NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano chatted with Idina Menzel on Nov. 13 before the world premiere of her documentary “Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage?" The film, which follows Menzel on her national tour and also gives an inside in-depth look at her life, begins streaming Dec. 9 on Disney+. Credit: Randee Daddona; Disney

DOCUMENTARY "Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage?"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Disney+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Filmed in 2018, “Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage?” follows the Syosset native on a multicity tour that culminates in a concert at Madison Square Garden. Filled with archival footage from "Wicked," "Rent" and "If/Then" and the occasional home movie, this also offers a look at a particularly complicated stretch in her life — she and her husband, actor Aaron Lohr (whom she married the year before) are in the midst of an in vitro fertilization cycle. Meanwhile, Walker, her son from her first marriage (to "Rent" co-star Taye Diggs), accompanies her on part of the tour. 


MY SAY Ever since 1990's "Madonna: Truth or Dare," the road show documentary has placed one irrevocable demand upon the subject: Reveal thyself. Make sure the portrait is intimate, raw and deeply personal. Turn that handheld camera inward, so that fans see the real human being between gigs. 

By that standard, director Anne McCabe has done particularly well by Menzel — but she did get some help from Menzel herself. For some reason never explained here, she decided to undergo IVF treatments during the tour which meant she had to constantly shuttle back and forth to New York for consultations with her doctors. Those segues — for viewers, as they must have been for Menzel — are grueling because she knows that at age 47, she's at the extreme outer limit for a successful outcome. "Which Way to the Stage?'' is all about dreams coming true. Will this one? The question provides the narrative tension of the film, and to an extent the poignancy too.

What's abundantly clear from this portrait, however, is that Menzel is not someone who's big on waiting. She's a generational talent who's out to prove that she's not a single-faceted one. The clock is ticking, and "one of the biggest misconceptions about me as a singer," she explains, "is that I come from a theater background." 

Thankfully, "Which Way to the Stage?" (the name comes from a famous line in "Rent") easily establishes the point. A headlong rush through nearly a couple dozen cities en route to the big date at the Garden, "Which Way to the Stage?" is an especially generous tour of the Menzel catalog, including her very own. "Rent" and "Wicked" are well-represented, and "Frozen" (as if it could be otherwise) is as well. Menzel also performs her own songs ("Minuet," "I Stand," "Queen of Swords") along with the occasional standard from film or musical theater. Her voice spectacular, her presence literally shimmering — a silver lamé suit is her signature concert outfit — she not only holds the stage but at times threatens to consume it.

During those up-close-and-personal interstitials, family members recall someone destined for stardom since the age of three. As a kid she sang for family and friends, later in musicals at Syosset High. By her midteens, she was singing in area bands, writing her own music, while "doing weddings and bar mitzvahs on the weekend." She explains that she still has a "complicated relationship" with her hometown because "you always have to fit in" there. After high school, Menzel headed to Manhattan (and NYU) where she never had to worry about that. Her breakout, "Rent," arrived in 1996, and — watch the film to see what happened next. 

NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano chats with Idina Menzel about her return to the role of Nancy in "Disenchanted," streaming now on Disney+. Credit: Randee Daddona

In fact, as that concert film, "Which Way" is a slam dunk. But this is almost the easy part. What's more important are those quiet stretches between "Seasons of Love" and "Let It Go." It's here that Menzel becomes distinctly human-sized, as a wife and mom. Like everyone else on life's balancing beam, she's got dreams and heartaches, disappointments and triumphs.

 BOTTOM LINE Fine eye-level portrait of a musical theater great.    


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