DIVA TALK: Chatting with In the Heights' Mandy Gonzalez Plus News of Fraser, Testa and Bundy

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with In the Heights' Mandy Gonzalez Plus News of Fraser, Testa and Bundy News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Mandy Gonzalez
Mandy Gonzalez Photo by Joan Marcus

MANDY GONZALEZ
The Richard Rodgers Theatre must be one of the happier places to work on Broadway — not only because the Washington Heights-set musical won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical but also because the cast is so darn nice! I've interviewed four of the show's leading ladies, and each one has impressed me with her sincerity, openness and joie de vivre. I was especially dazzled by the upbeat, good-natured charm of Mandy Gonzalez, who portrays Nina, the young college student facing life-altering decisions in the new musical penned by Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. In the Heights marks the multi-talented Gonzalez's fourth Broadway production: She made her Main Stem bow as a standby for the part of Amneris in Disney's Aida and created her first role in 2002 in the short-lived Dance of the Vampires. To be honest, I don't remember too much about Vampires other than the singing of Gonzalez and Max von Essen, which was thrilling, and the rest of the show, which was, well, not. Gonzalez, who boasts a beautiful, thrilling and rangy belt, was also part of the cast of the John Lennon revue, Lennon, but it is in her current role in the award-winning Heights where she gets the chance to shine, making audiences care about which path Nina will choose. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Gonzalez about her Broadway resume; that interview follows.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, why don't we start from the beginning. Where you were born and raised?
Mandy Gonzalez: Alright. I was born and raised in Santa Clarita Valley in California.

Question: When did you start performing?
Gonzalez: I guess I started performing when I was about seven. My grandma put me in a performing group called Rock Theatre, and we would perform at all different venues around L.A. It was a mix of rock and theatre, so it was all different kinds of music. I started performing then, and I stayed with that group until I was 14. We'd perform at malls — and at 14, when you're going into high school, I was like, "I can't perform at the mall anymore. Somebody might see me!" [Laughs.] So I stopped.

Question: Did you perform in musicals in high school?
Gonzalez: Yeah, I did a lot of musicals in high school. When I was a freshman, I was Bloody Mary in South Pacific. You know, I played the ethnic roles. [Laughs.] Anita in West Side Story. I was Maria in Sound of Music. I did all the musicals.

Question: When do you think you knew that performing would be your career?
Gonzalez: It really became serious when I was 14. I was with this singing teacher, and he taught at a summer camp called The Musical Theatre Project of Tampa. Now it's called Broadway Theatre Project, and it's run by Ann Reinking. If you don't live in Florida, you have to audition through the tape process. You'd have to submit a monologue, a song and a dance — I think I tapped. I ended up getting a full scholarship to that camp. I went there for the summer, and it really changed my life. Ann ran the camp, and Gregory Hines was one of the teachers — also, Treat Williams, Jeff Calhoun. Every day was a dream. . . . You'd start at eight o'clock in the morning, and then you're done at eight [at night]. At the end of the camp, you'd put together a big show. When I came back from that camp I thought, "This is what I want to do." The people that went to that camp were really amazing. I was very serious about it after that. Question: When did you get to New York?
Gonzalez: I went to school at Cal Arts for a year after high school. After that I auditioned to be a background singer for Bette Midler, so I was on her Millennium Tour. It was really awesome. I was a singer, and I had little crosses. I wore a lot of G-strings… fantastic! [Laughs.] [The tour] came to New York. . . . We stayed at the Plaza Hotel when it was still a hotel, and we were there for two weeks. I [thought], "This is where I want to be." I had seen Rent on the Tony Awards, and I was just like, "Oh, God, this is where I want to be!" So when I came back from that tour, I moved to New York. That's where I've been ever since.

Question: What was it like working with Bette?
Gonzalez: It was fantastic! It was a total training session. If this is what you want to do, you've gotta work your ass off. She worked like nobody I had ever met. She's a woman, and she was so powerful and professional. It was terrifying, too, because I had to back up three of the Harlettes. When you do that, you have to learn all three parts. You have to learn alto, you have to learn soprano [and] the middle. You'd have to learn about 60 songs. There's only maybe 20 songs in the concert, but just in case she wanted to pull [another song] out, you had to be ready. You had to learn all the choreography. It was intense, but it really taught me that if this is what you want to do, you gotta work hard for it.

Question: Once you got to New York, what was your first professional production?
Gonzalez: When I first came to New York, I felt, "In six months, I want to be on Broadway." You know, the usual. [Laughs.] I was a coat-check girl for six months, and I hit every open call that was available, and I went on one for this show called Eli's Comin' with Diane Paulus [directing]. Cindy Tolan was casting. I went to the open call, and I sang, and they called me back, and I ended up getting the job! Eli's Comin' was my first job, at the Vineyard, in New York. That was with Anika Noni Rose, Judy Kuhn, Ronnell Bey and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. I ended up winning an Obie Award. From that, Stuart Oken — from Disney at the time — came to see the show and asked me if I wanted to be the standby for Amneris in Aida, and so that's when I went to Broadway.

Mandy Gonzalez in In the Heights
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Do you remember what your first performance on Broadway was like?
Gonzalez: Definitely. It was terrifying. I was Idina [Menzel]'s understudy — at the time she was in the role. Idina was on for about four months before I got to go on . . . . I think they thought that she would never be out, so I never had a put-in [rehearsal] or anything like that. I never really worked with the three-inch heels or climbing over the pool, so my first experience was like being shot out like a bullet and really just going for it. I remember I was such a Rent fan. I got to work with Adam [Pascal], and I remember him coming down in his robe and saying, "Hi, I'm Adam," for the first time and just being totally jazzed. And after that was done, it was awesome. I loved it. Question: Was Dance of the Vampires next?
Gonzalez: Yeah, from there I auditioned for Dance of the Vampires, and I got that. And that happened…that experience.

Question: When you look back on Dance of the Vampires, what stands out in your mind?
Gonzalez: It was a fantastic experience. For anybody that is coming into the business, it teaches you everything about the business.… Putting up a new musical, in itself, is an impossible task. Nobody goes into a musical hoping that it fails. Everybody works their ass off. It was just a great experience for me. It was my first time originating a role. I remember when the reviews came out, I was like, "Oh, God, what am I gonna do?" and was devastated. [Co-star] Rene Auberjonois came into the dressing room — we were all sitting together. When reviews come out and you have to go and perform the next day, that's not an easy feat. Rene came into our dressing room, and there was this song called "A Good Nightmare Comes So Rarely" in the show, and he just came in and [started singing], "A good nightmare comes so rarely…," and we all just started laughing because we were all in the same boat. We all had to get up there [on stage]. So we just started laughing, and he was like, "Well, if you're gonna be in a bomb, it might as well be the biggest one!" … I guess it was six or seven years ago, and that's what people [still] ask me about, and I'm like, "Wow, alright!" It's kinda cool. I have all these secrets and all this information, but it was a great experience. It taught me so much, and it humbled me, and it made me realize that it doesn't matter if you're in a hit or a bomb. The work is the work. It was a great experience for that reason.

Question: How did In the Heights come about? When did you join the process?
Gonzalez: After Dance of the Vampires, I thought, "Oh, gosh, what am I gonna do?" Stuart Oken called me and asked, "Do you want to replace on Broadway?" So I went back to Aida. After I left Aida my agents called… I think I was in L.A., and they said, "They want you for this role of Nina to do a reading of In the Heights." This was 2004. It sounded interesting. In a reading, when you sit down at the table, the composer usually sings the music or does some of the music. Lin sat down and did, "Lights up on Washington Heights…" and I thought, "This is awesome, and I want to be part of it!" At that reading, the only people that are here now on Broadway were Chris Jackson and Andrea Burns and, of course, Lin-Manuel. It was pretty fantastic. That reading was two weeks. During that reading I was already contracted to do the musical Lennon on Broadway. I think they were still in development with In the Heights. I left to do Lennon — we went to San Francisco. I came back, and after Lennon it was like, "Oh, God, what am I gonna do…" [laughs], and they called and asked, "Do you wanna do the workshop for In the Heights, for Nina?" And it's been fantastic from then.

Christopher Jackson and Mandy Gonzalez in In the Heights
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: When you were doing the show Off-Broadway, did you think at that point that it was going to move to Broadway? Did you envision its success?
Gonzalez: We all read… "The Secret" . . . If you put good vibes out there, they will come back to you. All the women — we shared a dressing room. There were 11 of us down in the cellar. We all read "The Secret." I think Andrea brought in the video and made us watch it. So we were like, "We're goin' to Broadway!" And, we put this huge sign on the door that said, "We're going to Broadway," and we all signed it and hoped for the best. But we always put that vibe out there that we were going to go all the way to the top, and we have. It's kind of surreal. Sometimes when we take our company bow at the end, I look out and see the packed house, and I think about where we started in this little room at MTC doing a reading. To be able to go through a process like that is pretty amazing. Question: It sounds like it's a very close-knit company.
Gonzalez: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] We're very close. People have gone on vacation this summer, and every time they leave we're like, "Ahhhh…" And when they come back, it's a celebration. We're very tight — you have to be for people that have been together for two years, some of us longer. It's a very tight community, backstage as well as on.

Question: How would you describe Nina?
Gonzalez: I would describe Nina as kind of the star of the neighborhood who people have put all their hopes and dreams into, who asks a lot of herself, but not just for herself… [She] puts a lot of pressure on herself to be the one to rise above and to get out and to prove to herself and to her community that there are better things [out there]. I think there's a little bit of Nina in all of us, that strives for something more. Sometimes we slip on the way up, and that's what my journey is about when I come back to the neighborhood. It's kind of about finding yourself again and finding that, even if you slip, people still love you and it's okay. I relate to Nina so much because of my own life and my own slips and falls and my own striving for something better, not just for myself but for my family. . . . I identify with Nina very strongly.

Question: I love the song "Breathe" and how you sing it. Is it a challenge to perform that song?
Gonzalez: Thank you. It's a challenge in a way [because] I just want to make sure the story is being told.… [The song] "In the Heights" happens, and then it's Nina! I want to make sure that people really get where she's coming from, that she has this secret. So that's the challenge, making sure that you tell the truth in the story in the song.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Nina?
Gonzalez: Oh, definitely. I have so many moments, but I guess my favorite moments are when I first see Abuela when I come into the neighborhood, and when I first look at Benny after "When You're Home." That's the first moment where a spark happens. He's told me that I can do anything I want, and I just feel so connected with him, so those are my favorite moments.

Question: Have you noticed any change in the audience reaction since the show won the Tony?
Gonzalez: There are just more people. I think that the crazy thing about the show is that sometimes it's like a movie theatre. . . . . When Benny and I come out on the fire escape in the second act, I've had such random things be said, like, "Mmmm, yeah girl!" or "Woooh!" It's like they're talking to us. It's good because they feel they're a part of it. That has not changed since Off-Broadway. The reaction is the same. People love the characters, they love the story, and they love to have fun. It's a show where you feel like you can yell out and say things and be a part of the neighborhood, so that hasn't changed. The amount of people that are seeing the show has changed, and that's fantastic. And the amount of people that are waiting after the show and saying, "Wow, this is my story." I have so many young girls come up to me and say, "That's my story, and I'm leaving home for the first time, and thank you for showing that side." That really touches me because that's what you always dream of as an actor — to do something that touches people. This show really does, and Nina does, so it's really great. Question: That must be very gratifying to hear comments like that.
Gonzalez: It is. It's very gratifying, and it's girls from all over: Girls from Canada, girls from Australia that say, "I'm leaving home for the first time, and I felt like I had this pressure, and I felt like a failure, and this gives me hope to go back."

Question: Are there any roles in current shows or classic shows that you'd like to play?
Gonzalez: I think that I'm always up for anything. I always like a challenge, as you can tell from my career. [Laughs.] I always like to take chances. . . . I think there are some great roles on Broadway right now that I'd love to play, but then there are great roles that haven't been written yet that I'd love to play. I'm also trying to put together a concert for myself. I like to do that kind of stuff, too. There's a lot of stuff in the works, so I'm very excited. It's an exciting time.

Question: How long do you think you'll stay with In the Heights?
Gonzalez: I don't know — as long as I feel good. We've worked so hard to get here, I can't imagine leaving. I'll stay with it as long as I'm having a good time!

[In the Heights plays the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street. For tickets call (212) 307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com]

DIVA TIDBITS
Xanadu's Mary Testa will join Gypsy's Alison Fraser for two upcoming concerts celebrating the work of Fraser's late husband, composer Rusty Magee. The Sept. 29 and Oct. 20 concerts — entitled Together Again — will be held at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, which is located within the West Bank Cafe. The singing actresses will be accompanied by a full band led by Allison Leyton-Brown; show time for both concerts is 7 PM. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located within the West Bank Cafe at 407 West 42nd Street. For reservations call (212) 695-6909.

The third annual Salon — an evening of songs and stories — to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS will be presented Oct. 27 at the residence of Ron Pobuda on Central Park South. The intimate evening, entitled Salon: 6 Degrees of Broadway Cares, will begin at 7 PM. Among those currently scheduled to entertain are two-time Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth, original Rent star Anthony Rapp, original Annie Andrea McArdle, Daytime Emmy nominee Bobbi Eakes, stage and screen star David Steen, Emmy Award-winning "Golden Girls" actress and former Wicked star Rue McClanahan, Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys actor Christian Hoff and actor-musician-Playbill.com columnist Seth Rudetsky. Tickets can be reserved by calling Skip Lawing at (212) 840-0770, ext. 268 or by visiting www.BroadwayCares.org.

Cowboy Boots & Curtain Calls is the title of an upcoming concert that will benefit the Kreative Kids Foundation, which was founded by Legally Blonde Tony nominee Laura Bell Bundy. The Oct. 27 concert will be presented in Manhattan at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill at 7:30 PM. Bundy will be joined by a host of her Broadway and Nashville friends. The evening, according to press notes, will feature "some of Broadway's hottest stars and top names in country music singing Broadway tunes in country style and country songs in Broadway style." The benefit will also include live and silent auctions. A VIP reception will kick off the event at 6:30 PM, followed by the 7:30 PM performance. B.B. King Blues Club & Grill is located in Manhattan at 237 West 42nd Street. Tickets — priced $250 (general admission), $500 (VIP Ticket Level 1), $1,000 (VIP Ticket Level 2) and $5,000 (table of six) — will soon be available by visiting www.kreativekidsfoundation.org.

Several Broadway favorites will be part of the Bay Area Cabaret's 2008-2009 concert season, which is entitled Broadway and All That Jazz. The not-for profit, all-volunteer organization presents its shows in a variety of venues in the San Francisco Bay Area. The line-up for the upcoming season follows: Christine Andreas with David Burnham in Here's to the Ladies on Nov. 16 at 7 PM in the Empire Ballroom of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel; Barbara Cook in A Celebration in Conversation and Song on Dec. 2 at 8 PM at the Herbst Theatre; Nnenna Feelon in An Uncommon Standard on March 8, 2009, at 5 PM in the Crystal Ballroom of the Marines Memorial Club; Christine Ebersole with Billy Stritch in Broadway's Best on April 26 at 5 PM in the Commandants Room of the Marines Memorial Club; and Ann Hampton Callaway in At Last on May 17 at 5 PM in the Commandants Room of the Marines Memorial Club. For single tickets call (415) 392-4400; for subscriptions call (415) 927-INFO. For more information visit www.bayareacabaret.com.

The Sept. 21 fundraiser It's Magic — A Tribute to Sammy Cahn will pay tribute to the late songwriter and benefit The Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills Revitalization Project. Produced and directed by Corky Hale, the 5 PM event will be held at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills and will feature performances by Sam Harris, Karen Morrow, Byron Motley, Judith Owen, Freda Payne, Harry Shearer and Steve Tyrell. Leonard Maltin will direct, and Jeff Lass will be the musical director for the evening, which will feature such Cahn standards as "Three Coins in the Fountain," "All The Way," "High Hopes," "Call Me Irresponsible," "It's Magic," "Be My Love," "Because You're Mine," "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen," "Come Dance With Me," "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" and "Teach Me Tonight." Les Traub is the associate producer. The Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills is located at 8440 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, CA. Tickets, priced $35 (general admission) and $125 (VIP seats plus a post-concert reception with the artists), are available by calling (323) 655-0111. For more information go to www.wtbh.org.

And, finally, congratulations to the recipients of the 31st Annual Kennedy Center Honors: stage and screen star Morgan Freeman; singer George Jones; Academy Award-winning actress, director and singer Barbra Streisand; Tony-winning choreographer Twyla Tharp; and "The Who" musicians Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. The artists will be celebrated at an all-star gala Dec. 7 that will be broadcast later that month on CBS-TV. (The honors will be bestowed Dec. 6 at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.) For more information about the Kennedy Center Honorees or the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Alison Fraser (l.) and Mary Testa will be <i>Together Again</i> at the Beechman.
Alison Fraser (l.) and Mary Testa will be Together Again at the Beechman. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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