(JTA) — Before she became one of the most iconic vocal artists of her time, appearing in Broadway shows like “Rent” and “Wicked” and voicing Queen Elsa in “Frozen,” Idina Menzel got her start singing as teenager in the wedding and bar and bat mitzvah circuit near where she grew up on Long Island and other parts of the New York area.
“That was everything for me, formative,” Menzel told JTA in an interview, of her early singing experiences. “I think… that it had a lot to do with my education in music and genres, but also as a performer. I was so young when I did it… I’m lying about my age, I’d be 15 or 16 years old , and I would dress up and walk in high heels. I would usually be the only woman in a group of six guys.”
In the new documentary “Idina Menzel: What Way to the Stage,” which had its world premiere in mid-November at the DOC NYC Film Festival and lands on Disney+ on Friday, Menzel discusses those experiences, even going back to the main venue where she used to performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs (The Inn at Fox Hollow in Woodbury, New York). The film also shows Menzel in Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath the massacre of the tree of life and shows her sharing her thoughts about it as a Jewish person.
The film, directed by Anne McCabe, follows Menzel’s 2018 arena tour, alongside Josh Groban, which culminated in Menzel fulfilling his lifelong dream of headlining Madison Square Garden. It combines concerts with intimate behind-the-scenes moments, as well as archival footage from Menzel’s early life and throughout her career.
“When I heard that the tour was going to culminate at Madison Square Garden, I knew it was a dream come true – it was a place I had always wanted to play, growing up on Long Island and living in New York City, at NYU and beyond,” Menzel said. “The fact that I was going to play there was a big deal and I wanted to film it, whatever I did with the footage, I know I just wanted to document it for myself so I could take it in and really just appreciate the moment.”
As is often the case with documentaries, the film evolved slightly from its original purpose.
“In the process of filming it … it revealed itself in a different way. It became not just a city-to-city tour documentary, but more about motherhood, and how we balance trying to pursue our passion and our dreams and also be there for our family,” she said. “It was a welcome surprise in the process.”
The documentary features Menzel with her then-preteen son — from her previous marriage to Taye Diggs — and her husband, actor Aaron Lohr, as she goes through the process of in vitro fertilization.
The tour the film follows arrived in Pittsburgh about two weeks after the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, and Menzel is shown singing the “Rent” number “No Day But Today” to a crowd at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. (Menzel recently wrote and performed a song called “A Tree of Life,” which was featured in the end credits of a recent HBO documentary about the tragedy and the aftermath.)
In that part of the film, Menzel wears a shirt with a Jewish star that says “Stronger Than Hate.”
“That show was about tolerance,” Menzel says of “Rent” in the film, while on stage in Pittsburgh. “It was about love, it was about community… I’m sitting here in this beautiful city, a Jewish girl from Long Island. I thought about how we light a candle in the Jewish religion, in a way that chooses light over darkness, chooses love over bigotry.”
“That particular concert is now tragically defined, but what had happened in Pittsburgh, and I felt like I couldn’t ignore it, and I felt that that song was the right song for the moment, and that there was some way I could use my music to help, then I would do it,” she told JTA.
The documentary also looks back at Menzel’s entire career, from her breakthrough in the original production of “Rent” in the mid-1990s (the “which way to the scene” subtitle, as “Rent” heads will know, is a reference to which was Menzel’s very first line in that musical), to an ill-fated run at a pop career, to her second major musical smash, “Wicked,” which landed on Broadway in 2003. Viewers also get the story of the “Frozen” phenomenon and its Menzel- performed torch song “Let it Go”, as well as other notable episodes – such as the time John Travolta mispronounced her name at the Oscars in 2014. (Menzel think it’s all funny.)
The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the only obstacle to getting the documentary, which was mostly filmed four years ago, to the finish line. Menzel said in a post-screening Q&A at DOC NYC that because the documentary ended up on Disney+ and she’s the voice of Queen Elsa, some curse words had to be removed, as did a scene where she grabbed a bottle of wine.
“I lost the financing at one point and then I bought [the film] back,” Menzel said. “I wanted to find people who really believed in it and wanted to creatively do it right after that. I gambled on myself, which I try to do, and try to make a point of it. I am just so happy that it has come true.”
The singer has often spoken of her admiration for another prominent Jewish singer and actress, Barbra Streisand. In her JTA interview, she praised the way Streisand “embraces her Judaism.” In the film, Menzel sings “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl,” the 1968 film version that starred Streisand.
“I love her because she is her. There is no one else like her, and have always wanted to be her unique true self. She didn’t change for anyone else. I also feel her talent is priceless from a vocalist’s perspective. The way she sings, it feels like it’s just coming straight from her soul, it feels effortless. The way she tells the story through her song, which I don’t think anyone else has.”
Menzel’s career is about to take off, with yet another bar/bat mitzvah-related performance: she’s set to star in “So you’re not invited to my Bat Mitzvah“, a Netflix film adapted from the young adult novel by Fiona Rosenbloom and directed by Sammi Cohen. The film will reunite Menzel with Adam Sandler, who played her husband in 2019 “Uncut Gems” and will do it again in the new film. (Menzel also recorded character’s bat mitzvah in the very Jewish film by the Safdie brothers.)
“We were a lot more dysfunctional in that movie,” Menzel said of “Uncut Gems.”
“You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” has no release date, but is expected to arrive sometime in 2023. For now, she is enjoying the documentary.
“It was just such a joy because I got to look back on it … I got to see myself as a little girl again,” Menzel said. “How I’ve always believed in myself, even more than perhaps I do now. No one was going to tell me that I wasn’t going to live my dream one day. I thought I had something to offer the world, so it was very emotional for me to see.”