Actress Idina Menzel gives others a dream opportunity

Sunday August 21, 2011

LENOX -- For Broadway and TV actress Idina Menzel of "Rent," "Wicked" and the Fox network's "Glee," the dream started in 1982 at the former Camp Olympus in the Catskills, near Monticello, N.Y.

Singing there in "Oliver!" helped steer her toward a career in music and theater.

This summer, at the Belvoir Terrace camp established here in 1954 on an estate built in 1890, she has created similar memories for 31 underprivileged girls from New York City.

During a break in rehearsals this past week, Menzel, 40, called the camp "a culmination of a dream. This is exceeding any expectations that I had. I loved being at summer camp as a kid and knew that I wanted to have a camp of my own one day."

"As I grew older and had this career, and projects I was associated with have resonated with young audiences, that dream morphed into something that felt closer to a camp for people who wouldn't necessarily have had the opportunity otherwise," she added.

Camp BroaderWay, the 10-day project that followed Belvoir Terrace's regular season, ends today with the girls, about to start seventh grade, now back home to perform a new theatrical work before invited family and friends at Columbia University's Miller Theater.

Menzel and her husband, actor Taye Diggs of ABC's "Private Practice," partnered with the Women's Leadership Institute and the Harlem Children's Zone, along with corporate and individual sponsors, to raise funds for the free performing-arts session supported by the BroaderWay Foundation set up last year by the couple.

The actress mentored the students on-site along with Diggs, who taught acting and dancing classes. Menzel and Diggs met during the Broadway run of "Rent."

The show being performed tonight was created by the students with guidance from Broadway veteran Jeanine Tesori ("Shrek: The Musical"), who composed original music and served as creative director.

Tesori called the campers "incredibly open to the experience .We're trying to introduce them to a way of thinking and expressing themselves that I hope will serve them well in life."

She described the participants' show as a summation "of their experience at the camp a work by us, about us and for us. The girls are really dictating the way the show will go in a way that they can perform it confidently. It's not about artifice, it's about being focused and authentic."

Menzel stressed that she and Diggs "both recognize how the arts put us on a track in our lives that really helped us become the people we are today. We just wanted to give back. I don't think I realized how rich the experience would be.

"The girls are also teaching us about the world. When you're being creative and being vulnerable, you really have to step inside each other's lives in order to find that empathy and compassion, and to be a true artist."

Menzel credited her best friend from college, Heather Zuckerman, for partnering with Camp BroaderWay and targeting Belvoir Terrace, with its performing-arts facilities and staff, as "a really perfect fit" for the project.

The actress said she plans to stay in touch with girls, taking them on field trips to Broadway shows. She intends to invite them to return to Camp BroaderWay next summer, along with a new group of younger campers.

"I like to think we're giving young women an opportunity to find their voice, and that's what it was for me," said Menzel. "It took me a long time to figure out my voice. I knew there was something in there, but I didn't know how to express it or show it to the world.

"I love the idea that they're spending all day learning that their voice deserves to be heard, and their story deserves to be told. It's a very empowering thing to do. The idea of feeling that you belong somewhere is very important at their age."

As for a return to Belvoir Terrace next summer, "If they'll have us, we'd love to come back," she said.

For Belvoir Terrace Camp Director Diane Marcus, the project has been "a natural blend of what we offer in the performing and visual arts. It's worked out really well, and we are definitely open to the prospect of working with Camp Broaderway again."

Marcus retained her teachers, counselors and other staff from the regular summer season to help create "a meaningful experience for girls who've never had the opportunity to be in a supportive environment for theater and the arts."

"The long-term goal is to make Camp BroaderWay an annual event," said Menzel, "to learn as much from the Belvoir staff as we can about running a camp, and eventually, one day, to have a property of my own. We have a lot to learn."


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