Nightline Playlist: Idina Menzel

The Tony-award-winning singer describes the songs that inspire her.


June 20, 2008— -- From the Broadway stage to the Billboard charts, this Tony-award-winning star of "Wicked" and "Rent" seems to have done it all.

The daughter of a New York pajama salesman and a therapist, Idina Menzel grew up on Long Island, singing at bar mitzvahs and weddings.

Such a humble upbringing forced her to expand her musical repertoire, turning her into what she calls a musical "chameleon."

"I was a wedding singer, so I had to learn jazz and Motown and every Madonna and Whitney Houston song," Menzel said. "I was just this plethora of different influences."

Menzel, 37, started singing on the special-event circuit when she was 15 and continued singing to put herself through acting school at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

Her big break came in 1995 when she was cast in "Rent," a Broadway musical that won her much acclaim and a Tony Award nomination.

Since then she has starred in numerous plays, including the Broadway musical "Wicked," which not only brought her a Tony Award, but several feature films as well, including "Enchanted" and the film adaptation of "Rent."

Menzel has also spun her theatrical fame into a successful solo career.

She released her third solo album, "I Stand," earlier this year.

To record the album, Menzel went through a lot of soul searching and personal growth.

"This current album is very important to me because it took me a while to figure out who I was as a singer and a songwriter and performer," Menzel said.

When she was a little girl, Menzel had her first breakout performance at a summer camp talent show, singing the classic song "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin.

Camp counselors, surprised by Menzel's innate sense of harmony and rhythm, encouraged her to take voice lessons.

"I was singing harmony and didn't even know what harmony was," Menzel said. "All the counselors ran to my parents and told them I had some kind of special voice."

The first vinyl record Menzel owned was Barbara Streisand's "A Star is Born."

Menzel found inspiration from Streisand, who successfully made the jump from theater to pop music, a transition Menzel recognized is not an easy one.

"There's not a lot of people that we as a society allow to make this transition from theater to pop," Menzel said. "The ones that I really respect and admire are people like Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler."

Menzel hopes to make the transition by staying true to herself.

"I always try to make the common denominator my voice," Menzel said.

As for the greatest singer ever, Menzel believes it's Chaka Khan.

"Chaka Khan is my idol," Menzel said. "For anyone that wants to learn how to sing really high but not hurt themselves, you should go out and emulate Chaka Khan."

The best of Khan's work, Menzel said, came not in Khan's later career but in her early days.

"She sang with this incredible soul band called Rufus," Menzel said. "It's just the funkiest band ever I think from the 70s."

The best pop song is "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree, Menzel said.

"It was empowering, it was strong, it was feminine, but it had a great beat and I loved her voice," Menzel said.

Menzel said that she wondered if she would ever be able to write a song with that kind of emotional power -- something she tried to achieve with the title track off her latest album.

"I tried to write a pop song about finding my own, finding myself and my individuality," she said. "I'm not really comfortable lecturing people on how to be confident because I'm insecure half the time myself."

One of Menzel's all-time favorite songs -- and one that constantly gets stuck in her head -- is "So Far Away" by Carol King.

"I just love that song," she said. "As soon as I wake up and I'm walking down the street, I'm singing that song."

"Brave," the first single of her new album, was inspired by King's song, she said.

"When I listen to Brave," Menzel said, "I realize there's some real components of "So Far Away."

For more information about Idina Menzel, as well as her upcoming tour dates, CLICK HERE.

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