Mandy Gonzalez isn't surprised that many of the student activists behind March for Our Lives have theater backgrounds. "Kids that are in theater, they know how to stand up in front of an audience," the Broadway legend tells host Alicia Menendez in the fifth episode of Latina to Latina. "They know how to express their feelings."
Gonzalez would know. Even if you're not a Broadway obsessive, you'll be familiar with her roles: Elphaba in Wicked, Nina Rosario in In The Heights and now Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. She's also released her own solo album, Fearless, and is the founder of an online empowerment community called #FearlessSquad.
She wasn't always so free of fear. At 23, she picked up a copy of New York Magazine and read a scathing review of a recent performance. "It devastated me in a way that I didn't realize that I needed to be devastated," she tells Menendez.
The experience changed her. "I realized that that’s when I had to fight," she says. "Because there were a lot of women before me that had to fight a lot harder. And I wasn’t going to let somebody that talked about the way that I look affect my love of what I do."
Gonzalez also knew it wasn't just about her. "To open the door for them, open the door for people who look different, or have Gonzalez as a last name but don’t really fit in any box..." She considers. "I was going to create my own box."
In a candid conversation with self-described Broadway nerd Menendez, Gonzalez reveals what it's like to star in Hamilton, how Lin-Manuel Miranda is like a "brother" to her, and how being both Mexican-American and Jewish informed her roles.
And here's the full transcript of the episode.
Music fade in.
Alicia: Welcome to Latina to Latina, a Bustle podcast. I’m your host, Alicia Menendez.
Clip of Mandy: I realized that that’s when I had to fight. Because there were a lot of women before me, that had to fight a lot harder. And I wasn’t going to let somebody that talked about the way that I look affect my love of what I do.
Alicia: You’ve heard that voice, yes, you have. You’ve maybe even sung along with her. I have been obsessed with Mandy Gonzalez since I heard her on the original cast recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights - where she was my favorite character, Nina Rosario. Since then, she’s been Elphaba in Wicked, released a solo album, and now, she’s starring as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. And no, she can’t get you tickets.
Alicia: So, confession. I am a musical theater nerd.
Mandy: Really? Oh, this is good.
Mandy: This is good. This will make for an easy conversation.
Alicia: I remember a turning point for me. I think I was in a production of Annie, and there was a mom of one of the other kids who was a costume designer on Rent.
Alicia: And she said ... I was like, "Oh, you know I want to grow up and I want to do musical theater and ..." And she was like, "Okay, if you can do anything else. If you can imagine yourself doing anything else-
Mandy: You're like six.
Mandy: You're like, "Oh, but I have dreams" and she's like, "Listen, kid. You got bills."
Alicia: And she was like, "If you can imagine doing anything else, then you should do that." I actually thought, as harsh as that might have been for like ... I was probably nine or ten. There is a truth to it.
Mandy: Yeah. I think it's a hard life, and it's a small community. And I don't realize it all the time, because I've been doing it on Broadway for 17 years, which is amazing. But I don't think about it on the daily, like, always how fortunate I am. Because, eight shows a week, you get tired and all this stuff. But then when you do sit down and think about it. You're like...
Alicia: It's amazing.
Mandy: Like I was chosen. And that's an incredible thing. But when I go and teach kids in master class and they say, "You know, my parents are worried that I want a life in the arts. And I'm not going to make any money." And I always think, you just never know. There are so many things that you can do in the arts that kids don't know about like create a podcast, or make a YouTube channel that is uniquely you, of... Because I think a life in training in the arts will serve you in anything that you do. Your theater training, I think makes you better at what you do. And seeing all these kids in Florida speaking out... Most of them are theater kids.
Alicia: About gun violence.
Mandy: Yes, and I think ... I wasn't surprised, because kids that are in theater, they know how to stand up in front of an audience and they know how to express their feelings. So, I think training in the arts will serve you in whatever you do.
Alicia: So when was the moment for you when you were like, "This is the thing I have to do"?
Mandy: Well, let's see ... pretty much since childhood, because I'm the youngest of three and both my parents worked. My mom worked full-time as well as my father. My father worked, like, three jobs, and it was my way to get attention, was the fact that I had this talent and I could sing. Because otherwise it was like, "Mandy, wait your turn." I was that kid that was like, "Wait for me. Don't forget me."
And if you meet me, I'm the first to be like, "What are you guys doing? What's happening?" I still have that thing inside of me that's like, "Don't leave me out."
And so, I discovered this talent that I had and this love that I had of singing at a young age. And that people would give me things to do it. You know, like up the street people would ask me to come and sing for their Christmas party and they would give me a gift afterwards. I'd be like, "This is great!"
And my sister had really bad stage fright and she got piano lessons. So, for her recitals ... she didn't want to do them. So, my grandma said, "Well, we'll just have Mandy sing to whatever song you're playing and that'll be" ... So, my sister felt more comfortable doing the recital and I thought that was great. And I got the top hat with sequins. And my art became that, and then I kept performing.
And it really wasn't until I went to this camp when I was in high school. I had a singing teacher that was teaching at this camp called Broadway Theater Project. Gregory Hines taught there and Ann Reinking, and I got a full scholarship to go. And it wasn't until I went there ... because, all of a sudden, I was no longer the best. I was average. There were all these kids that could do exactly what I did and were just as good. And they could also dance. You know, I took the lessons, but I never excelled.
Alicia: You weren't a triple threat?
Mandy: I wasn't a triple threat. I never got the splits. My double turns, especially now, my double turns, like, horrible. But I just never had that love of dance. And so then I went to this camp where everybody was good and all of a sudden this competitiveness and this ambition became, "Well, I'm going to do this. And I want to be just as good, and I have to get better." So, after that camp, I went back and I decided at that time, that that's what I want to do with my life. So, when I was about 15, that's when I was like, "This is what I want to do." Through my competition, and that's also part of being the youngest kid. You also can be super competitive.
Alicia: Were your parents supportive?
Mandy: Very, but they were like, "What is this? I don't understand." My father was in a band when he was younger. It's kind of a long story. My dad was drafted to Vietnam. He met my mom as a pen pal during the war in Vietnam. She was a kid, a Jewish girl from the Valley. And they fell in love through letters. And when he came back he showed up on her doorstep, and they were from two different worlds. My mom's family wasn't that happy with her marrying somebody outside of the culture, as well as my father's family. So, my mom decided that she was going to go with her heart, and she just kind of took off. But through their love, they brought peace to the family, and I never knew any of that growing up. I just thought everybody loved us, and all that kind of stuff. But they really sacrificed a lot for us.
So, they were supportive and even now, they come to Broadway and my dad, he has a hard time sitting down in the theater, so he sometimes paces in the back. But I think they're just kind of like, "Whoa, who is this?" But proud, very proud.
Alicia: How did you get there?
Mandy: A lot of hard work and a lot of fearlessness. Because when I moved to New York, I wasn't really ready, I was that kid that didn't want to leave home. So, I went to school in town. I went to Cal Arts, and it's one of those things when you think that you shouldn't be doing something, and then opportunity happens and it's where you should be, and so, Bette Midler, and she was looking for new Harlettes while I was in school. So, I went and I auditioned, and I got the job. And I went on tour with Bette Midler, at 19, for six months and we went all around the United States and Canada.
Then we stopped in New York City for two weeks. And I came back and I saved my money from that tour and I moved to New York.
And I just kind of hit the pavement. I didn't have anything, everybody was like, "What are you doing? Why would you go this far?" And I was kind of the one that went the furthest from my family. But after six months of hitting the pavement, I got my first job off-Broadway, in a show called Eli's Coming. And I ended up winning an Obie Award, which is an Off Broadway Excellence Award.
And it kind of started my career. Stuart Oken, who was at Disney at the time, came and saw me in that show and hired me for Aida. And I became Idina Menzel's standby, and it was like this lightning that was just kind of pushing me along.
And then I auditioned for a show called Dance of the Vampires, and I got it. I played the role of Sarah. And then it was a show that got the worst possible reviews ever, but it taught me so much, like going through that process. Because up until that point, it was like I was just on this journey. And when you get something like that, you're like, "Oh." It stops you and it makes you go, "Oh, am I going to fight through this and keep going? Am I going to go through this with my path, or should I go this way." Some people never did a show again after that show. And I decided that that's when I was going to build my own Fearless Squad for myself. I stopped by Union Square, because I wanted to see maybe there was one paper that said something nice about me. Nobody had, like, bashed me at that point. And I looked in New York Magazine, and it said, "Mandy Gonzalez lacks in acting, singing, and looks." And it devastated me. You know, I was 23, and it devastated me in a way that I didn't realize that I needed to be devastated.
Because, I had to come to terms with the fact that he said something that I kind of always felt about myself. Being somebody who comes from two different cultures and never really feeling like you fit in, all of a sudden this person was saying this thing that, "Oh, I was never that beauty."
Alicia: You were an impostor.
Mandy: Yes. Like I was always this person that was trying to fit in. And so in that moment of seeing that review and being devastated, and going home to my husband, and him being like, "You've got to toughen up." I realized that that’s when I had to fight. Because there were a lot of women before me, that had to fight a lot harder. And I wasn’t going to let somebody that talked about the way that I look affect my love of what I do. And so I thought that this was my way to propel myself forward and to take the blows and fight, and to take the other people behind me who were going to be fighting as well. And to open the door for them, open the door for people who look different, or have Gonzalez as a last name but don’t really fit in any box. I was going to create my own box.
Alicia: When you talk about the two cultures. So, your dad is Mexican American. Was your dad born here?
Mandy: Uh, yes. My dad was born in Texas, but some of his siblings were born in Mexico.
Alicia: And then your mom is Jewish.
Mandy: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yeah.
Alicia: How much of that is who you are?
Mandy: All of it. All of it, because I think the beautiful thing about being mixed is that you have to learn from a very young age, how to stand up for yourself. Because, I think everybody wants to put you in a box. You know, well, you're different. Your last name's Gonzalez, but you're here at temple, and "Oh, you don't look Jewish," or making different kinds of jokes because they think that I'm not part of that culture. And really having to learn and educate people about both cultures, and having to know both stories of where my ancestors come from.
Alicia: Well, it's interesting when I think about some of the roles that you're most known for. They're all insider/outsider. Right? Like with Nina there's a privilege differential.
Mandy: Yes, definitely.
Alicia: She's a girl from Washington Heights who ends up at Stanford and that becomes a big part of her identity and the show's identity. With Elphaba, obviously there's this talent that she has and this way that other people perceive her that is very different than how she perceives herself. And then with Angelica, I mean to be a smart, ambitious woman at a time when women did not have ...
Mandy: A voice.
Alicia: Yeah. I feel like that is one thread that moves through all of those characters.
Mandy: Definitely, and I think that I've been lucky to work with Tommy Kail on both In the Heights, and Hamilton. And I think Tommy ... when he casts a show he casts for ability, but he also casts for the humanity. And he sees those traits within that person, because it just makes it easier. It makes is easier to live in those people for that long. And with Nina Rosario, I was Nina.
Clip of Mandy singing “Breathe”: When I was a child I stayed wide awake/ Climbed to the highest place/ On every fire escape/ Restless to climb/ I got every scholarship/ Saved every dollar/ The first to go to college/ How do I tell them why/ I'm coming back home/ With my eyes on the horizon/ Just me and the GWB/ Asking, gee Nina/ What'll you be?
Alicia: Like, the idea of her just climbing onto that fire escape and just wanting so much for herself. And looking around and not really having the same people around her who had those opportunities. Right?
Mandy: Right, but also feeling that pressure of doing it for everybody. Doing it for your parents, your grandparents, having that on you. And feeling that weight, but also feeling that pride. So, I think, for Nina, I was her.
Alicia: It's so funny for those of us who fall in love with a soundtrack, because I feel like I know you.
Alicia: Because, I've listened to that soundtrack so many times.
Mandy: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Alicia: And there is, I think when you originate a role, it's hard as a viewer to separate out who's Nina and who's Mandy.
Alicia: So in my mind, you basically are Nina.
Mandy: It's interesting that you say that, because this crazy experience happened to me yesterday. I was doing something for women's month at The Broadway League and I exited the elevator and as I'm walking forward, all of a sudden Lea Salonga is right there in front of me. And when I was about maybe 14 or 15, I first heard Miss Saigon. And it was one of those soundtracks that I cried with, and I was like, "I just love this so much." And would listen to it all the time.
So when I saw her she put out her hand to shake my hand, and I was like, "Lea, it's so great to see you." And I like gave her a hug. And then I was like, "Uh, this is not right." I shouldn't have done that. I'm such a theater geek. I was like, "Oh my gosh." So then she was like, "I just saw you in Hamilton." I'm like, "Oh, thank you so much." All of a sudden I'm at the same level, but not. And so I know what that feels like, because I grew up loving soundtracks.
Mandy: You know, when I first met Priscilla Lopez and she played my mom in In the Heights. I was like ...
Alicia: They don't have bobsleds in San Juan.
Mandy: Exactly. I was like, "I know your whole story." ... I sang "Nothing" when I was like eight years old. You know, because it was the one song-
Alicia: The only song...
Mandy: The only song for Latinas.
Alicia: That and West Side Story, that's like all you get.
Mandy: Oh yeah. And I did West Side Story in high school.
Alicia: Like how many times can I play Anita, people?
Mandy: I know. I know. But when I met Chita Rivera it was like ... And all of us at In the Heights, we grew up with everybody.
Alicia: So, let me ask you. Being Mexican American from California, what was it like to embody a Puerto Rican from New York?
Mandy: Well, it's interesting because I always thought ... Because when you are in California, the people I was around were Mexican. So, it wasn't until I moved to New York that I really had a Puerto Rican experience. And it happened when I got a job. My first job was at Dean and Deluca. I got a job there because of the show Felicity. I thought, if Felicity can work here, this is where I should be working. I was so psyched to get that job.
And then they put me in the basement to, like, bag rich people's groceries. And to put really fancy baskets together. But while I was doing this, the people that I worked with were Puerto Rican. And they were like, "Oh, you're Latina. Where are you from?" And I'm like, "I'm Mexican American." And they were like, “Alright, well we're Puerto Rican and let me teach you about my culture."
And so that was that experience that I'm so grateful for it, the New York experience.
Alicia: And then, Hamilton.
Alicia: What is it like to walk into a role that someone else has originated.
Mandy: Well, I think there's a couple of things, because I did that with Wicked. But Hamilton was really a homecoming, because I'm at the same theater that I was at In the Heights. I'm with the same creative team. And I saw Hamilton at the Public, and when I saw it I was like, "I want to be a part of this. How do I be a part of this? You guys, wait for me." I was busy. I had a kid and all that kind of stuff. But I was like, "Come on, you guys." You know these are like my brothers. Put me in. Put me in, coach. And when I got the call from Tommy that was like, Renee's leaving, and would you like to come in. There was nothing but love. You know, I had so much admiration for Renee and what she created. And when you create a role, it's yours forever.
Alicia: But how then do you make sure that you are performing Angelica and not performing Renee performing Angelica?
Mandy: Because, I don't think you can. You know, if you're an actor, if you're an artist, there's no way. But the role will always be Renee's. She put her stamp on that and she went through the readings and ... It's all the things I went through with In the Heights. You know, Nina will always be mine, and it's just what it is.
She will always be a part of that, whenever anybody sings that song, because she helped figure it out. So in an homage to her, I tip my hat. And I realized that I have to bring myself to the role and I have to figure out what I connect with. And that's the beautiful thing about Tommy is that he wants you to bring your humanity to Angelica. And I think that I knew at this point, what that was. To be a woman of ambition. To be a woman that also had a family. Had duties. And to be selfish and selfless at the same time. I don't think I would have known how to do that before I became a mother, but it's just at that right place, right time. I was so ready for this role, because I'm somebody that looks for the greater good, looks to make my voice heard when it's needed, and knows when to step back and listen.
But I didn't know that at 23 when I was just starting in this business. But I know that now.
Alicia: So what is it that you think you bring to it?
Mandy: I bring a sense of vulnerability to Angelica and a sense of wisdom, you get to go through the whole arc with me of what it's like to be a young girl of 16, 17, when she meets Hamilton, to an older woman who is on the rafters looking down on Eliza and on her sister. Because I think that as women we have so many roles that we play. You know? And I think to be able to do it all in one show is kind of incredible. But I think that the way it's written, you have to. And I think that you have to pay the homage to Angelica, because women aren't written about in history books, certain women, there are certain women that are, but during that time it's all men that created the history.
But I think that the fact that Angelica wrote the letters to Hamilton. And those letters are what Ron Chernow found and put in his book. She wanted to have a voice. You know, there's a beautiful painting of Angelica, where she is looking behind her. Her nanny or whatever is holding her child, and she's reaching for her child, but at the same time she's looking at whoever is painting her. So, I think that that says a lot, and that informed me a lot about who she was. Because she's somebody who has a love of her family, but also an ambition to have her voice be heard. So, I think that the fact that she did write letters and that we all can hear, I think is a blessing.
Alicia: What is it like being on that stage every night?
Mandy: Oh. It's magic. Before the show starts every night, people are cheering. That never happens. Honestly, I've never been in a show where the lights go out and people scream, from the beginning.
And you just feel like, "Oh, I'm part of something bigger than myself." Because of the relevance of this show, right now, yesterday, tomorrow. This show will be relevant not just because of the history that it tells, but because of the history that we're building right now as a country. So I think that people come for inspiration. I think people come for healing some nights. It definitely is a healing experience for myself, because it gives me hope when I feel like there's not a lot of hope.
So I think that it does that for a lot of people. To be part of something like that is once in a lifetime.
Alicia: You’ve described it as a train that leaves the station and you need to grab on.
Mandy: Yeah, that’s like Lin.
Alicia: As a person?
Mandy: As a person. Yeah. Since I met Lin, he's like a light and you have to follow it or he's gone. But that's the beautiful thing about Hamilton is that it's brought this light to the world. It's brought him to so many people's living rooms. Because he deserves to be there, and he deserves it because he will better your life, your experience because of his heart.
Alicia: What was the experience then like of putting out your solo album, and getting to actually just be Mandy Gonzalez?
Mandy: It was thrilling, because I've always wanted to make an album. Ever since I was a kid, I've always wanted to ... all the albums that I've listened to. I wanted to be one of those voices that other people listened to and listened to for hope and to fill their day with joy. It was thrilling because I do a lot of concerts, as well as Hamilton. So on my night off I go and I play different clubs in New York. And the beautiful thing about concerts is that you get to tell your story. And so when I became a mom, all of a sudden you're in a different category, you're in a different box where people are like, "You can't do that, 'cause you're a mom, or blah blah blah blah."
Alicia: What can't you do?
Mandy:: I remember going to an audition and somebody would be like, "How old's your kid now?". I'm like, "Oh, she's three months." "Oh, okay." And so all of a sudden, you see this thought process that happens like, "Oh, your kid's three months, which means you're going to have a hard time getting child care" and all those kind of things that maybe not, but that's what it feels like when somebody asks you how old your kid is as you're auditioning for a job.
So, it was really powerful. It's the same thing when somebody says no. You have to figure out how to fight. And I had to start creating things for myself, because I couldn't get a job. So I created concerts, and I realized that I really loved it. Because I loved creating narratives through songs. And so I created a whole concert life for myself where I did concerts in all different places all around the world, and played with incredible symphonies. And then Hamilton called, and I came back to Broadway.
Alicia: Do you have days where you're like, this could just all be over?
Mandy: Of course, every day. Every day, because there's no job after this one. As an artist you live day-to-day, but there's something really beautiful about that, because you're in charge of your own destiny. And it's really up to you how far it's going to go. If you want to stop, you can stop. But if you want to keep going, create your platform. Stop waiting for other people to do it. And really it wasn't until I got older that I realized that, that I can use my creative mind to make opportunities for myself. Because the only person that's really going to say no is you.
Music fade out.
Mandy: You know? And for me that would be something that I would be sad about. Once I stop creating things and using my imagination to make opportunity for myself.
Alicia: That’s it for now, but we want to hear from you. Email us at email@example.com, send us ideas for awesome guests or whatever it is you’re thinking about right now. Remember to subscribe to Latina to Latina on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. And please leave a review… we love hearing from you. Latina to Latina is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co., mixed by Oluwakemi Aladesuyi, with assistance from Anna Parsons. Our executive editor is Emily Anne Epstein, our editorial supervisor is Rosanne Salvatore, and we gotta give special thanks to Jenny Hollander!
Menendez, Alicia, host. “Hamilton’s Mandy Gonzalez.” Latina To Latina, Bustle, BDG Media, April 2017. www.bustle.com.