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Idina Menzel: Are the best singers best for the national anthem?

Idina Menzel did a fine job with the 'Star-Spangled Banner' at the Super Bowl. But with such technically proficient singers like Menzel, the anthem lacks the drama – good and bad– that it has with singer-songwriters and pop stars. 

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    Idina Menzel sings the national anthem before the NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz.
    Michael Conroy/AP
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Idina Menzel, once famous primarily among musical theater fans, capped off a year when she became a (sometimes mangled) household name in the most fitting way possible: singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

How did she do? Well, fine. The slow notes in the beginning were a bit shaky, but the high notes  from “the rocket's red glare” on were a breeze. That’s no surprise: Ms. Menzel has made a career out of belting notes that would fry the vocal chords of mere mortals.  She’s been doing it on Broadway for nearly two decades, most notably in “Rent.” And “Wicked.”

“Let it Go,” the mega-hit song from the mega-hit movie “Frozen” was this generation’s “My Heart Will Go On”: It made Menzel and her belt all but inescapable.

So yes, it makes sense that she would sing the anthem at the Super Bowl. And like opera star Renee Fleming last year, she is more than technically capable of handling such a difficult song.

But knowing your National Anthem singer can do the thing in her sleep is, frankly, a little boring. With its one and a half octave range, tricky jumps, and not-so-user-friendly lyrics, "The Star Spangled Banner" is vocal music’s ultimate spectator sport.  When pop stars and singer-songwriters tackle it, there’s drama in whether they’ll 1) hit the notes, 2) remember all the words, and 3) sing it straight or offer up a new interpretation.  At its best (Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye), it can inspire happy tears. At its worst (Christina Aguilera forgetting the lyrics), disappointment and snickers.

With vocalists like Menzel, we know what we’re getting: a technically proficient but not particularly exciting, inspiring rendition. One particularly scathing review of Menzel’s anthem, from a Super Bowl watcher in Florida, called her “more interested in her ability to prolong the note than what the song represents.” It’s not that good singers can’t imbue the National Anthem meaning – Whitney Houston shattered any such notion long ago ­– but Menzel did it much better with “Let it Go,” and  “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. 

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