(JTA) — Before becoming one of the most iconic vocal performers of her time, appearing in Broadway shows such as “Rent” and “Wicked” and voicing Queen Elsa in “Frozen,” Idina Menzel got her start singing as a teenager on the wedding and bar and bat mitzvah circuit near where she grew up on Long Island and other parts of the New York area.
“It was everything to me, formatively,” Menzel told JTA in an interview, of her early singing experiences. “I believe… that that had a lot to do with my education in music and genres, but also as a performer. I was so young when I did it… I would lie about my age, I would be 15 or 16 years old and I’d dress all mature and go in in high heels. I would usually be the only woman in a group of six guys.”
In the new documentary “Idina Menzel: Which Way to the Stage,” which had its world premiere in mid-November at the DOC NYC film festival and lands on Disney+ on Friday, Menzel discusses those experiences, even returning to the main venue where she used to perform at weddings and bar mitzvahs (the Inn at Fox Hollow in Woodbury, New York). The film also shows Menzel in Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre and shows her sharing her thoughts on it as a Jewish person.
The film, directed by Anne McCabe, follows Menzel’s 2018 arena tour, along with Josh Groban, which culminated in Menzel fulfilling her lifelong dream of headlining Madison Square Garden. It combines concerts with intimate behind-the-scenes moments, as well as archival footage from Menzel’s early life and throughout her career.
“When I heard that the tour was going to culminate at Madison Square Garden, I realized that it was a dream come true — it was a place that I’d always wanted to play, growing up on Long Island, and living in New York City, at NYU and beyond that,” Menzel said. “The fact that I was going to be playing there was a big deal, and I wanted to film it, no matter what I did with the footage, I know I just wanted to document it for myself, so I could take that in and really just appreciate the moment.”
As is often the case with documentaries, the film evolved a bit from its original purpose.
“In the process of filming it… it revealed itself in a different way. It became not just a tour documentary going city to city, but more about motherhood, and how we balance trying to pursue our passion and our dreams and also being there for our family,” she said. “That was a welcome surprise in the process.”
The documentary shows Menzel with her then-preteen son — from her previous marriage to Taye Diggs — and her husband, actor Aaron Lohr, while going through the process of in vitro fertilization.
The tour that the film follows arrived in Pittsburgh about two weeks after the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre, and Menzel is shown singing the “Rent” number “No Day But Today” to a crowd at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. (Menzel more recently wrote and performed a song called “A Tree of Life,” which was featured in the closing credits of a recent HBO documentary about the tragedy and its aftermath.)
In that part of the film, Menzel wears a shirt with a Jewish star that says “Stronger Than Hate.”
“That show was all about tolerance,” Menzel says of “Rent” in the film, while on stage in Pittsburgh. “It was about love, it was about community… I’m sitting here in this beautiful city, a Jewish girl from Long Island. I thought about how we light candles in the Jewish religion, sort of choosing light over darkness, choosing love over bigotry.”
“That particular concert is now tragically defined but what had happened in Pittsburgh, and I felt like I couldn’t ignore that, and I felt like that song was the right song for the moment, and that there was any way I could use my music to help heel then I wanted to do it,” she told JTA.
The documentary also looks back at Menzel’s entire career, from breaking through in the original production of “Rent” in the mid-1990s (the “which way to the stage” subtitle, as “Rent”-heads will know, is a reference to what was Menzel’s very first line in that musical), to an ill-fated run at a pop career, to her second big musical smash, “Wicked,” which landed on Broadway in 2003. Viewers also get the story of the “Frozen” phenomenon and its Menzel-performed torch song “Let it Go,” as well as other notable episodes — such as the time John Travolta mispronounced her name at the Oscars in 2014. (Menzel finds the whole thing hilarious.)
The COVID-19 pandemic was not the only obstacle in getting the documentary, which was mostly filmed four years ago, to the finish line. Menzel said in a post-screening Q&A at DOC NYC that because the documentary ended up on Disney+ and she is the voice of Queen Elsa, some curse words had to be taken out, as did a scene where she clutches a bottle of wine.
“I lost the funding at one point, and so I bought [the film] back,” Menzel said. “I wanted to find people that really believed in it and were going to creatively do right by it. I gambled on myself, which I try to do, and try to make a point of it. I’m just so happy that it’s come to fruition.”
The singer has spoken often about her admiration for another prominent Jewish singer and actress, Barbra Streisand. In her JTA interview, she praised the way Streisand “embraces her Judaism.” In the film, Menzel sings “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl, the 1968 movie version that starred Streisand.
“I love her because she’s her. There’s no one else like her, and always aspired to be her unique true self. She didn’t change herself for anyone else. I also feel like, from a vocalist’s perspective, her talent is insurmountable. The way she sings, it feels like it’s just coming directly from her soul, it feels effortless. The way she tells the story through her singing, that I don’t think anyone else has.”
Menzel’s career is about to come full circle, with another bar/bat mitzvah-related performance: she is set to co-star in “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” a Netflix movie adapted from the young adult novel by Fiona Rosenbloom and directed by Sammi Cohen. The film will reunite Menzel with Adam Sandler, who played her husband in 2019’s “Uncut Gems” and will do so again in the new movie. (Menzel also brought up her character’s bat mitzvah in that very Jewish-themed film by the Safdie brothers.)
“We were much more dysfunctional in that movie,” Menzel said of “Uncut Gems”.
“You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” does not have a release date but is expected to arrive sometime in 2023. For now, she’s reveling in the documentary.
“It was just such a joy because I got to look back on it… I got to see myself as a little girl again,” Menzel said. “How I always believed in myself, even more so than maybe I do now. There was no one who was going to tell me that I wasn’t going to live my dream one day. I believed that I had something to offer the world, and so it was really emotional for me to see.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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