Idina Menzel is making her way back to the stage.
The Tony winner will star in “Redwood,” a musical she first began developing almost 20 years ago, which will premiere as the final production of the 2023-2024 season of the La Jolla Playhouse. Directed by Tina Landau, who also wrote the book, the show tells the story of Jesse (Menzel), a woman who leaves the big city for a cross-country trip to Northern California. She finds unexpected connections and healing among the Redwoods.
Menzel initially conceived the show as a bio-musical about Julia Butterfly Hill, an environmental activist famous for living in a redwood for more than two years in the late ‘90s to prevent loggers from cutting it down. Menzel approached Landau two decades ago about collaborating on the project.
The new story is inspired by experiences that both Menzel and Landau have lived through over the years since they first met. “I subscribe to this feeling very often in my life of wanting to just escape,” Menzel told Variety in a joint interview with Landau on Wednesday. “I’m more of a recluse than people think I am… I definitely grapple with that a lot in my life, just like, ‘Can I just put it all down and leave and do something different?’”
With music by Kate Diaz and lyrics by Diaz and Landau, Menzel said, “What’s so exciting working with Tina is that she definitely knows how — and she’s guiding Kate in this as well — to write for me, but also how to challenge me and to put me in places that are not formulaic or not my typical go-to. It’s opening my vernacular and forcing me to find new colors and places in my voice that I think are just fun, and have different emotional connections for me to the character and hopefully open up different chakras, if you will, for other people when they’re listening.”
In some aspects, “Redwood” will be an interactive experience for the audience. “The design is not really a set as so much as it’s going to be making use of some really exciting, cutting-edge multimedia interactive technology that’s never been used in the American musical theater before,” Landau said. She also explained that it was quarantine in the early days of the pandemic that finally gave her the time to sit down to concentrate and work on writing the show.
Menzel became a Broadway star when she originated the role of Maureen in “Rent.” She won a Tony for her work as Elphaba in “Wicked,” and her performance of “Let It Go” from “Frozen” — she plays Elsa in the Disney animation franchise — became an international sensation. She played Adam Sandler’s wife in the indie favorite “Uncut Gems,” and she most recently premiered the documentary “Idina Menzel. Which Way to the Stage?” on Disney+.
Landau’s credits include “The Spongebob Musical,” which received 12 Tony nominations, Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” and the revival of “Bells Are Ringing.”