The holidays have never really been Idina Menzel’s favorite time of year.

Idina Menzel

During an intimate concert for iHeartRadio Live in New York last Thursday, the Tony Award-winner and voice of Elsa in Disney’s juggernaut Frozen recalled how, when she was fifteen, she learned on Thanksgiving morning that her parents were getting a divorce. She remembered the turkey getting thrown in the garbage, the potatoes being tossed down the drain, and canceling on all the guests who were supposed to enjoy all that food. Moving forward, she’d have to split holidays between her mother’s and father’s homes, making the holidays a more stressful than festive time of year.

Idina Menzel

So when it came time to curate the track listing for her Christmas album, Holiday Wishes (released on October 14 by Warner Bros. Records), Menzel originally chose a series of depressing songs to encapsulate a feeling of loss during the holiday season. She joked to the audience that the record she first submitted to her label could have been titled A Slit Your Wrists Christmas. This was just one of the many times that she kidded with the iHeartRadio crew by suggesting that they edit out what she just said for the broadcast of the concert online later that evening.

But the final version of Holiday Wishes is far less morbid that Menzel had originally imagined. After she received pressure from Warner Bros. to include some more uplifting material on the album, the Broadway legend turned to her five-year-old son Walker for inspiration. Through him, she has been able to “rewrite what the holiday season means” to her, and found a sudden passion and desire to share that rejuvenated excitement through her record.

It was that newly rediscovered affection for the holidays that was on full display during Menzel’s concert. “Merry Christmas! Happy Halloween! Let’s get started,” she said when she stepped out onto the stage. “Happy Thanksgiving! Happy holidays,” she chuckled, acknowledging that perhaps not everybody was quite ready to get into the holiday spirit quite so early yet. But over the course of the next hour, she more than overcame any resistance from the skeptics in attendance.

She opened the show with the classic “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a song she’s been inspired to sing ever since hearing Whitney Houston’s version of it. The mezzo-soprano wasted no time belting at full-force, highlighting the stellar talent that explains why there’s a giant billboard in the middle of Times Square that describes her as “Broadway’s biggest star.”

While introducing “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Menzel told a humorous story about how her son was supposed to sing with her on the track, similarly to how Harry Connick Jr. featured his daughter on his holiday album. She recounted recording the album during the hot summer weather and trying to convince Walker to get into a Christmas frame of mind in the studio. Originally, he was supposed to do a spoken word intro where he tells his mommy what he wants under the tree that year. Instead, Walker couldn’t get into it and the most he would do was sing “have a holly jolly butt-butt,” no matter what toys she bribed him with. As a result, Menzel tried to speak in Walker’s voice during the opening of the song, showcasing more of the hilarious sparring she did with the audience that was a big part of what made the evening so enjoyable.

Idina Menzel

Menzel’s setlist included a series of holiday classics, including a booming rendition of “White Christmas,” a beautiful take on “Silent Night,” a stunningly serene cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and a unique and jazzy interpretation of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But perhaps the most interesting of all of the songs she performed was “December Prayer,” an original song that she penned for Holiday Wishes.

“I wrote this song so that everyone would have a song during this time of year,” Menzel said before performing the hope-filled ballad, clearly channeling some of that sense of loss she previously discussed.

“Hear the song within the silence, see the beauty when there’s nothing there. Sing a song within the silence that hope and love are everywhere,” she gorgeously sang. “And when the quiet night is falling, watch an angel dancing in the air, to the song, the song within the silence, a December Prayer.”

As poignant as it was lovely, “December Prayer” showed off Menzel’s talent as a fully-rounded musician, further demonstrating why the crossover Broadway star has achieved so much mainstream success following the release of the seminal Frozen track, “Let It Go.”

Of course, no Menzel concert would be a complete without a show-stopping rendition of that song, and the songstress delivered with the same power that would help it win the Academy Award. This time around, she performed an acoustic version of “Let It Go” featuring two back-up vocalists, who added impressive harmonies to the gargantuan hit. Before beginning the song, she thanked iHeartRadio for including her in their special concert series and laughed at the fact that prior to “Let It Go,” she was never even featured on the radio. Today, the song has made Menzel the only Tony Award-winning actress to ever crack the Billboard Top 10.

Idina Menzel

With Holiday Wishes, Idina Menzel has solidified herself as a contemporary musical powerhouse. Between promoting the album (with numerous upcoming appearances including Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade), preparing for her just-announced world tour, and performing eight times a week in the Broadway hit If/Then, she’s one of the busiest and most versatile artists around.

And with Holiday Wishes having just debuted at #1 on the Billboard Holiday Albums chart, it’s a safe bet that Menzel’s reservations about this time of year have now melted away faster than Elsa’s ice kingdom.

Idina Menzel | Holiday Wishes


Originally published on PopBytes


Side Show

Side Show 1997In 1997, a musical called Side Show based on the true story of Depression-era vaudeville stars and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton opened on Broadway. While the show would go on to receive four Tony Award nominations (including an unprecedented shared Leading Actress nomination for co-stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner), its lukewarm critical reception and poor ticket sales caused it to close after only three months and 91 performances.

Fast forward to 2014. Side Show has been retooled and rebirthed into a spectacular and must-see Broadway experience. It’s a rare second chance that builds upon and improves its source material to create something fresh, contemporary, and as visually stunning as it is musically brilliant. And just like that, Michael Keaton’s Birdman is not the only one flying his freak flag at the St. James Theatre these days.

Academy Award-winner Bill Condon (“Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) directs this new darker take, and contributes additional book material that focuses on numerous recently discovered biographical details about the Hilton sisters. For instance, the characters of Auntie and Sir, who helped with the birth of the twins but abused them through their adolescence in an attempt to make a profit off of them, take pivotal supporting roles here; they were not featured at all back in 1997. Also not included in the original was the character of Harry Houdini, who appears briefly in the new production to teach the sisters the value of sticking up for oneself and how to ignore critics. His song is aptly called: “All In The Mind.”

Side Show

And it’s not just the show’s book that has been revised. Author / lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger have reworked the music to include orchestrations by Harold Wheeler and musical direction by Sam Davis. Performed by a live orchestra, the score also incorporates plenty of new songs. They include “Ready to Play,” a big number that the twins sing upon arriving in America; “Cut Them Apart,” sung by threatening doctors during a horrifying flashback scene; and “Very Well Connected,” which the Hiltons’ future agent Terry sings while trying to convince them to leave the side show. This also means that a number of songs from the original production were either cut or condensed, making this “Side Show” truly feel like a completely new musical.

Bringing the Hilton sisters to life are Great White Way veterans Erin Davie and Emily Padgett. As Violet, Davie sympathetically plays the more introverted, quiet and naïve sister, while Padgett’s Daisy is brazen, relentless, flirty and full of charisma. As the sisters begin to fall in love and start feeling the effects of fame, the closeness of their relationship never wavers, even at the suggestion that they may be surgically separated. And though their journey may find them yearning for different things at times, their undying support for one another and the self-sacrifice they’re always willing to make for the other is nothing short of beautiful and inspiring. That beauty is on dazzling display in the show stopping, best song, “I Will Never Leave You.”

Side Show

While it’s difficult to pit these two performers against one another when they’re literally connected at the hip on stage, it’s Padgett who truly shines as the show’s MVP. Davie is undoubtedly a colossal talent, but Padgett’s zesty interpretation of Daisy is packed with perfect comedic timing and scene-stealing panache. And her sublime belting is alone worth the price of a ticket. Mixed with Davie’s more traditional soprano voice, Padgett’s power pop tendencies are amplified to a breathtaking sound that should satisfy fans of classic and contemporary musicals alike.

Davie and Padgett bring to life the yin and yang of the sisters’ complex opposing personalities with enough contrast and heart to carry the entire show on their own. Luckily, though, they don’t have to because the entire cast is superb. As Jake, a man hired to watch over the girls, David St. Louis is a force to be reckoned with due to his supremely rich and honey-smooth baritone voice. From “The Devil You Know” to the gorgeously somber “You Should Be Loved,” his passionate delivery is the stuff that turns actors into stars. The same can be said for Ryan Silverman, whose rendition of Terry’s “Private Conversation” is a jaw-dropping master class in tenor performance. And in no recent memory has an entire ensemble been as in sync as during the closing notes of the Act I finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am.” With its layers of harmonies and massive cast, the show pulls off the incredible feat of making these performers all sound like one very powerful voice.

To create the illusion of Davie and Padgett being conjoined, costume designer Paul Tazewell had to prepare outfits that could both hold the ladies together and stay intact during dance numbers. He used numerous zippers, magnets and sewn-together threads to achieve this. “It was important to know where to trick the eye,” he told The Associated Press. Ranging from the grim, nightmarish, Tim Burton-esque look of the opening carnival to the glamorous and sparkly world of Hollywood, the meticulously crafted costumes tell the story of the Hiltons’ rise to stardom in a remarkable way. The imaginative team behind the new Side Show has accomplished something truly stunning. They’ve not only resurrected a cult hit, but also transformed it into the strongest contender for Best Musical Revival at next year’s Tony Awards.

Side Show

Get your tickets here. Just like the tagline promises … it will never leave you.

Side Show

Originally published on PopBytes


“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

This powerful sentence appears frequently in Joan Didion’s haunting 2011 memoir, Blue Nights, and was repeated a number of times at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC on Monday evening during a special one-night-only reading from the book by renowned actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Blue Nights

Blue Nights is the acclaimed and characteristically evocative follow-up to Didion’s classic The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir detailing her grieving process after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Blue Nights, published six years later, chronicled how she dealt – and continues to deal – with the passing of her then 39-year-old daughter, Quintana, just before Magical Thinking was published.

In their review of the book, The New York Review of Books wrote, “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Didion famously wrote in The White AlbumBlue Nights is about what happens when there are no more stories we can tell ourselves, no narrative to guide us and make sense out of the chaos, no order, no meaning, no conclusion to the tale. The book has, instead, an incantatory quality: it is a beautiful, soaring, polyphonic eulogy, a beseeching prayer that is sung even as one knows the answer to one’s plea, and that answer is: No.”

But before writing Blue Nights, Didion turned The Year of Magical Thinking into a one-woman Broadway play. Redgrave, a close friend of the writer’s for decades, starred in the riveting adaptation, which won her a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination. Yet there’s even more that connects these two extraordinary women.

Like Didion, Redgrave knows what the pain of losing a child feels like. In 2009, her daughter Natasha Richardson died from an epidural hematoma that occurred during a skiing accident. Richardson, whose first marriage took place in Didion’s apartment, was a good friend of Quintana’s during their teen years – something that Didion remembers fondly in Blue Nights.

“Magical thinking is when we believe that the past can be reversed, somehow,” Redgrave said in a press statement. “Blue nights are when everything has a future. For many of us, that means our children. When the blue nights end, we each confront the ludicrous enigma ‘Why can’t I be who I was? Why can’t I wear the black tights and hooped earrings that made me feel I knew who I was?’”

She continued that she hoped that those who attended the event – including familiar faces such as Ralph FiennesMatthew Broderick, and Emma Roberts – would find “a curious solace – and laughter – in Joan’s strange encounters with those who try to assist us with coping.”

Hearing Redgrave deliver Didion’s moving words was, as expected, a deeply emotional and sometimes even difficult experience. The knowledge that these two women, previously bound together as lifelong friends and now as grieving mothers, added layers to the reading. “When we talk about mortality we talk about children,” Redgrave repeated, filling the Cathedral with that heavy sentiment that would define why the evening was so special.

“This was never supposed to happen to her,” Redgrave read from the chapter about Richardson, echoing a feeling she too no doubt constantly grapples with. Seated in an armchair, she lifted her gaze from the page and onto the audience as she spoke those words. Her delivery was calm yet heartfelt, with each syllable carefully pronounced to give justice to the full rhythmic effect of Didion’s stunning prose while simultaneously honoring the memory of their children.

The end of each chapter was marked with a short piece of music on the trumpet-flugelhorn by guest artist Jimmy Owens, 2012 NEA Jazz Master and leader of Jimmy Owens Plus. All of the selections he played were as somber as they were beautiful, emphasizing the lingering melancholic atmosphere that consumed the room each time that Redgrave turned the page. These interludes offered the audience a quick break to collect themselves before Redgrave began to read again.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine also holds a special significance for Didion. Not only is it where Quintana was married, but it’s where she, John Dunne, and Didion’s mother are all inurned. The idea that her ashes were in the surrounding walls added a somewhat poetic quality to the reading, almost as if she, too, were present and listening to her mother’s touching homage.

A benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Cathedral Community Cares, the event underlined just how profound Didion’s legacy has become. Last year, she received the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama. And just last month, a documentary that her nephew Griffin Dunne is directing about her life and impact raised its initial $80,000 goal in just one day onKickstarter.

Redgrave finished the reading by focusing on passages from the end of Blue Nights in which Didion recounts how she has managed to find meaning and purpose in a world that has robbed her of so much. “The fear is for what is still to be lost,” she read. “You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”

As a result of the poignancy of Blue Nights and Redgrave’s raw performance of its text, Quintana and Richardson will never “pass into nothingness” like “the Keats line that frightened her.” All those who were lucky enough to attend this incredible reading left firmly convinced on that score. They also left deeply moved, pondering many of life’s most difficult questions.


Originally published on PopBytes