A strange, sad Thanksgiving seemed to prepare Idina Menzel for any bumps ahead.
She was 15 and doted-upon. Ever since she was 3, she would burst into song for her parents, her younger sister and anyone else nearby.
Then, suddenly, her parents called the guests to cancel Thanksgiving dinner. Thye told the girls there would be a divorce (an amicable one) … and then took them to a grim dinner in a restaurant.
That was an eye-opening experience, Menzel (shown here) says in her new film on Disney+. She learned that “in life, nothing is what you expect.”
It prepared her for any career quirks. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” she says in the documentary-with-music (“Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage?”), which starts streaming Friday (Dec. 9).
Well, there have been mostly ups – Broadway, TV and concert stardom – but nothing can match the expectations of a gifted young diva-to-be.
She had grown up on Staten Island, the daughter of a pajama salesman and a therapist, and the family had often gone into the city for Broadway and more. At 15, shortly after that Thanksgiving, she had started singing with a band at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs and such.
Menzel continued to be a wedding singer through college (New York University) and beyond. During a winter stretch that was slow for weddings, she auditioned for ‘Rent,” then aiming for off-Broadway.
“She wasn’t anything at all what Jonathan (Larson, the playwright) first described” for the character, casting director Bernard Talsey recalled in “Rent” (William Morrow and Company, 1997). But “when Idina came in, her exuberance, her talent and her voice were so special and so real and untapped, we said, ‘Let’s create it around her.’”
The ups and downs were extreme – Larson’s death, just before opening … raves for “Rent” … a Tony nomination and record deal for Menzel. As she later told one audience, she expected the cover of Rolling Stone and a Madison Square Garden concert; instead, she said, it was eight years of obscurity.
Actually, it was closer to six years of semi-obscurity. The record failed to break the top-200 and the deal was canceled, but she kept singing in clubs and did some stage work.
Then came more highs – “Wicked,” with a Tony win; “If/Then,” with a Tony nomination; “Glee”; “Frozen” and its song “Let It Go” – making her reportedly the first Tony-winner to have a song in the Billboard top-10.
That long-ago dream of Madison Square Garden did happen in 2018, when she shared the bill with Josh Groban. The Disney+ documentary was shot back then, tracing her life en route to the concert.
It has moments – too brief, many fans will feel – of her powerhouse voice, plus moments of her life. We see her with her son from a 10-year marriage to Taye Diggs (her “Rent” colleague) and with her husband, actor/singer Aaron Lohr.
We meet her mother and her father – who says he’s seen her more than 200 times each in “Rent” and “Wicked.” She’s still the doted-on diva, even if that did change on a solemn Thanksgiving.