Even if you do not recognise Idina Menzel, you know her voice. She plays Elsa in Disney’s Frozen – you may have heard of it. The film has permeated popular culture in a way that could only be surpassed if the sun went supernova.
New York also seems to have caught Frozen fever. The city is just emerging from a long, hard winter as The Big Issue shares a taxi with Menzel, on her way to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street.
“The cold really bothers me,” Menzel says. “I have to sing and I can’t get sick so when I get sick it’s not fun.”
Before she was Elsa, Queen of Arendelle, Menzel, 43, was Queen of Broadway. In the mid-1990s she starred in the original production of Rent, before donning green face paint and winning a Tony Award for playing Elphaba, the misunderstood Witch of the West in Wicked. Her latest show If/Then, in which she plays a new divorcee looking for a fresh start, is in its final week after a year of sold-out performances.
“It’s bitter sweet,” she says as the taxi pulls up. “It has been the most rewarding and most exhausting experience. When I’m gone from the theatre too long I really start to miss it. I like the consistency in an industry where it’s so ephemeral. It’s nice to know you have a place to go every day and do your job as an artist. But I’m ready for a break.”
Out of the taxi, into the theatre, straight to hair and make-up ahead of the evening’s performance. This seems like the only time in the day Menzel gets to rest (“I might fall asleep on you”), as she reflects on the impact Frozen has had on her life.
“It’s been such a gift,” she says. “When I was in Rent I thought, oh well that’s it, you don’t get lucky enough to be a part of something this extraordinary more than once. It has happened three times. For whatever reason the universe dropped these in my lap.”
Frozen has done alright for itself. The tale of two sisters overcoming their issues with love, loyalty and a singsong is warm enough to melt the iciest of hearts. It is the highest-grossing animated film of all time, making $1.3bn at the box office and untold riches through limitless merchandising. In America, more than three million children (and adults?) own a Frozen costume. After a bumper Christmas, Disney’s Consumer Products wing reported a 47 per cent sales surge and the company’s stock price jumped to a record high of $101.28 per share.
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Menzel believes that it is the relationship between Elsa and Anna and their distinct brand of girl power that is key to Frozen’s success. “I don’t know if I’d compare them to the Spice Girls but they are two women who are unique and powerful in their own way and are not afraid to show that. They don’t need a man to complete them.”
The cold facts…
- Frozen has made $1.3bn (£880m) at the global box office, becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time… however, if inflation was taken into account, 1937 Disney hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which made $184.9m) would be the equivalent of $1.6bn (£1bn) today.
- 899,000 Blu-ray and DVD copies of Frozen were sold in the first week. When released in the US, the total number of units sold was 3.2 million – in a single day.
- 3 million Frozen costumes have been sold in the US – enough to clothe everyone living in the states of Alaska, Maine and Montana combined. America’s National Retail Foundation estimated that 2.6 million kids dressed as Frozen characters last Hallowe’en.
- The name Elsa made the UK’s ‘most popular baby names’ list for the first time last year, entering at number 75.
- Tour operators in Norway (as close to Arendelle as you can get in real life) report a 40 per cent increase in sales since 2013.
Writer and co-director Jennifer Lee is the creative dynamo behind the film but even she did not predict that it would find an audience. “I remember that nervousness as we went into the opening weekend, just completely not knowing what was going to happen,” she tells The Big Issue. “In the summer we had screened it for two audiences. It was only half animated but the reactions exceeded our expectations.
“We were going out with a giant musical with two female leads,” Lee continues. “We knew that boys enjoyed it just as much as girls but that did not mean they would come to see it.”
Well, they did come to see it, repeatedly. And the inevitable sequel is already in the works.
Next month, Menzel is embarking on a worldwide tour with a setlist including an Ethel Merman tribute, Radiohead, plus “the songs you would assume”. “Mostly I’m excited that for the first time I’m out there after having an actual hit song,” Menzel beams. “People knew songs from shows I was in but I finally have a song that was played all over the world on the radio.”
The things you need to learn in your life are mirrored in the work you are given to do
Frozen is a fine film but it’s the score, crowned by the show-stopping anthem Let It Go, that is responsible for its snowballing success. The soundtrack album was the second bestselling of 2014 – only Taylor Swift sold more records. Most kids can sing Let It Go by rote. It is universally adored, except by one child – Menzel’s five-and-a-half-year-old son, Walker.
“My job requires my attention and my time and he’d rather it all be for him,” she explains. “If I start to sing it in the house or if somebody starts talking to me about it he gets really annoyed.”
Not every fairytale has its happily ever after. Menzel’s marriage to Walker’s father, Taye Diggs, ended after 10 years as her career soared to new heights. “It’s been a real personally trying year for me – professionally astounding – but I’ve been getting divorced,” she says. “It’s interesting how serendipitous things are. The things you need to learn in your life are mirrored in the work you are given to do. And I like that. I feel like I’m able to learn through my art.
“There’s universality in specificity,” Menzel continues. “In the details of our daily lives is authenticity that then reaches out to so many people beyond. You realise you’re speaking for others in a way you never even thought.”
Perhaps that is the secret of any great show or song, if people can relate even if the singer may be a snow queen or not-so-wicked witch. Elsa and Elphaba specifically have been embraced by the LGBT community who relate to the characters’ stories.
I’m very proud of that. The world opens up to them in a whole new way and they find happiness and contentment
“I’m very proud of that,” Menzel says. “It’s coming out of the closet. They’ve hidden something or felt that they’ve had to compromise who they are in order to be accepted. They finally decide to throw caution to the wind, tell everyone to screw off. The world opens up to them in a whole new way and they find happiness and contentment.
“I love that [in the characters I play] there’s a pattern of young people trying to find their way. The older I get the more I still need to be reminded of my own self-esteem and my own empowerment as a woman.”
Do you still have problems with other people trying to bring you down or with letting go?
“Yeah, of course. To connect with your audience you have to remain vulnerable. You have to let them see who you really are even if you’re hiding behind green makeup or an animated character.
“Performers are the most hypocritical people. We’re terrified, we’re insecure, we have all of these demons inside of us and yet we’re the first to get up on stage and expose ourselves in front of hundreds or thousands or millions of people. I’m constantly having to fight my own insecurities, but I’m also finding ways to celebrate who I am.
“I’m comfortable being myself with no makeup to hide behind,” Menzel concludes. “I’m a pretty cool chick.”