She created major characters in two musicals that inspired feverish followings. She has starred in three hits, each with a single word for its title.
She is charmingly candid about things many celebrities don't discuss. She likes to perform barefoot. And she is coming to the Marcus Center.
Idina Menzel's life and career have been on a long upward arc since her teenage years as a Long Island wedding and bar mitzvah singer. Her first professional theater job out of college was playing the self-absorbed, bi-sexual performance artist Maureen Johnson in "Rent."
The show was a Broadway sensation, winning a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and capturing the imagination of a generation of "Rentheads." Menzel received a Tony nomination. Not bad for a beginner.
Idina found her husband, the hunky Taye Diggs, in the "Rent" cast, and she admits to getting romantic with him in their dressing rooms while offstage during performances. Naughty.
Although "Rent" is among Broadway's biggest hits of the past 20 years, it was only a launch pad for Menzel. Enter Elphaba, the green-skinned witch in the Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical "Wicked."
The actress created the character, was awarded a Tony, and won the undying love of early teen girls and the gay community. In the musical, Elphaba is a strong representative of the shunned and alienated.
Menzel's third triumph has been in the hit TV series "Glee," where she plays the biological mother of character Rachel Berry and the coach of the Vocal Adrenaline glee club. The actress' family life – she has a 2-year-old son and her hubby co-stars in the "Family Practice" television series – has made West Coast small screen work more practical for her at the moment.
But Menzel is packing up her toddler, Walker, and taking him on the road for the concert tour that brings her to Uihlein Hall next Wednesday. "We're taking the bus, just like a rock 'n' roll band," she said during a phone interview.
"I don't know what to expect. I often feel guilty when I drag him around."
We can expect Menzel to be shoeless. "I sing my notes better that way," she explained, adding that she made that discovery one night when an aching back prompted her to kick off her heels.
The star is touring to support her new CD and DVD "Idina Menzel Live: Barefoot at the Symphony," recorded in Toronto last fall as part of a PBS special of the same name. That concert's song list is extremely eclectic, ranging from a smart mashup of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" and Sting's "Roxanne," to Jimmy Webb's "Asleep on the Wind" and the Lady Gaga number "Poker Face." Husband Diggs joins her for a sublime duet on the Rodgers and Hart standard "Where or When."
Menzel of course also sings songs from her Broadway hits, "Rent" and "Wicked," and Andrew Lippa's "Life of the Party," in which she also appeared. The show improbably closes with her belting "Tomorrow" from "Annie," the tune she always sang around the house when she was a kid.
We will get at least some of those numbers in her Marcus Center concert next week. Menzel travels with a six-piece rhythm section and picks up 20 strings and horns in each city.
She changes the song list from night to night, depending on her mood. Will Diggs be on the bus and join her onstage? "Maybe," she said, adding that it depends on his work schedule.
Menzel likes to be chatty during her concerts. "Idina Menzel Live" contains quite a bit of commentary and story telling between songs, and we will likely hear the same.
"I am most proud of maintaining spontaneity and intimacy with an audience," she said.
The star wasn't able to do that with her idol, Barbra Streisand, to whom she sang "Don't Rain on My Parade" at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors gala. Menzel was seated at her table after the performance, and Streisand proceeded to ignore her most the evening.
After more than two hours, Streisand looked at Menzel and asked, "Did you sing for me tonight? I wasn't wearing my glasses." Bad Barbra.
Menzel tells that story on her new CD and on the PBS special.
A return to Broadway is on Menzel's agenda, she says. She prefers working in new original musicals, and those take years to develop. In the meantime, she has her shoes off and is riding the bus.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.