There’s a moment during this special recording of Friday Night Is Music Night at the Hackney Empire that perfectly captures singer Idina Menzel’s appeal; consummate professionalism coupled with a warmth and a delightful self-deprecating sense of humour.
Breaking off just a few lines into her signature number Take Me or Leave Me from the musical Rent, she says that in the show the song is sung by two people so “I’m going to need some help”. After getting a lucky man to lift her off stage she asks for volunteers to accompany her, with the caveat “don’t put your hand up if you’re no good”.
She’s then joined by three girls and a guy who I can only imagine are musical theatre students, as their rendition of the song is pretty faultless. And so with her generosity and encouragement, she turned that normally toe-curling part of any concert – the audience participation bit – into a little piece of magic.
Idina’s career got off to a flyer back in 1996 with a Tony Award nomination for her first Broadway role in the aforementioned Rent. She later won the award for best leading actress in a musical in 2003 for her creation of the role of Elphaba in the hit show Wicked, a part she later reprised in London.
Understandably, it’s songs from these shows that form a significant part of tonight’s concert, from the Wicked opener The Wizard and I to the crowd-pleasing Defying Gravity that brought the audience to its feet at the end of the evening. But it was a spine-tingling a cappella version of For Good from Wicked and No Day But Today, a moving tribute to Rent composer Jonathan Larson (who died of a heart attack the night before the show opened), that were the real highlights.
The rest of the musical selections were eclectic to say the least, mixing musical theatre standards with her take on the Joni Mitchell classic Both Sides Now and a rousing, if unlikely, version of the Proclaimers hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).
She manages to switch the mood perfectly; one minute displaying a devilish sense of fun as she suddenly stops mid-song to riff on “if this is radio we could all be in our underwear” or analysing whether the lyrics of Poker Face are appropriate for a mother/daughter duet as she performed it in the TV series Glee. The next moment she’s milking the emotions with a haunting mash-up of the Cole Porter standard Love for Sale, the Police hit Roxanne and a beautiful medley of songs from A Chorus Line as a tribute to her friend and mentor Marvin Hamlisch.
Between the songs she’s best when she’s being funny, as some of the sentimentality was at a level that doesn’t always sit comfortably with British audiences. But this didn’t happen very often, and once again she judged the moment well by pulling things back with another quip at her own expense.
Guests Elaine Paige and Declan Bennett, currently starring in the musical Once, added a different and hugely enjoyable dimension, but Idina owned the evening with a performance that left you with a smile on your face.