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NEW YORK (Billboard) - Thanks to breakout roles in Broadway blockbusters "Rent" and "Wicked," Idina Menzel has become one of the biggest stars on the American musical theater scene.
For an indication of her status, consult the episode of "Will & Grace" in which Jack admits to making a "Broadway diva wig" with locks purloined from Menzel, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Bernadette Peters.
Yet long before she was singing show tunes, the 36-year-old Long Island native was belting out the latest Madonna and Whitney Houston hits at weddings and bar mitzvahs in the New York area. And it's that part of her musical persona that she intends to showcase on "I Stand," a 10-track pop disc due January 29 from Warner Bros.
"I've always wanted to do this," Menzel says. "It just happened to be that I got the opportunity to do 'Rent,' and so my life took that turn. But I've been writing songs since I was a teenager."
("I Stand" isn't Menzel's first studio album; she debuted in 1998 with the Hollywood set "Still I Can't Be Still," which has sold 15,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But she calls "I Stand" the first true reflection of her artistic sensibility.)
To make the album, Menzel paired with producer Glen Ballard, whom she says she's wanted to work with since hearing his work on Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill."
"My only goal was that I wasn't going to make an album based on show tunes," Menzel says. "I knew I wanted to do something more mainstream."
Ballard, according to Warner Bros. chief operating officer Diarmuid Quinn, enabled her to refine that position. "Glen pushed her into a place where she found what she was good at," he says.
"What I discovered is that she's an excellent songwriter," Ballard says. "She understands the fundamentals of the craft and has a great sense of language. So it was really just about unlocking the confidence to follow her instincts."
The result of their exploration is a collection that pairs the big vocal presence of Menzel's Broadway past with sleek dance beats and radio-friendly pop-soul melodies. Menzel says Annie Lennox's work was an inspiration, specifically the way Lennox's music "has a theatricality to it without losing the integrity" of confessional writing.
"Glen provided a very zen environment in the studio," the singer says. "I've collaborated with many songwriters in the past, and it's rare to find someone that you can hand over a nugget of an idea from your journal and have them paint in the idea in a way that feels true to you."
Warner Bros. hopes "I Stand" will expand Menzel's audience beyond the Broadway realm without alienating her core fan base there. The label has commissioned club remixes of album tracks "Brave" and "Gorgeous," and is concentrating on promoting the music at adult top 40 and adult-contemporary radio stations.
"That's where our audience is for now," Quinn says. "Hopefully we'll graduate from there."