And not to apologize for that.”
The playful “Make Me Hate Me” is a favorite of actor Aaron Lohr, her husband of nearly six years. Meanwhile, her son Walker (with first husband Taye Diggs) is partial to the album’s pulsing second single “Beast.” The 13-year-old is sweetly supportive of his mom.
“He wants people to hear that I can do many things,” Menzel says. “I’ve told him, ‘I’m doing this album, but people expect Mommy to only sing Broadway stuff, and this is very much who I am.’ So he just wants that for me.”
As ‘Wicked’ turns 20, she reflects on ‘life-changing’ role of Elphaba
Always one to wear many hats, Menzel will be ubiquitous in the weeks and months ahead: The actress reteamed with “Uncut Gems” co-star Adam Sandler for new Netflix comedy “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” (streaming Aug. 25). And on Sept. 12, she’ll release her second children’s book with sister Cara Mentzel, titled “Proud Mouse.”
Growing up, “I feel like I stole the spotlight from her a lot as the big, bossy sister with the voice everybody talked about it,” Menzel says. “I have a lot of guilt about that, actually, so this has been a way for us to get even closer, and also for me to celebrate her as a writer.”
Then in October, musical phenomenon “Wicked” will mark its 20th anniversary on Broadway. Menzel won a leading actress Tony Award for creating the role of the green-skinned Elphaba, who fights against tyranny and gets painted as a wicked witch. A prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” the show originally co-starred Kristin Chenoweth as Elphaba’s unlikely pal-turned-enemy Glinda.
“I was just talking with Kristin about how proud we feel of what we’ve built. It’s rare you get to be part of something like that,” Menzel says. “We can all relate to this idea of feeling like we’re different. If we reveal ourselves in some way and allow the world to see us the way we want to be seen, will we alienate the people around us? That’s, for me, the underlying theme that was so life-changing, to play a role like that back in the day. But also, that is just as relevant for me now.”
Menzel returns to the stage early next year in La Jolla, California, in “Redwood,” which she describes as an immersive new show “about grief, healing and saving our Earth.” The singer still holds on to various musical mementos, such as her “Rent” catsuit and “Wicked” witch hat, which now sits in a box.
“I steal some things,” she says with a smile. “I think my dad has the broom somewhere. He likes to brag and gloat about his daughter.”
The New York native continues to perform beloved hits like “Defying Gravity” in her live shows. She also enjoys rediscovering old favorites like “Tomorrow” from “Annie,” which she grew up singing around the house as a little girl “with a really bad Long Island accent.”
“I take a song that I sang ad nauseam and approach it through this body of a middle-aged woman who’s lived her life,” Menzel says. “The juxtaposition of how I used to sing it and how I would sing it now – it’s like a life in a song. I can look at it now and say, ‘Oh, wow, this is who I’ve become, both artistically and creatively.’ It makes me emotional sometimes.”