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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    Idina Menzel reinvents herself - with a dance album and quirky TikToks

    Peering through a wrought-iron gate in her backyard, Idina Menzel bobs her head to the beat as she lip-syncs, "Got a beast inside, and I'm waking it up." She struts down the street in skinny jeans, passionately emoting with her hands in an impromptu dance. Another day, she jumps on a trampoline and sashays down a rickety set of stairs in a cropped T-shirt that reads: "Get in loser, we're going to book club."

    It's all part of the singer's steady stream of unexpected TikToks, in which she has also lounged in an empty bathtub while petting a dog, stopped traffic to pose in the street, and offered commentary on everything from coyote-feeding etiquette to toxicity and domesticity.

    The videos are set to snippets of the 52-year-old chanteuse's new dance pop album, "Drama Queen," out Aug. 18. Dance pop - a disco-inspired subgenre that's up-tempo enough for nightclubs but catchy enough for radio - is a departure for Menzel, and she has adopted the bolder online presence to go with it.

    Menzel has been hesitant to embrace social media. She has been on TikTok since 2019 but only posted sporadically until she ramped up her output this summer.

    "I've just been trying to have fun with it," she says over Zoom from New York's Fire Island, where she was vacationing. "Get out of my head, lean into the fact that I have this new music that I'm excited to share and just bring out the silly side of me."

    By Gen Z's social media standards, Menzel's viral efforts are less than cool. Yet coming from the Tony winner best known for originating the role of Elphaba in "Wicked" and voicing Elsa in Disney's "Frozen" movies, the chaotic reinvention is refreshingly unpredictable.

    And her fans are loving it. Talia Buksbazen, a 23-year-old student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says Menzel's TikToks inspired her to make her own TikTok re-creating Menzel's "Beast" street dance in her dorm room. Her friends on campus mainly know Menzel from "Frozen," Buksbazen says, and don't "fully understand how iconic Idina is" to appreciate her dance pop or her TikToks.

    "I know queen behavior when I see it," Buksbazen says. "This is totally camp."

    During Menzel's early days playing weddings and bar mitzvahs on Long Island in the 1980s, her goal was to get a record deal, not land a Broadway role. Instead, the powerhouse mezzo-soprano first found fame onstage in "Rent" and "Wicked," and later earned living-room ubiquity from belting the nine-times platinum "Let It Go" from "Frozen."

    Over the years, she has released several solo albums on various labels, including pop records, Christmas compilations and a 1998 indie rock album that, she jokes, "only like three people bought." But that work has largely been eclipsed by her Broadway and Disney roles.

    Her still unrealized dream, she says, is to put out an "Evanescence-type of album with a wall of guitars" (though she fears a hard rock turn "might scare people"), and she is eager to shatter people's expectations of her music with "Drama Queen."

    "I'm tired of adhering to a formula and to what people think that I should be doing," Menzel says, cradling a mug of coffee, each fingernail painted a different shade of blue. "Because I got my start on Broadway, people just assume that you can't do anything else. This album is about saying, 'Screw all of that.'"

    The disco eras of such singers as Barbra Streisand and Cher inspired Menzel to take the leap, and she worked on "Drama Queen" with collaborators including Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters and the legendary producer Nile Rodgers to give her "some street cred." The result is a collection of nine songs, all co-written by Menzel, that she hopes particularly resonates with her queer fans, who, she says, have been "inspiring me all these years and teaching me how to live my own life as honestly and authentically as I can."

    The album's breakout single, "Beast," was written and recorded in about a day, says producer and songwriter Sir Nolan, whose work includes Carly Rae Jepsen's "Cut to the Feeling" and Selena Gomez's "Rare."

    "It's always a risk when you try something new, and it is really tough for women [in the music industry]. They get pigeonholed, especially over the age of 30, or even younger," Nolan says. "This was Idina's vision and her idea. She was very confident and ready for it."

    Menzel is less assured about her social media presence. Her TikTok strategy is simple: "I don't have one," she says.

    She usually films the videos around the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, actor Aaron Lohr, and her 13-year-old son, Walker - like the gate that stops the dog from getting out or the steps to her son's treehouse, which has become her own sanctuary.

    "My son is often pretty critical," Menzel says. "He's like, 'Oh, that's so cringy, Mom. I should run your TikTok.'"

    Menzel's TikToks are, in fact, a group effort, involving the prodding of her friend Erin Privratsky, whom she has known since her "Wicked" days, and members of her team, who assist with the technical aspects of posting. They also suggest captions, but the singer says she tends to override them and come up with her own concepts.

    "I change it because it just doesn't feel right, or it feels like I'm trying to cater to younger people," she says. "People aren't stupid. They're going to sense when it's being forced and contrived."

    The result is a surprising hodgepodge of content that's introducing her new tracks to listeners who may have otherwise missed them. Video responses from the singer King Princess, ensemble actors in an Arizona production of "Beauty and the Beast" and two fully costumed cast members on the "Cats" Asia tour have also helped spread the word.

    The author and podcaster Danny Pellegrino learned of Menzel's new music when his friend sent him one of her TikToks. He subsequently made a post for his more than 250,000 Instagram followers, overlaying the "Beast" audio on a scene from "The Office," in which Jan awkwardly dances at a dinner party.

    "For me, it started out as a joke, and then I became legitimately obsessed with the song," Pellegrino says. "Now, it's on my workout playlist. I'm running to it. It wasn't something I expected, initially."

    Grace Semler Baldridge, a queer, alt-Christian singer-songwriter who performs as Semler, made her own TikTok re-creating the "Beast" dance and marvels at the way Menzel can craft videos that are "unhinged in the best way possible."

    "There are celebrities who try to have this really hyper-curated, mysterious, boring version of themselves. That might have worked on other social media, but it doesn't work on TikTok," Semler says. "She's coloring outside the lines of the parameters that are often put on women in the music industry. I think this is going to be the most successful solo era she's ever had."

    Some on social media have likened Menzel's new music to the innocuous beats you hear while shopping at a retail chain. ("It's giving Maxxinista," one TikTok commenter wrote, referring to T.J. Maxx devotees. "Old Navy is quaking," wrote another.)

    But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

    "How many of us haven't had the worst days of our lives inside of a Kohl's dressing room and needed something like 'Beast' to pump you up?" Semler asks. "And who's going to be there for you in that moment but Idina Menzel?"

    Still, Menzel does read the comments, which can be dispiriting. "You can see 10 good things and one negative," she says, "and then I need to see my therapist."

    Menzel says that because of the deified characters she's played, she is often expected to be a role model for female empowerment, even when she doesn't always feel empowered in her own life.

    Ultimately, "Drama Queen" is her attempt to change that.

    "There's a difference between having a big singing voice and having a real voice inside you that can actually be heard," she says. "This is a reminder to myself."

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