The holidays have never really been Idina Menzel’s favorite time of year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally published on PopBytes