Idina Menzel remembers her first time in Philly, and she gets why you might hate musicals

To a Broadway whiz or close follower of contemporary Christmas albums, the name Idina Menzel might ring a veritable church tower of bells. Many know her from her Tony-nominated roles in Rent and If/Then, or from her Tony-award-winning portrayal of Elphaba in Wicked.

Those who followed her solo career might recall her eponymous album, Idina, or her compilation of yuletide classics (2014’s second-best-selling Christmas-related release), Holiday Wishes.

Fans of Glee know her as the actress who plays Lea Michele’s biological mother, and anyone in their braces years (or their parents) might recognize her voice as Elsa’s from Frozen. To everyone else, she’s the singer John Travolta called “Adele Dazeem” when she performed “Let It Go” at the 2014 Oscars.

On Sunday, Menzel plays at the BB&T Pavilion, one of her stops on a summer-long world tour. The singer-actress says the set list has something for everyone — solo songs, hits from her most famous Broadway and screen roles, as well as a selection of covers (including Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel).

We chatted with her by phone as she sat poolside in L.A., watching her son Walker (age 7, from her now-over marriage to Taye Diggs) swim around. She shared some off-kilter memories of Philly, told the story of Walker’s first drool-filled visit to meet the cast of Wicked, and explained how she rediscovered the music of Annie, after singing it to exhaustion when she was a kid. 

Do you draw any distinctions between your solo work and the hits from your Broadway musicals? Is it unusual for you to mix the two in a concert, or do you see them as similar things?

No. Every song represents a time in my life and a time when I sang it. Songs chronicle my life. Whether they are from a show or from an album or they are cover tunes — I approach them all the same way.

When you have a real moment with a song — let’s say Rent or Wicked — those times in my life were so significant for me. Hearing those songs can be reminders of that. Or, [if I sing them again], all of a sudden they can take on new meanings. Old memories are juxtaposed with what’s going on in my life now. Then there’s this comparison or reevaluation of where I am, like “Oh, wow! How much have I changed when I sing this song now?”

What’s a song people wouldn’t expect you to have time-stamped to a particular period in your life?

Take a song like “Tomorrow” from Annie. I used to say that song was taboo. I would never sing it as an adult. I used to sing that song ad nauseam when I was a little girl.

But for some reason, a few years back, whenever I was in the shower, the melody of that song would come to me. So, after a while I sort of came back around to it.

I found that if I take songs from my childhood and explore them again as an adult and as a singer and as an interpreter, it’s fascinating to see how my voice has changed and how life has affected my interpretation of the song. I like to do that a lot. And that’s what happened with “Tomorrow” — I’ve done it at many, many shows for years now.

Musical theater is this thing which elicits very strong opinions. People tend to be either die-hard fans or they love to hate the genre. Why do you think it is such a divisive medium?

Some people just don’t understand why people break out into song to express their emotions in the middle of a scene. That’s not real for them. And I get it. There are some shows that make me feel the same way. It’s all in how it’s delivered. Certain styles work for some people, and others for other people.

Do you have any ties to Philadelphia?

I first went there on a school trip, and I’ve been there to play a bunch of times. Two of my college roommates were from Philly. One year we spent Christmas down there, and on Christmas morning we went and saw Schindler’s List in a Philly movie theater. I remember it was during a snowstorm, and we drove down that beautiful road where you see all the houses lit up — Boathouse Row.

There’s a production of Wicked coming to Philadelphia late this month. Do you still have ties to the ensemble?

I don’t have ties with the cast, because it’s so many iterations away from when I was in it. It’s been so long, you know. But I just went back recently. I brought my son to see it for the very first time. He stayed awake for the whole thing until the last two minutes. I had to carry him backstage to say hi to the Glinda and Elphaba with him hanging on me drooling.

Was it weird seeing someone else say the lines you’ve said so many times?

No, that’s only weird when you’re still in it, when it’s still raw. Maybe you’re sick and you watch an understudy do it. That’s weird.

I remember, one day, during a different show, I had laryngitis. I wanted to go support the cast and my understudy, so I snuck into the back of the theater and watched the show without me. It was the worst thing I could have done. My understudy was so good. All I had in my head was how I should have done it like her the whole time.

Once you hit the road for your world tour will you have a rider? What’s on it?

Oh you mean like all green M&M’s or something? Mine is really exciting. It’s baby wipes, some healthy snacks, a bottle of wine, which I usually don’t drink, but I let the people around me have it. Usually I’ll put a toy on there for my son in the dinosaur-slash-ninja category, so he has a fun thing to look forward to at Mommy’s work.

Do you still get stage fright?

Sometimes, yeah, stage fright. Not for these concerts so much, maybe the first time I went out. I don’t like to know if there’s someone I admire in the audience, like a celebrity I’ve looked up to my entire life. That stuff freaks me out, so people know not to tell me until after.

The hardest thing is when you’re in an environment where you’ve never sung before, like some live TV show, when it’s a one-off and you’re not used to your surroundings. It’s different when you’re in a Broadway theater or when I’m doing my concerts — I’m surrounded by the same guys, the stage is set up the same way. You find a rhythm.

It’s different when you just have to do one song somewhere very important, like the Oscars. I definitely had some nerves going on then.

With all those nerves going on, how did you take the whole “Adele Dazeem” thing?

It actually focused me. Because it had thrown me for a second, but then I realized I had about eight seconds of introductory music to get my s- together. I thought, “Are you going to let this determine your performance at such an important moment in your life?”

But then later, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It got my name out to all these people who had never heard my music.

Idina Menzel. 8 p.m. Sunday, July 16. BB&T Pavilion, 1 Harbour Blvd., Camden. Tickets: $20-$250. Information: 856-365-1300. Prices vary. www.livenation.com.