It can be hard to believe that it has been more than two decades since a then 24-year-old Long Island native named Idina Menzel shot to superstardom as the feisty bisexual Maureen in Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking musical Rent. And what may be equally hard to believe is that, since then, Menzel has appeared only once (quite briefly) on the New York stage in a non-singing role. That is, until May 31, when she begins previews as Jodi Isaac in Joshua Harmon’s provocative new play Skintight at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.
“At this point in my career, one of the biggest things I consider before taking any role isn’t about whether I’ll be singing, but whether I will be working with people who can teach me and challenge me. And I think that’s definitely true of Joshua, our director, Daniel Aukin, and the whole creative team,” says Menzel. “In this case, maybe the most important issue for me is that I am being given the chance to stretch myself as an actress. It’s not just that I think there’s a danger at this point in my life of being pigeonholed as a musical-theater performer, but I know in my heart that I have so much more to give to audiences, and this play will allow me to do just that.”
Indeed, Skintight, like Harmon’s other plays (Bad Jews, Significant Other, and Admissions), isn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects — and difficult people. Jodi is a tough-as-nails fortysomething lawyer who is recently divorced and struggling to connect emotionally with her two sons (one of whom is openly gay). Above all, she is being asked to try to come to grips with the startling reality that her 70-year-old father, Elliott, a super-famous fashion designer, wants to spend the rest of his life with a twentysomething former gay porn star.
“I was blown away the minute I read the play — and not only because it’s so original,” says Menzel. “In many instances, Jodi is exploring a lot of the same issues that I do on a day-to-day basis, from coming to terms with aging to worrying about her relevance in this world to the struggle to feel beautiful and sexy, but not worrying about it every second. I really try to keep that last issue in perspective, in part because I want to be a good role model to my 8-year-old son, Walker. I try not to talk too much about my looks or my weight around him, because I want him to see me as a confident mom and woman.”
Indeed, Menzel really relates to Jodi’s maternal protectiveness, whether she’s haranguing her father about making sure there’s gluten-free food around for her 20-year-old son, Benji, or warning Benji about not getting involved with her father’s lover. “When you’re pregnant, everyone says that your life will change, but they don’t tell you that for the rest of your life, you will have this aching moment in your heart every day worrying that your child is safe and well,” she notes. “I have to say, my mother was fiercely protective of me, and I see some of that fierceness in not just my real-life behavior but also in how Jodi acts. There is no question in my mind that she really loves her sons, just as I love Walker.”
Nonetheless, Menzel admits that Jodi — at least on the page — can be a tough act to swallow at times, trying to control everything and everyone around her. “There is no question that Jodi has her own agenda and can be completely self-absorbed,” she says. “In my mind, I’ve been working on whether to try to soften her or embrace her abrasiveness. I firmly believe every character doesn’t have to be likable, and so it’s OK that sometimes Jodi is a real pain in the ass. But as an actress, not only do you need to have empathy and understanding for your character, you have to make the audience understand where she’s coming from.”
And where does Menzel think Jodi is ultimately coming from? “In addition to dealing with her own insecurities, she is really wrestling with her father’s decision. Part of me gets that: being able to embrace the idea that if I was as old as Elliott, would physically being with someone as young and handsome as his lover really bring me such joy and ecstasy?” she says. “But what I really love most about the play is that it will spark a conversation among people of all ages and sexual persuasions: What makes you feel alive? What kind of love do you need in your life? What makes you feel fulfilled? I can’t wait to work on it!”
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