Broadway Star Idina Menzel's Wicked Foundation Makes Happy Campers
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Broadway icon and Tony Award winner Idina Menzel has literally flown as high as you can on the Great White Way, taking flight each night as witch Elphaba in the original Wicked musical theatre production. And yet the actress, who played Rachel’s biological mom in TV’s Glee and voiced the Snow Queen Elsa in Disney’s Frozen, was paralyzed with a lack of confidence as a girl, and desperate not to stand out, lest she be ridiculed.
Hence her pet project, A Broader Way Foundation, a performing arts camp in the Berkshires in Massachusetts that gives pre-teen New York girls from Harlem and the Lower East Side a chance to shine in a talent-supportive environment.
The first positive feedback she ever received on her voice, Menzel remembers, was in a third grade choir. “And then it turned weird, because that’s when the kids started to really not like me,” she tells Samaritanmag. “I didn’t feel I belonged at school. But sleep-away camp (in the Catskills) was my escape. I felt I could just be myself. So when it came time, I always wanted to have my own camp.”
A Broader Way Foundation, which Menzel created with husband, actor Taye Diggs, is “dedicated to offering girls from urban communities an outlet for self-expression and creativity through arts-centred programs,” it states on its web site. “The emphasis is on building self-esteem, developing leadership qualities and striving for personal and social achievement.”
Programs include performing arts, visual arts, community involvement, and public speaking. There is also the ongoing Camp BroaderWay.
“Through Camp BroaderWay, and its arts-related activities, the girls learn to empower themselves — training their voices to be heard — not just on the stage of a theater, but throughout the world — focusing their imaginations to visualize new pathways,” the site says.
The camp asks its participants for a four-year commitment, to graduate from camper to counselor, and mentor the next wave of girls.
“We partnered with Harlem Children’s Zone (a non-profit organization for poverty-stricken children) and the Young Women’s Leadership Program, to bring us girls who’d really benefit from the experience,” Mendel says.
“We met 30 girls this way and we gave them an assignment. ‘If you could fly anywhere in the world, where would it be?’ They could present it in creative writing form, song, dance, anything. And all 30 girls got to go to camp. They were all so great we decided not to be so discerning. We didn’t turn any of them away.
“I got some of my friends in the Broadway community to donate their time and work with the girls. We camped for 10 days and sang and danced and swam. And we wrote a whole concert with them based on their poetry and choreography.
“This past summer was our third year, and we got a new space, more councilors and we added 12 more girls.”
And now comes summer number four, and the chance for her original camp cadets to pay it forward. “We’ve had the same 30 girls coming back three years in a row,” Menzel says. “And the idea is after the fourth year, they come back as junior counselors, ready to mentor the other girls.”
Though her present is consumed with being back on Broadway starring in the new musical If/Then, Menzel admits she’s also looking forward to the summer, and a new crop of campers.
“When we first did it, some of these girls had never swum in a pool before. It’s an escape from New York City and the country silence is actually a little bit daunting and scary to them at times.
“But it’s a way to get away from their normal lives, which aren’t always so great. We have behavioral issues and social workers up there. We’re learning; we’re a very young organization, but we’ve got our footing and our identity.”
And like a bona fide camp counsellor, “I’ve got a whistle to get their attention,” Menzel says with a laugh, “and I’m teaching them harmonies and song.”
But there’s another aspect to her childhood experience that informs how A Broader Way Foundation is evolving. If summer camp was her childhood joy, leaving it was not.
“Back when I went to camp, I felt such sadness when it was over. And I think it’s followed me through my career. When I leave an important project, a cast, a show, I’ve always felt such depression, so down.
“And these girls are going to crash too. So we’ve decided we want to make sure they see each other through the year.
“Right now, we’re trying to keep track of them through the year. We have field trips and different things. They went to Wicked together, all of them. They’ve been to art galleries and gospel choir competitions. Every kind of field trip we can think of.”
From Wicked to Frozen, Menzel admits she has a soft spot for the message of, “how liberating it is when you finally let the world see your power. If I can be a role model to spur conversation about kids and their self-esteem, then so be it.”
* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.