Mandy Gonzalez is fearlessly making her dreams come true.
16 years after her Broadway debut as Idina Menzel’s standby in Aida, the renowned stage actress has just released her first solo recording, Fearless. Best known for originating the role of Nina in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning smash In The Heights, Gonzalez’ illustrious Broadway highlights also include Wicked, Lennon, and Dance of the Vampires. Today, she’s starring in a little show you may have heard of called Hamilton, where she’s once more tackling Miranda’s prolific work.
While Gonzalez’ stage credits could already act as a list of lifetime achievements, the 39-year-old performer has always had a goal of putting together an album of original music. Released on October 20 via Arts Music, Fearless is that record. The collection of songs on the album combine Gonzalez’ signature musical theater sound with pop and R&B to form a genre defying, highly personal, daring, and brilliant debut.
I spoke with Gonzalez about the release of Fearless, collaborating with Lin-Manuel again (both on stage and on her album), her journey as a performer, her new concert residency at NYC’s Café Carlyle, the debate about diversity on Broadway, and more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: What does being fearless mean to you?
MANDY GONAZALEZ: It means a lot of things. Lin-Manuel Miranda asked me that same question when I told him about my album and how I wanted to call it Fearless. I started this thing called the #FearlessSquad earlier in the year. It’s a hashtag that started because I felt very overwhelmed looking at social media every day. I wanted to create something that was a place of belonging. I wanted it to be something people could rely on to have a squad that would stand behind them if they were going through anything in their lives.
I posted #FearlessSquad with a picture of some people from my fearless squad in it. Within hours, thousands of people were asking me how they could be part of the squad. That day, they also named me the “#FearlessSquad mother.” It’s like I have a new child of my own because I felt like I could take that on!
We’re there to support each other’s dreams. We talk about everything – good and bad times. But I know that I wouldn’t be anywhere without my squad behind me. I wanted the people that didn’t have a squad to be part of mine. That’s really how Fearless started.
I’ve been doing a lot of concerts in New York City, and when I was approached by [executive producers] Sandy Jacobs and Lou D’Ambrosio to make an album, I felt ready to do it. I got in touch with [producer] Bill Sherman and I said, “This is what I want to do. I started this #FearlessSquad and I want to make an album that provides inspiration for them to feel like they can do anything.” He said “that’s amazing” and “let’s call Lin to create the title track.” So I said, “Okay!”
I was also thinking about how my parents met as pen pals. My father was drafted for the Vietnam War when he was 18. My father is Mexican-American and grew up as a migrant worker following the crop all through the United States. My mother grew up as a Jewish girl in the Valley. She wanted to join the Peace Corps, but her parents said “no,” and so she decided that she was going to write to soldiers that didn’t have anybody to write to. And my dad was one of them.
Yeah, they met and they fell in love through letters! When my father came home, he wasn’t really welcomed in a lot of places. That happens a lot during war or hard times. He was welcomed home but he felt like he had changed. He destroyed everything after the war except for my mother’s address. So he got in a car and he showed up on her doorstep. My mom kept every single letter that my father sent her. I didn’t learn about this story until I was about eight-years-old. She told me that the letters were at the very top of her closet in boxes. There were about three big boxes in her closet, but she warned me that I should never read or look at them because they were private. But of course because I’m super nosy and I’m the youngest child, I read every single letter. I got to learn about their love, their differences, and how they came together fearlessly. I told Lin that story and within two weeks, he wrote this incredible song, “Fearless.”
That’s an amazing story.
Thank you! I think so.
You made your Broadway debut in 2001. Why is now the perfect time to release your first solo recording?
Well, you have a lot of goals when you start in this business. One of my goals was always to make an album and to make something for people to listen to. I’ve always wanted to provide a voice for those that needed one at certain times. But I think that I got busy, you know? I was doing a lot of Broadway shows. I kind of went from Broadway show to Broadway show, and when you’re in that kind of world, you’re playing so many different characters and you don’t really think about having your own voice. At least, I didn’t at that time.
I’ve always wanted to have an album so I could do concerts outside of shows. And I love concerts! I love putting them together. I love the intimacy of the audience and just being able to be myself. Through the years, I’ve been doing that in New York City. I did In The Heights, then I did Wicked, and then I took a step away to have a child. I decided that’s what I wanted to do for a good amount of time and I didn’t know what would happen when I left.
I had to step away and really have my dedication be to my family because that’s what I wanted and that’s what worked for me. It was interesting because when I was in Wicked, I felt like I was at the top of my game. But for some reason, it wasn’t enough because I wanted something else. I wanted to have a family and a personal life. I wasn’t ready to go back to work for a while. I didn’t want to leave my kid. I was so happy to have a child and I was so lucky that it happened for my husband and me. But there was something missing. I didn’t know what that was. I talked to my mom about it, and she was like, “Well, you have to sing! You have to go and perform.”
So I got a job doing concerts, singing with symphonies and things like that. When I left my kid for the first time, I cried on the plane. I was really sad. Then I got on stage and started to sing and I felt like I was home. So I think my journey has provided me with a very strong voice to know who I am and to be ready to make an album for people to hear who I am. I had to find myself before that happened.
As I was doing concerts and life was happening (my daughter is now five and we’re busy!), I got a call from [director] Thomas Kail, who asked “Hey, do you want to come and do Hamilton?” And I immediately was like, “Yes!” So I came here and I’m in the same place where I was a decade ago – in the same theater where I performed In The Heights, with people that became my family, and in the same dressing room. But I’m a different person. I’ve had all these different experiences. So while I’m in Hamilton, on Monday nights I’m doing concerts because that’s what I love to do as well. And as all that was happening, I had somebody say, “Do you want to make an album?” I finally felt ready to say yes and this is what I want to do, this is who I want to work with, and these are the songs. But it took me all that time to really be ready for that. Long story short!
Why do you think that you and Lin have collaborated so frequently over the years? What is it about his songwriting that draws you to his music so often?
I think Lin writes from the heart and I sing from the heart. I remember hearing the songs he wrote for Nina in In The Heights for the first time and I cried because they were so, so beautiful. I felt like he was speaking only to me. Sometimes when you listen to Lin’s music, you feel like he’s just talking to you. That’s part of his magic.
I also think that he knows me as both a singer and a person. He’s chosen me to be this vessel for his writing, which is a beautiful thing. It’s hard for me to give myself props but I think that I can translate it like nobody else. I don’t think about the notes. I think about the story and I think about the emotion. And I think that’s how he writes. When he writes, he’s not thinking, “Oh, now she’s gonna hit this note.” No. It’s about what this person is going through and what they want to say. When he wrote the song “Fearless,” I was like, “Wow! He did it again!”
Speaking of Lin, one of the songs on the album is a new version of your signature In The Heights song, “Breathe.” How is this version of the song different from the one that your fans already know? And what inspired you to reinterpret it?
When I sat down with Bill, I said that I wanted to do an interpretation of this song as I am now. I did In The Heights 10 years ago and I’ve grown up since. I wanted to lower the key. I wanted it to come from my perspective. In a little bit of ways, it’s now as if I’m singing it to my own daughter.
That’s the great thing about beautiful songs. They stay with you. The beautiful thing about concerts and making music is that they grow with you. A beautiful song is a beautiful song. But you change. I’m not the young girl coming home from college anymore. I have those same wants and those same desires, but it comes from a different and wiser perspective.
In addition to Lin, the record features original songs from some of the most recognizable names in the industry, such as Jennifer Nettles and Tom Kitt. How did it feel to have such A-list talent write music for your first album? What was the creative process like working with them on constructing these songs?
It felt great! When you’re making an album, you have to be fearless and you have to just go for it. My way of doing that was collaborating with people that I admire. I would write to them and say, “I’m doing this album, will you write a song? And this is what I’m thinking.” Sometimes you worry about just asking that question. Sometimes when you do, you don’t even know what the possibilities could be. So I took a chance and I was fearless. And they all said yes! That was an incredible thing.
I chose all of these writers because they all write right from the heart. They write about the human condition so beautifully and they don’t sugarcoat things. For instance, I’m such a huge fan of Jennifer Nettles’ work. Her songs make you feel like she’s singing just to you or like her songs are just for you. That’s why I knew I had to sing the song she wrote, “Life Is Sweet,” with Christopher Jackson. I knew that he knew what it’s like to lose something and have to go on. It was incredible.
In The Heights is set to be adapted into a film soon. Aside from yourself, are there any actors that you would you like to see play the role of Nina on screen?
Oh, well, I don’t think myself. I don’t look like I’m in college anymore! I really like Auli’i Cravalho from Moana. She’s really beautiful and so talented. I think she would be good.
I just love In The Heights because I think that it will bring work to so many Latinos in the industry, as it did for Broadway. It employs a lot of Latinos and it allows people to see us in the light that we should be seen in: as just people. So I would like to see somebody like that – someone who is good in their heart – to play Nina.
What can fans expect from your residency at NYC’s Café Carlyle (now through November 4)?
Oh, I’m so excited! They can just expect a good time and lots of incredible dresses. They can expect songs from the album and an incredible band. They can expect to get dressed up and if they can’t get to the Café Carlyle, we will be posting what it’s like at the shows on social media so they can feel like they’re there with me!
You also recently worked with Postmodern Jukebox and Tony DeSare on a cover of “Despacito.” How did this collaboration come about and do you plan to continue recording with them?
I do! I love Scott Bradlee. I’ve been a fan of Postmodern Jukebox for a long time. I worked with Tony DeSare this past July 4th when we did a concert with the Philadelphia Pops. It was amazing. Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, and Paula Abdul were in the concert. It was like all of my childhood dreams coming true. It was the best concert ever!
When Tony DeSare and I met, I was like, “We should really do something together.” And he agreed. So I said, “I’d like to take a Spanish song and put a different twist on it – maybe with an old school vibe, kind of like Postmodern Jukebox?” And he was said, “Okay, well why don’t I just call Postmodern Jukebox?” And I said, “Oh! You know them?” It turns out that he and Scott Bradlee have been friends for a long time.
Then Tony had the great idea about doing “Despacito”. Plus, it was the number one hit of the summer, and it had Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi, and Daddy Yankee. We wanted to pay tribute to that in our own way. So Tony and I put a little spin on it, which was awesome!
What’s the most rewarding part of being a part of the juggernaut that is Hamilton?
Being back with my family. I’m in a place where I feel welcomed. I also love doing a show that is so needed right now all over the country. It’s so important. One of my favorite things to do is #EduHam, where we bring in 11th graders from all over the New York City public school system. They pay $10 and they come to see a matinee performance. They all see it together. One of my favorite things is performing for them, but they also get to write their own pieces before they see the show. They come in at like 10:00 AM and they cheer on their fellow classmates. The stuff that these students do is just mind-blowing and is so inspiring for the next generation of writers.
Hamilton has done some incredible things and has set the bar to new levels all the way around. Not just artistically, but what it is doing socially too. It’s so important. I’m very proud to be a part of it.
The current administration is threatening some of the most basic and fundamental rights of American citizens, including (but not limited to) women’s rights, having a free press and the right to peacefully protest. What can audience members of Hamilton learn from the show that can be applied to the fight against tyranny in today’s White House?
For me, the show is an inspiring thing to be a part of every night and to watch. It shows how people from different places and with different views can come together to create an incredible nation. It also shows that there have always been times of turmoil in our country. It’s never been an even thing, but we get through it because we’re strong.
As an actress, how is the role of Angelica Schuyler different from some of the other characters you’ve played on stage?
I relate to Angelica so well now because of where I am in my own life. I’m a mother and I know what it takes to sacrifice. I don’t even have to think about that word. I know what it means. I didn’t know that until I became a mother.
When I came here, I knew that I would have an incredible relationship with the women that play my sisters. And we do! We have a lot of fun, Lexi [Lawson], Joanna [Jones] and I. I’m the youngest in my own family so it’s been fun to be like the big sister here, and hopefully be the one that people turn to for advice and different things like that. Through this show, I’ve learned that I’m a lot more of a leader than sometimes I used to think I was.
There has been a lot of discussion and debate about diversity in theater lately, including the casting controversies surrounding Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and North Shore Music Theatre’s Evita. As a member of the theater community, what are your thoughts on the conversations happening about diversity on stage? And as a Latina, what type of impact(s) has being an actor of color had on your career?
Being Latina is a part of everything that I am and every character that I play because it’s a part of me. I think that it’s important to start having these discussions. When the talking begins is when a little bit of the hate settles because that’s when change starts to happen. A show like Hamilton has opened up so many doors, but I have to pay tribute to the people that opened the doors first – like Priscilla Lopez, Chita Rivera, and all of the people before us. So I think that doors will continue to open. It’s very important for us to tell our stories. It’s important to have more writers, more people behind the scenes, and more directors that are also telling these stories.
I also think it’s very important to reach out to audiences – all different kinds of and diverse audiences. That’s something that Viva Broadway is doing with the Broadway League. It’s very important because they’re reaching out to all different kinds of communities to come to the theater. Having audiences come to see shows is how theater sustains and how it grows.
So I don’t think that you can ignore a whole demographic of people. I definitely know that the Broadway League recognizes that. Luis Miranda [Lin-Manuel’s father] is actually on the board of Viva Broadway. It’s important to be aware of that work that’s happening. It’s also very important to stand behind it and ask, “If I’m not happy with the way that things are, how can I help?”
What is your musical theater dream role?
I think I’m living it now! I think just to be me, singing and doing concerts.
CLICK HERE to purchase Mandy Gonzalez’ debut album, Fearless.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to her residency at Café Carlyle,
now through November 4th in New York City.
CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to catch her in Hamilton on Broadway—good luck!