Defying Gravity: The Essential Idina Menzel on Disc

By Ben Rimalower
March 8, 2014

Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a collection of the essential recordings by Tony Award-winning actress Idina Menzel.



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I can still remember the first time I heard Idina Menzel sing. Rent was all the rage and, living thousands of miles from Broadway, I rushed to buy the cast recording the morning it was released. I was immediately taken with Jonathan Larson's groundbreaking fusion of post-Sondheim conversational lyrics with post-The Who pop-rock sounds. Unlike most musicals I loved, Rent was a man's world, focusing mostly on Roger and Mark with, for the first hour or so, only Mimi popping up here and there, a lone female voice in between all the guys (Angel's fierce femininity notwithstanding).

Then, all of a sudden, making a diva's late entrance as Maureen (after an elaborate heralding in the "Tango Maureen"), Idina Menzel sang the satirical performance art pastiche "Over The Moon." I was already 20 and I wasn't dumb, but I don't even think I got the joke, because I was so entranced by Menzel's striking debut. Before I even saw her photo, I could picture her. Her voice conveyed the smart, sexy brunette Gen X goddess in every 80s movie I ever fell in love with. This was like the musical theatre version of Jami Gertz. I kept catching myself belting out "jump o-VER the moon" trying to emulate Menzel's bright, powerful tone. But then the song was something of a throw-away, and her only other number was the "Take Me Or Leave Me" duet with Joanne. I loved her, but I took her for granted.

Menzel's next major musical role was in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party at Manhattan Theatre Club. Quite the opposite of sausage fest Rent, The Wild Party was awash in glorious girl power — so much so that it was hard to see as an Idina Menzel vehicle. Wicked — while far higher in MPM (Menzel per moment) than Rent — is such a mega blockbuster that it was hard to feel any proprietary sense of diva worship. Idina Menzel in Wicked belongs to everyone. It wasn't until I saw the 2005 movie "Rent" that I realized what had been right in front of me for almost a decade: Idina Menzel is the great pop belting musical theatre leading lady of our time, the rightful heir to the throne previously occupied by Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone. In the "Rent" movie, Menzel oozes sass and class, bearing the assured confidence of a woman who recently won a Tony starring in the biggest Broadway hit of a generation. Her authority is undeniable. Luckily, the fun of being a fan of someone as successful as Idina Menzel is enjoying her tremdendous output of recordings.

Click through to read my selections for the essential Idina Menzel on disc.

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"Live: Barefoot at the Symphony" (2012 Solo Album)

The most essential Idina Menzel album must be her 2012 concert recording, "Live: Barefoot At The Symphony" in that it's her only solo disc to concentrate on showtunes, including specifically several from musicals in which she has starred. On one album, we get "Defying Gravity" and "For Good" from Wicked, "No Day But Today" from Rent, "Life Of The Party" from The Wild Party and "Heaven Help My Heart" from Chess (which she did in concert for TV with Josh Groban in 2008). We also get Menzel's takes on such classics as "Love For Sale," "Where Or When," "Tomorrow" and the title song from Funny Girl, combined with "Don't Rain On My Parade," introduced by a charming recounting of her experience performing it for Barbra Streisand at the diva's Kennedy Center Honors induction. Menzel manages to make the Streisand standard her own and is in appealing form throughout the set.

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Wicked – Original Broadway Cast Recording (2003)

The double platinum-selling Original Broadway Cast Recording of the mammoth hit Wicked is one of the most-played theatre albums of our time, and Idina Menzel's performance at the center is the voice that millions upon millions of young musical theatre fans are listening to while growing up. For all the dozens of actresses who have essayed the role of Elphaba, it's fitting that Menzel originated — and owns — the role. Just listen to the way her distinctive voice resonates character and personality while rising gamely to the musical tapestry and vocal histrionics of Stephen Schwartz's score.

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Rent – Original Broadway Cast Recording (1996)

For all the success Idina Menzel has enjoyed and many roles she has played and songs she has sung, it's still a joy to revisit her original recording of the show that put her on the map. Almost 20 years after the fact, I still can't listen to Menzel's "Over The Moon" without singing it to myself for the rest of the day. And no matter how many brilliant women I hear sing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in piano bars, Menzel's delivery remains authentic, fresh and unmatched.

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The Wild Party – Original Cast Recording (2000)

Andrew Lippa's 1999 Off-Broadway musical, The Wild Party, bears the unfortunate distinction of having run concurrently with Michael John LaChiusa's Broadway musical adaptation of the same material (Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem) with the same name. If neither show became a long-running hit, both have their pleasures and chief among those in Lippa's version is Idina Menzel's vivacious and seductive Kate. Her delicious "Look At Me Now" is nothing short of beguiling, and her vocals are undeniably impressive in "The Life of the Party."

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See What I Wanna See – Original Cast Recording (2005)

Michael John LaChiusa fans also got their Idina Menzel moment in the Public Theater's 2005 production of See What I Wanna See, LaChiusa's adaptation of three short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: "Kesa and Morito," "In a Grove" (the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon") and "The Dragon." The cast recording preserves Menzel's recordings of the brooding and lovely "Kesa" and "Louie," as well as the scintillating title song.

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Chess In Concert (2009 Live Recording)

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (of ABBA fame) and Tim Rice's cult musical, Chess, has had many incarnations over the 30 years since it began life as a concept album starring Elaine Paige, Murray Head and Tommy Korberg. Idina Menzel's punk-esque belt voice is a departure from the rich, clean sound of previous Chess stars Paige and Judy Kuhn; but her uniquely contemporary vocal quality goes a long way toward making the role both very authentic and very current. And, of course, in her own style, Menzel sings the daylights out of such fan favorites as "Heaven Help My Heart," "Nobody's Side," "I Know Him So Well" and "You and I."

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"Still I Can't Be Still" (1998 solo album)

Menzel's 1998 debut solo album failed to sell as many copies as her later albums, but this has to be at least partially credited to her later increased exposure. If in 1998, Menzel was as of yet only known from Rent, she was already a vocal presence to be reckoned with. "Still I Can't Be Still," with its frank, conversational lyrics and pleasingly peppy bass-driven beats, fits in comfortably among similar pop records of the time period, including Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," Jewel's "Pieces Of You" and Natalie Imbruglia's "Left of the Middle." Particularly enjoyable tracks are "Follow If You Lead" and "Minuet," which was also released as a single and a video featuring Taye Diggs.

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"I Stand" (2008 solo album)

Idina Menzel's 2008 solo album, "I Stand," can be looked at as something of a follow-up to her first album, "Still I Can't Be Still." Ten years later, she continued to work in a pop vein reminiscent of Alanis Morissettte's "Jagged Little Pill" — even collaborating with Glen Ballard, the producer of Morissettte's groundbreaking album. The best tracks, though, are the songs by James Blunt, "Don't Let Me Down" and "Perfume And Promises." I'm also partial to the rhythmic "Gorgeous," emotional "Brave" and an irresistible club remix of "Defying Gravity."

Jeremy Jordan
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Odds and Ends

Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez's "Let It Go", the Academy Award-winning song from Disney's "Frozen," has given Idina Menzel a chart-topping hit single. Her dynamic recording of the challenging power ballad is not to be missed. She has also had a recurring role on "Glee" where she has performed several songs. "Glee: The Music Volume 3 – Showstoppers" features her thrilling duets with Lea Michele on "I Dreamed A Dream" and Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." And, finally, Menzel's out-of-print independently released 2004 album, "Here," is a groovy listen if you can get your hands on the tracks.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)