Idina Menzel is “Giving Into Love” with New LP ‘Drama Queen’

Sometimes—even if you’ve elevated to the pinnacle of your craft and your work has been heard by billions of people—it can still be difficult to get out of bed. There can be a sense that nothing is good enough. For the award-winning performer, singer, and songwriter Idina Menzel, this dichotomous existence has too often been a reality. Menzel, she says, struggles with internal pressure, rarely feeling satiated. It’s what’s pushed her to become a star on Broadway, in movies, on television, and with her music. But it can be a lot. Sometimes she wonders if it’s a “chicken or the egg” thing.

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For someone who is a harsh self-critic, Menzel has become known for the epic lift-the-weight-off-your-shoulders songs like, “Let It Go,” from the Pixar movie, Frozen. Did that song become so successful because Menzel, herself, needed to hear it? Perhaps the relationship she has with art can be summed up in Menzel’s new song, “Funny Kind of Lonely,” from her forthcoming new LP, Drama Queen. It’s a funny kind of lonely / giving into love, she sings. The song and her latest single, “Move,” highlight the lively new dance record, which is out on August 18. 

“These characters, these projects that I am associated with, that I’ve put my heart and soul into,” Menzel tells American Songwriter, “do they come to me for a reason? Is there something I need to learn because of them? Do I attract them?”

The way Menzel deals with this curiosity is by backing up the work she produces with an authentic relationship. Meaning, if she’s going to work on projects where empowerment or self-discovery are the core, then she’s going to project that same energy. She’s a role model, especially for children. A mother, too, Menzel knows she can’t walk around head-down. She needs her son (a burgeoning 13-year-old basketball-playing point guard), and the other young people who look to her, to see a strong, powerful woman who loves and appreciates herself. Even if that isn’t always what’s going on inside. Truly, no one can be self-assured all the time. But for some, it’s a particularly loud battle. On the one hand, it’s important to embrace who you are. On the other, who are you? 

“The days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed or defying gravity,” says Menzel, who earned praise as one of the leads in Wicked, “I’m reminded who’s out there listening.” 

[RELATED: Behind The Song: Idina Menzel, “Let It Go”]

Looking back, Menzel sometimes wonders and even wishes her parents introduced her to bands like the Beatles when she was growing up. Instead, it was Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand—two artists she still loves today. A native New Yorker, Menzel also went to Broadway shows, Annie and Dreamgirls, as a kid. She was “blown away” by their power. As a teenager, she began performing at birthday parties and bar mitzvahs. For that, she had to know a big catalog of songs. She was introduced to and fell in love with an array of genres from jazz to pop to R&B. Menzel wanted to be a songwriter and recording artist. But when she earned a starring role in the now-famous Broadway show Rent, her career took off. The funny thing about a career, though, is that when you’re in the middle of it, the thing can be excruciating, and gutting. Even if on the outside it seems bulletproof. 

“I always had a sense—I wanted to perform ever since I was little,” the 51-year-old Menzel says, adding she’d pop up from behind the couch and sing to her grandfather. “I always had a sense I had something to offer.” 

Menzel knows something—in the mire of self-doubt, she knows she can always return to music. That thing she’s loved since she was young. It’s for this reason that she dives headfirst into songwriting and performing. She knows she can always, no matter what’s happening in her life, turn to music and something will come out of it. In between shows, like Rent and Wicked, when it seems like no opportunity will ever present itself, there is at least always songwriting. Through that, Menzel says, she knows she can believe in herself again. 

“I did this out of love,” she says of her new album. “Just to enjoy the process. I wanted to groove and dance and have real high energy in my music. But to also make sure it was music that was supported by big melodic voices.”

The singer behind “Let It Go” is, of course, known for her big, rich, energizing vocals. She projects that, which she at times needs herself. She gives her all to it. Still, though, Menzel hasn’t always been accepted in the realms she’s hoped to be, from working hard to breaking into movies and television to doing the same trying to break into the world of a serious recording artist. A star of the stage and of animated films, she wants more.

On Drama Queen, Menzel sings like the great dance and disco diva vocalists of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s hard not to conjure images of Cher or even Celine Dion. There is power and confidence in the music, born from real achievement and know-how, even if it’s not always felt by Menzel. 

“I like to say I have one iconic job or role every decade,” says the artist. “And then everything in between, I’m still trying to keep my head above water.” 

The life of a performer means you just want to keep working, Menzel adds. The highs are the stuff of miracles, and the lows are what “keeps us humble and grounded.” She keeps perspective. Gained in big ways during the production of Rent when Menzel was 25 years old, an entire cast and crew trying to bring to life the work of the now-iconic Broadway writer Jonathan Larson, who passed away on the first night Rent welcomed a live audience. Indeed, Menzel has forged herself through stage performance, through acclaimed moments, and those flubbing lines. But through music, through the work, she is ultimately “transported.” It’s where she feels most at home. Where she has the strongest sense of purpose. 

“I’m not very religious,” she says. “So, for me, it’s the most spiritual connection to the world that we live in. Not to say I’m not paralyzed by my own anxiety many times. But on good days, it’s euphoric.”

Making a dance album is a lot different than performing on Broadway. For one, the live audience isn’t nearly as well-behaved. Menzel remembers playing some of her songs pre-COVID at a dance hall for some 3,000 “shirtless men.” She could have stage-dived, she says.

Menzel knows she has a place in popular music because of her giant voice. She stands out in a sea of mellow grooves. To write the songs on the new LP, she collaborated with a number of producers, writers, and creative folks. Menzel doesn’t love the solo writing process—she likes connection. Now that the album is done, though, she says she will play Pride festivals across the country this summer. She’ll bring to each a gratitude for the LGBTQ+ community, a group of people that has long accepted her, she says. Menzel says she is also working on some new stage production that’s hush-hush, too. Of course, she is busy-busy. But when it gets too much? There’s the music. 

“It’s where I lose myself and I escape,” Menzel says. “Honestly, it’s where I feel most like myself. I feel most in touch with who I am and what I’m meant to do in the world. It’s my language.” 

Photo by Steven Gomillion/ BMG

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