Tony Award-winning actress and singer/songwriter Idina Menzel to speak at Penn’s 267th Commencement

At the Commencement ceremony on Monday, May 15, Menzel will receive an honorary doctor of arts degree, along with the other 2023 Penn honorary degree recipients.

Idina Menzel.
 Tony Award-winning actress and singer/songwriter Idina Menzel. (Image: John Russo)

Tony Award-winning actress, singer/songwriter, producer, and author Idina Menzel will deliver the address at the 2023 University of Pennsylvania Commencement on Monday, May 15. The announcement was made today by Vice President and University Secretary Medha Narvekar

“We are extremely pleased that Idina Menzel will be addressing this year’s graduating class at Commencement,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “Ms. Menzel has contributed so much to America’s creative body of work and brought joy to us all. A tremendous role model for pursuing your passion with hard work and determination, she is also devoted to creating opportunities for others through the arts. I know it will be a memorable day for our students and their families.”

Menzel’s Broadway career began when she originated the role of Maureen in the popular musical “Rent.” She subsequently became widely known for playing the original Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the hit musical “Wicked,” for which she won a Tony Award in 2004.

The voice of Elsa in Disney’s Oscar-winning “Frozen,” Menzel sang the film’s song “Let It Go,” which won the 2014 Oscar for Best Original Song. The track reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, making her the first artist to achieve both a Billboard Top 10 hit and a Tony Award for acting.

Other screen and stage credits include “Uncut Gems,” “Frozen 2,” “Enchanted,” “Disenchanted,” “Skintight,” “If/Then,” “Hair,” and “Aida.” A songwriter and recording artist, Menzel has released multiple cast albums and solo albums. She is also the co-founder of A BroaderWay Foundation, which offers girls from underserved communities an outlet for self-expression and creativity through arts-centered programs.

In 2022, Menzel released the documentary, “Which Way to the Stage?” which followed her on a national tour as she juggled being a working mom with a grueling tour schedule and concludes with her lifelong dream of headlining Madison Square Garden. With her sister Cara Mentzel she also co-authored the children’s book “Loud Mouse.”

At the Commencement ceremony, Menzel will receive an honorary doctor of arts degree.

The other 2023 Penn honorary degree recipients will be Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Jean Bennett, Esther Duflo, and Brent Staples.

“We look forward to sharing the excitement of Commencement with our very deserving honorary degree recipients, including Idina Menzel, who will be our 2023 Penn Commencement speaker,” said Julie Platt, chair of the Trustee Honorary Degrees & Awards Committee. “Together, the Penn community will celebrate these eminent guests who define excellence in their fields and whose contributions to society set a powerful example for our graduates.”

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee
Nobel Prize-winning economist Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee. (Image: Bryce Vickmark)

A winner of the Infosys Prize and a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics (with Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer) for groundbreaking work in development economics research, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee is the Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2003, he co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) with Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan. He remains a co-director of J-PAL, a global research center that works to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. Banerjee has served on the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. He is a trustee of Save the Children USA, and chair of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel and the Global Advisory Board for COVID-19 Response of the government of West Bengal. The author of numerous articles, Banerjee has also written five books, including “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” and “Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems,” both co-authored with Duflo. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Econometric Society. Banerjee will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree. 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
Award-winning astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. (Image: Courtesy of the Royal Society of Edinburgh)

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, a pulsating radio star, as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in the late 1960s, is considered one of the most important astronomical advances of the 20th century. It introduced a new branch of astrophysics and earned her supervisor a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. Bell Burnell is currently a visiting professor of astrophysics and a professorial fellow at Mansfield College at the University of Oxford and the chancellor of the University of Dundee, Scotland. She has held roles in many areas of astronomy and was the first woman to serve as president of the Institute of Physics for the United Kingdom and Ireland (2008) and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2014). She also served as President of the U.K.’s Royal Astronomical Society and was co-creator of the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network. Her numerous honors include the 2017 Institute of Physics President’s Medal, the 2021 Copley Medal of the Royal Society, and the $3 million 2018 Breakthrough Prize, with which she established scholarships for underrepresented groups in physics. Queen Elizabeth II appointed her Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to astronomy in 1999 and promoted her to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007. She will receive an honorary doctor of sciences degree.


Jean Bennett.
F.M. Kirby Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine Jean Bennet. (Image: Dan Burke)

Jean Bennett is an internationally recognized expert in gene therapy and the F.M. Kirby Professor Emeritus of Ophthalmology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. She was recruited in 1992 to Penn’s Scheie Eye Institute and has spent the past three decades developing gene-based strategies for treating inherited retinal degenerations. During this time, Bennett was the scientific leader of a team that translated reversal of blindness in animal models to demonstration of efficacy and safety of gene therapy in children and adults. She was the scientific director of clinical studies at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that led to the first FDA-approved gene therapy product for a genetic disease (LuxturnaTM). She helped develop the primary outcome measure for that trial. Throughout her career she has trained hundreds of physician-scientists, many of whom are now leaders in translational research around the globe. She recently co-founded Opus Genetics to help patients and families who suffer from conditions so rare that they have been neglected by the pharmaceutical industry. Bennett has authored more than 120 peer-reviewed papers. Among her numerous awards are the Retina Research Foundation Pyron Award, the Smithsonian Ingenuity Award, the John Scott Award, and the Albert C. Muse Prize. Bennett will receive an honorary doctor of sciences degree. 

Esther Duflo.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. (Image: Bryce Vickmark)

Esther Duflo is a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics (with Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer) recognized “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” She is the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics in the Department of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2003, Duflo co-founded (with Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan) the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), whose mission is to ease global poverty. She remains a co-director of J-PAL. Duflo’s research focuses on understanding the economic lives of the poor, with the aim of helping design and evaluate social policies. She has worked on many issues, including health, education, financial inclusion, governance, and the environment. Duflo has received numerous honors including the A.SK Social Science Award (2015), the Infosys Prize (2014), the David N. Kershaw Award (2011), a John Bates Clark Medal (2010), and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship (2009). She co-authored “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” and “Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems” with Banerjee. Duflo is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. Duflo will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Brent Staples
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Brent Staples. (Image: Celeste Sloman)

Since 1990, Brent Staples has been a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, where he writes about politics and culture. In 2019, he received the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for a collection of essays that explores racial injustice in America. The Pulitzer Prize Board cited Staples’ “editorials written with extraordinary moral clarity that charted the racial fault lines in the United States at a polarizing moment in the nation’s history.” Before joining the editorial board, Staples served as an editor of The New York Times Book Review and an assistant editor for metropolitan news. He began his career as a writer in Chicago with two free weekly newspapers, The Chicago Journal and the Chicago Reader, before becoming a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2020, Staples was elected a fellow of the Society of American Historians. His 1994 memoir, “Parallel Time: Growing up in Black and White,” received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award. Staples has published and lectured widely and has been a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago, The Hoover Institution, and Yale University. Staples will receive an honorary doctor of letters degree. 

Idina Menzel will deliver the Commencement address at the University’s main ceremony at Frankin Field. Event details are available on Penn’s 2023 Commencement page. A Baccalaureate Ceremony will take place on campus in Irvine Auditorium on Tuesday, May 9 at 4:30 p.m. Baccalaureate is a 50-minute interfaith program that includes music, readings, and prayers.