Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wicked and A Night at the Apollo with Idina Menzel

Apollo Theatre 2012
I feel like I am justified in writing this post about Idina Menzel's concert because my attachment is still related to literary qualities. Wicked was, after all, a novel by Gregory Maguire and what I loved most about the production was the story, the characterisation and the song lyrics as well as the performance aspects. Most of these are fundamentally literary aspects.

I am not a musical theatre buff, most of what I know now I know in relation to Miss Menzel because of what she did for the character of Elphaba and because she is always so deeply in character when she sings.

as Elphaba
I finally got to see her live on Tuesday the 9th of October 2012, a hugely special night, partly because it was a Birthday present but also because I never dreamt I'd get the chance. My interest was born with Wicked, and I didn't even see it when she was in it but somehow I knew she was the Elphaba. Then followed her studio albums, I watched RENT, traced her career, she had a stint on Glee not too long ago but her voice and character was always so affecting whatever she did, even as her simply lovable self.

This tour was a stripped back version of the elaborate 'Barefoot at the Symphony' of 2011, and was primarily to showcase a vast catalogue of Broadway and West End work, some of her favourites, so each song belonged to a character and she slipped into them all so naturally. She also performed a new self-written song: 'God Save My Soul', some Joni Mitchell and paid tribute to her dear friend Marvin Hamlisch.

The Apollo Theatre was a suitably intimate setting, though my seat was very high up. Despite this Idina conversed with the audience so naturally that it was impossible not to be drawn in. A lot of people have remarked how surprised they were at just how effortlessly funny she is. Perhaps the best word to describe the atmosphere was inclusive, for a lot of us it was special just to be in her presence.

Marvin Hamlisch and Idina Menzel
Her tribute to Marvin Hamlisch ('The Way We Were'), the legendary composer and her tour-partner last year, was particularly moving. He passed away fairly recently and she was invited by his wife to perform his favourite of all of his songs, 'At the Ballet', at his funeral. She wasn't afraid to bare her heart on her sleeve in front of the crowd, being both emotionally vulnerable but in control. It felt like a privilege to be invited into something so private and sacred.

Things began with just the orchestra, then Idina's disembodied voice before she skipped onto stage with one chorus line of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'.  She then catapulted into the 'Wizard and I', one of her most iconic vocal performances. Her rendition of Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now', which is lyrically brilliant any day, was soft and expressive and added even more layers to the song. For me it showcased the best of her voice, even without the power she has something very raw and emotive and a stunning range.

'...Well something's lost but something's gained, 
In living every day.
I've looked at life from both sides now,
from win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all...'  

She effectively relaunched her own take on 'Don't Rain on My Parade', shedding the untouchable aura which surrounds one of Barbara Streisand's most iconic performances and another Broadway favourite, 'What I Did For Love'. 'Somewhere' from West Side Story was her final encore song, which she proclaimed to be her favourite song of all time and which she recorded on Glee with her on-screen daughter, Lea Michele.

as Maureen, RENT
One of the most enjoyable moments was 'Take Me Or Leave Me', a fan favourite from RENT, originally a duet with Tracie Thoms. Menzel eagerly invited fans to come up and duet with her. They ranged in age and gender but all rose to the occasion and the audience loved it. The casual banter with the crowd and lapse in formality was a lot of fun and showcased what a very talented and dedicated following Idina has all over the world.

The entire audience got a chance to sing back to Idina in the dying embers of 'No Day But Today', another RENT classic, which Idina has adopted as her own and moulded to her style. It acted as a paean to her whole career and to everything that the audience was feeling in that moment. A more melancholy tone to a carpe-diem lyric or perhaps a reflection on love and loss and death, all issues that RENT addresses. It was a  very nice and tender moment, but tinged with sadness because of the earlier talk about Hamlisch's passing and perhaps the audience's own knowledge that the concert was drawing to a close.

One of the more surprising covers was the chorus line of U2's 'Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' before Idina stepped away from the microphone, the orchestra stopped playing and she gave a stunning, lone rendition of 'For Good', from Wicked. As Elphaba she duetted this song with Kristin Chenoweth in their Wicked days and it has some of my favourite lyrics and meditations on friendship:

'Who can say if I've been changed for the better?...
I do believe I have been changed for the better' 

It always melts my heart and is something I hang onto in many moments in my life. I have no words to describe the majesty that is 'Defying Gravity'. This song is one of the songs that means the most to me in the world and those final notes that Idina sings, and what she does with her voice, will, I think, go on to be one of the most iconic moments in musical theatre of all time. In Wicked itself, this moment is visually stunning as she rises into the sky in defiance, but Idina can tell the story and capture it all just with her voice and eyes, without the make-up and costume, which is quite phenomenal. I feel very privileged to have now seen her sing it live. It is a once in a lifetime experience.

The penultimate song 'Learn to Live Without' (written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey) is rumoured to have been written for Idina from a new Broadway show which is in the works but we will have to wait and see on that one. I thought it was extremely effective, beautifully sung and built very steadily to its denouement. If she is initiating another role in a production I think that's fantastic. She often says she prefers to originate roles than play already established characters, partly to help new composers but I think she is one of those people who is born to make roles iconic. For me, she sets the marker.

I would have loved to have stayed behind at the stage door to try and meet her but unfortunately train-politics meant it was better for me to run. Those who got the chance to meet her are very lucky and hopefully I will get the chance one day. For now, I can say that the concert was one of the most worthwhile things I've done, a wonderful and poignant experience and I really hope she returns to London soon.