Slideshow | Photography by Tommy Leonardi C’89
Broadway veteran Idina Menzel sings for the Class of 2023—including our reporter—and encourages them to use their own voices too.
Do you think she’s going to sing?
That was the question on everyone’s mind in the days leading up to Idina Menzel’s Penn Commencement address on May 15. As the Broadway actress and singer took her place at the podium, whispered guesses for “Defying Gravity” or “Let it Go” murmured among the roughly 6,000 graduates sitting on Franklin Field—myself included.
The answer was yes—three times, in fact. Never a full song, only a few bars that weaved into the speech, but each poignant and meaningful.
Before the graduates could hear Menzel speak and sing, we marched down Locust Walk and into the stadium—a trickier than usual procession because of the presence of President Joe Biden Hon’13 and First Lady Jill Biden, who were on hand to support their graduating granddaughter, Roberta “Maisy” Biden C’23.
With heightened security in place, everyone was required to walk through a metal detector, and balloons, signs, and other paraphernalia were confiscated at the checkpoint. But many of the students who got through security first made their way to the edge of the field, leaning in to capture a selfie with the president in the background. (In the days following the ceremony, Instagram was flooded with grainy, zoomed-in shots of Biden, clad in aviator sunglasses, waving stoically in the corner of the image. Some of the pictures were captioned “We did it, Joe!”—a reference to the viral video of Vice President Kamala Harris calling Biden after they won the 2020 election.)
The ceremony also marked Liz Magill’s first Commencement as Penn’s president. Her message: the Class of 2023’s strength lies in our collective power, that we are stronger when we support each other. She had every graduate rise and face the stands to give a standing ovation to the friends and family who were there to support us. “Our ability to do the big things, things great and good, depends on the community around us,” Magill said.
“Think about the pandemic and how you persevered,” she continued. It was hard not to. Many members of the Class of 2023 didn’t finish our first year on campus because of the COVID-19 shutdown. Then our sophomore year was entirely online. Many took semesters, or even whole academic years off—several classmates who entered with me became part of the Class of 2024 or even 2025.
Coming together again did feel like a triumph—that we could once again have some community when a few short years ago it felt so irreparably broken. A friend sitting next to me marveled, “This is probably the first time we’ve all been together since NSO [New Student Orientation].” At the end of her address, Magill reminded us: “Graduates, always remember that community is our force multiplier. It is our place to stand and our means to move the world.”
Menzel opened her address by asking graduates to shout, sing, or sign themselves. “Pretend you’re at the Annenberg Center and the curtain just fell. Pretend you’re at the Palestra and Kayla Padilla [W’23] just sank a three-pointer,” Menzel said, shouting out a graduating women’s basketball star. (A few rows ahead of me, one student dressed like Elsa from Frozen—one of Menzel’s defining roles—stood, raised their arms in the air, and cheered.)
“Since I was a small child, people have told me that my power is my voice,” Menzel continued. “And now I know, Class of 2023, we definitely have that in common.”
Twenty years earlier, though, Menzel said that her voice failed her, during auditions for the role of Elphaba in Wicked. As she went to hit the high note of the song “Defying Gravity,” her voice cracked, she recalled, singing to the crowd for the first time, intentionally off key and cracking. “I was so mad at myself. I shouted—profanely and loudly. I fought the instinct to run. Then I took a deep breath, looked at the accompanist, and I said, ‘We’re gonna do that again.’ And then I nailed it.” Menzel not only got the part in Wicked but won a Tony Award for it, hitting that high note “more times than I can count” while performing the show eight times a week for years (but also missing the note a few times, too).
“Look, we are all human,” Menzel continued. “Even you, Class of 2023, with your world-class education and your relentless determination. Your business might struggle. Your experiment might falter. Your voice might crack.” But if you never try to use your voice, you’ll never hit that note. Practice and repetition should be a guiding force, always. “Feel whatever you feel, all that you feel, and then keep going.”
Later in her address, Menzel sang for a second time, the same song she sang in Pittsburgh in 2018 after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting—“No Day but Today” from the Broadway musical Rent, in which she played Maureen.Her voice getting soft, Menzel sang a few bars:
“There’s only now
There’s only here
Give in to love
Or live in fear.”
“Those words took on new meaning that day,” Menzel said, before confronting us with questions: “What will you do when you have to repeat yourself? What will you do when you have to persist?”
Menzel pleaded for the Class of 2023 to “play every role you were put on this earth to play.” After years of studying, writing papers, weathering a pandemic, fighting for community, it was time to step onto the stage of life. “You know all your lines,” she said. “You are ready to play your part.”
Not everything will be perfectly scripted, she added, and “a bit of stage fright” is to be expected. But all the emotion, all the fear, all the tension is what allows us to make sound, to make air flow over the cords of ligament and muscle inside us, she said. “And when you harness that tension, you can sigh deeply, or speak out loudly. You can even sing.”
And then Menzel sang, for a third and final time—not the notorious “Let It Go” from Frozen (which she earlier apologized to the graduates for having to hear over and over from younger siblings and cousins) but a few bars from the Beatles classic “Let It Be.”
“And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow
Let it be.”
With the sun shining on Franklin Field, Menzel bore one overarching message for the graduates: “Don’t hold back. Harness any tension you feel. And let your voice be heard.”
—Meg Gladieux C’23 GEd’24
Idina Menzel | Honorary Doctor of Arts
Abhijit Banerjee | Honorary Doctor of Laws
Jean Bennett | Honorary Doctor of Sciences
Jocelyn Bell Burnell | Honorary Doctor of Sciences
Esther Duflo | Honorary Doctor of Laws
Brent Staples | Honorary Doctor of Letters