Interview with Mandy Gonzalez

"I would love to be Maria in West Side Story, just because it's such a great, great part. There are a lot of things in that show that explain why I'm here, and why I fell in love with musicals..."

RD: Let's start with an easy question… What made you first want to be on Broadway?

MG: I've been singing since I was a kid. My grandmother signed me up for singing lessons at a musical theater for children. She'd always drive me there playing Judy Garland, Anything Goes, Sweet Charity and I'd sing along in the car mimicking what we were listening to. That's what made me really want to be on Broadway. I fell in love with the music through my grandma.

RD: What was your first time singing on stage?

MG: My first time was in that same performing group, when I was about 8 years old. Of course I used to perform all the time for my family and friends, but my first real time up on stage was with this group. Every month there were shows, and you had to 'audition' for a solo spot. I got one and we performed at Universal Studios in California.

RD: Do you remember what you sang?

MG: It was a Christmas show, and I sang Jingle Bell Rock. They gave me a solo because I was the most prepared. It was a really great experience. I remember that I had the wrong pants on! For the show you had to wear a red shirt and white slacks, and my mom had bought me these white spandex that I had on instead. I remember this little girl coming up to me and saying "You've got the wrong pants on! You've got the wrong pants on!" and I kept saying back "I don't care – I'm going to sing!" I started off in drama right then I think.

RD: And you've continued to this day?

MG: (laughing) Uh-huh

RD: What sort of training other than the musical group did you have?

MG: Every little girl does ballet classes and tap classes when they're young, I think. I started doing that kind of stuff when I was 5. Then when I started excelling in singing, my grandmother put me in lessons when I was 8 years old. I've had private lessons since then, but with different teachers. My first teacher was Susan Ricci, and since then I've had about 8 different teachers trying to figure out who suited me the best. I think I've learned a little bit from everybody. To this day I still take singing and acting classes. Dance – not so much. With dance, I feel like I never really excelled at it, I just did what I had to do to get by. I love watching dance, but I never really had a strong passion for it myself.

RD: So while doing 8 shows a week in Aida, you're still managing to squeeze in singing and acting lessons on the side?

MG: Yes, I try to take regular voice lessons. Just recently I found a new teacher that's teaching me new things. I try to take one of those at least once a week, and that's about it. I also train myself every day of course before a show, just warming up.

RD: At the theater?

MG: Yes, I used it to do at my house but once you get a dressing room, why bother your neighbors?

RD: Maybe they miss it now though… Have any of them said anything?

MG: They do, actually! Some of them have said things to me, and it's really embarrassing - but when you live in New York, you've got to do what you've got to do.

RD: While you haven't done much of it yourself, do you consider dance training important for people that want to be singing on Broadway?

MG: Definitely. I think it's very important. It's always great to be a triple threat if you can, and I think that you have an endless amount of opportunities if you are. But if you're a singer, say, and you don't really have that passion for dance, or you're just not coordinated enough, like some of us…

RD: Not you of course?

MG: Of course! But, I think you should always take a movement class, just so that you can know your body. I think one advantage that dancers have is that they're so comfortable in their bodies, and in their skins. It's so much easier, when they adapt characters, for them to become that character physically. Because of that, as an actor, I've tried to take movement classes, and dance classes to help me in the same way. I think that's just as valuable. So, if you really want to do musical theater, it's always great to have all three. It's important to find your strengths.

RD: Your first role on Broadway was as a standby in Aida. How difficult is it to put your stamp on a role when you're not playing it every night?

MG: It's very difficult. To be a standby is really hard work, and for me the hardest part was just the anticipation of it. That was my first real Broadway job, and I first stood by Idina Menzel as Amneris. When you're a standby they bring you in and they have the stage manager giving you all your directions – like this is where you stand, and this and that - and you don't have any actual rehearsal time with any of the lead actors, and that makes it really hard. You have rehearsal time with some of the other standbys, but it's very rare that you'd actually be going on with another standby or another understudy at the same time.

Idina wasn't out for the first 4 months of my working there, and that was hard too – just having to wait and to go into your first time not really knowing when it'll be. When she was first out, it was a shotgun experience. I had never been on the sets, I'd never climbed over the pool, and I'd never been in the 3 inch heels. Working with people that are on stage every night, it's hard to find your spot to blend in. Being a standby is definitely exciting, but still really hard and I give people that do it a lot of credit.

RD: Moving on to Dance of the Vampires… You sang a lot of songs in the show like "Braver Than We Are" and "Total Eclipse of the Heart" which seemed reasonably taxing vocally and yet you never showed signs of that performing them. What do you do to sustain your voice?

MG: What I do is to use the training that I've had throughout the years. I always make sure that in the morning I warm up vocally as well as physically, and I think that really helps. I don't go out a lot after the show when I'm in one, and that's another way that I try to maintain my voice.

RD: So no wild partying?

MG: No. Not that I'm a wild partier, but if I want to have a glass of wine, I wait till Sunday night - when I don't have a show the next day. I'm very, very disciplined and I think that you have to - to do 8 shows a week. In Dance especially - the songs that Jim Steinman writes often have you shooting up through the octaves, and my voice training has helped me with that.

RD: I of course have to ask this about DOTV - Lots of people have opinions on why it didn't do well. Looking back, what do you feel were some of the contributing factors?

MG: I think that when a show fails, or when it doesn't do well, that it's hard to pinpoint one specific problem. I could say that this was a problem, or that was a problem, but for any show to not succeed on Broadway, there are many different reasons and factors. It's hard for me as one of the cast members to say exactly why it happened, because I'm just a small portion of the overall pie. I don't think I can really explain it. You're in rehearsals and you think that you've got a good thing going, and then when you get on stage, and start getting feedback, you realize that it might not be so good.

RD: A very politically correct answer…

MG: I get asked that question all that time. "Why do you think it closed?" and "Why did this happen" and all I can really say is that I'm an actor... It's my job to do what I have to do, to do my best to give my character life, and to sing all the songs, but it's not my job to fix a whole show. I think people sometimes don't understand that.

RD: How did you keep your spirits up throughout the whole experience?

MG: Mainly just from having the closeness of the cast. We were all very close, and that brought us even closer together. I remember when the reviews first came out, I was like "Oh my gosh! How am I going to do this?" because I hadn't learned not to read the reviews yet. I think it's hard not to read them, especially when everybody's talking about them.

We got these hats from the assistant choreographers, Tara and Jenny, that said "It's All Good" and they gave them to us opening night, and the next night I just wore that hat and it helped. I remember that Rene came into the dressing room and just did a little verse of "A good nightmare comes so rarely…" and we all just laughed, and that really broke the ice too. I was thinking "What are people going to think of us when we hit the stage?" but you really just have to forget about it. You can't think about people judging you or else you're not going to do anything. Shame on you if you let that ruin you.

RD: I remember hearing from people that spoke to Michael the day after, and when they said to him "Don't let the reviews bother you, you're great!" he said "I know, but it still hurts…"

MG: It does, and it hurts a lot. When I came in, I saw Nathan the door man, and he said "How are you doing?" and I just felt so shattered, but just having everybody around, and everybody going through the same experience was really, really helpful. It's hard, when you work so hard on a show then it just doesn't work - but that's the nature of the business. I think it either makes you stronger or makes you want to quit the business. In my case, it's made me a lot stronger.

RD: Good to get that out of the way early on in your career…

MG: I feel that way. It's a very humbling experience. No one should have to go through that sort of bad experience, but I feel that it makes you a more well-rounded person and performer in the end. Now, when other people have shows that don't do as well, I feel I'm not so quick to say "Oh that show's terrible." You think about everything that has to do with the show, and you think about the good aspects of it as well. It was a really hard experience, but a really good one in the end.

RD: And the same with Michael Riedel, and all of the Internet buzz?

 

MG: Yeah, some of it was just mean… A lot of what was said was valid, but I think that by that time, it was just like "enough already." Still, that's their job. It's his job to get the dirt. I would be lying if I said I don't read the Post. That's just human nature. I think everybody wants to hear gossip, wants to read about other people's failings.

RD: Which of the cast members were you close with – and are you still close with?

MG: Ron Orbach and I really developed a special bond. Right away, during rehearsals when I met him, and I knew that he was going to "be my dad" – we just hit it off. Our personalities are very similar and I'm in contact with him all the time. He really helps me with auditions, and if I need someone to read with me, he helps too. I think that everybody in that show will always have a special place in my heart and I'm always interested to hear what everyone is doing because it was such a great bonding experience. Even though everybody is going to go off to do whatever they are going to do, every time I hear about somebody in that show – I'm always going to have a smile when I hear that they're doing well.

RD: What was it like working with Michael Crawford?

MG: Michael was great. It was very intimidating at first, because he's such a legend. I first met Michael at my final, final audition and he was there along with 20 producers and I was really freaked out. I didn't actually really meet him until our first rehearsal together. I went to go get a Snapple, he came up behind me and said "I wanted that Snapple." Not knowing him at the time, I was all panicked and apologizing and said "Oh, I'm sorry" and then he just broke out laughing and that just broke the ice and the tension really well. I think that he's got such a great sense of humor, and of humility.

When the show didn't do well, and when people were saying nasty stuff, he and Rene were really the ones to step up and to lead the whole company. They both have so much behind them, and have been through all of it before – the ups and the down. I kept asking "What is it going to do?" and Michael said to me that it matters what the applause is, and what the people's reactions are afterwards every night. People of course had different reactions to the show all the time, but that's what matters at the end of the day. It doesn't matter sometimes what one person's opinions is. Michael just taught me so much about the business. Before each show, we'd have our special moment together to say "good show" and sometimes he would just say some really great things, and I keep them with me even to this day in my notebook.

RD: Do you recall anything specific?

MG: Just a lot of things about the business – that you have to just work hard. He really stressed just working hard, and to never stop working to master your craft. Also about knowing what really matters, both in life and on stage, and that respecting your audience is what really matters in the end. People said some rotten things during Dance, and while some were valid, a lot definitely weren't, and to have someone like Michael say "Look – this person said this about me, and it's just kind of an honor" and to laugh it off makes you feel a lot better. He was really a great figure for me to be with, and to learn from. That's something I've been very lucky with in my career – to have had these great people like Michael, Rene, and Bette Midler to learn from. I feel very lucky.

RD: Do you have any memories of any bloopers that took place during DOTV?

MG: I remember having trouble all the time coming down the stairs at the end in those high boots because there was no railing. I had to come down the stairs looking very self-assured and very confident just looking down at everyone, and I kept coming close to falling. They eventually put Asa (Somers) down to catch me in case I fell!

RD: What about with the blood packs?

MG: It was a big thing in rehearsal to decide on the blood packs that would work the best, and to figure out how they would work. For that end scene, it would be taped to my neck, and I would fall back on the stairs with Michael, and reach behind to lift up my hair. While I was doing that, I would press on the sack to break it so it would drip down my neck. I remember one night pressing it too hard, hearing a popping noise, and from behind my head I heard some coughing. I took a look back and his entire face was covered with blood – it was all over his nose, his mouth, etc. and I think he was gagging on it. Michael started laughing and I think that we nearly broke character.

RD: That's hysterical! Moving up to the present, what was it like becoming the character Amneris?

MG: Any character is hard, but I've found this one to be even more challenging. For every character I keep a journal, written as I feel the character would write. I do a day-to-day journal on what I'm feeling, and on what events happened in order to lead me up to the moment of the show.

RD: As the character though, not as yourself?

MG: Yeah, in the character's life. I do whole book journals, filling up pretty much the whole thing to help me get a feel for the character. I did that for Sarah, for this and for all my early stuff like Eli's Comin'.

 

RD: Ever publishable?

MG: Noooo! It's very personal. It's just like a diary, even though it's through the character's eyes, to be able to feel what she's feeling.

RD: Does the lighting in "My Strongest Suit" affect the energy that you have in that number?

MG: I think that song is so energetic because she's so happy that Radames has shown the slightest bit of interest in her after she hasn't seen him for 6 months. Even before that, I don't think that she even saw him that much, and he gives her a gift that's very thoughtful. She just wants to tell the girls that "it can happen for you too" if you do these things, and I think so much has to do with the energy of that number – the music is very energetic, as well as the lighting of course. Natasha Katz did a great job with the lighting. I think that everything in that number - the costumes and the girls too – contributes to the energy.

RD: What's your favorite part of the show?

MG: My favorite part of the show is probably that whole spa scene. Just because it's when you first meet Aida with Amneris, and I get to be with my ladies.

RD: What's working with Toni Braxton like?

MG: She's just great. Toni is very humble as a pop singer - much more so than I ever thought that she'd be. She's constantly wanting to try new things, and she's grown so much during the show's process. She's just great – a very nice person to work with. I really love her voice and when she does "Easy as Life." I think that she's such a great singer in that she really sings with the music – and knows how to emphasize the music in a song. There are certain parts of the music that I'd never really heard before, but the way that she knows how to "pull back" so they can come out is really incredible. I've definitely learned from her about that.

RD: And they've lowered some of the songs for her?

MG: Yeah, they've lowered all her songs except for "Not Me," and "Step Too Far". She's an alto, so they had to.

RD: How about Will Chase?

MG: He's awesome, Will's great and is such a good actor. We were standbys at around the same time, but I'd never seen him do Radames. I think that because I'd just come into the show and he'd already been there for a while, I never saw him do it. So it was really a great surprise to see how good he is – and hear how great he is vocally. He's just so much fun to work with on stage because he's always different – always challenging you. I think when you work with good people, it heightens your level too.

RD: How long are you with Aida for?

MG: Right now I'm in it for 6 months, until January.

RD: Do you think you'll extend after that?

MG: I don't know. I haven't really thought it through – who knows what'll happen?

RD: What role or show that you haven't been in would you most like to play?

MG: There are so many shows I'd want to do…

RD: Pretend that all of the casting agents are reading this...

MG: I just want to continue to grow as an actor and as a performer – to continue to do innovative works, and to do new works that might be well received, or might not – but to take chances. I would love to be Maria in West Side Story, just because it's such a great, great part. There are a lot of things in that show that explain why I'm here, and why I fell in love with musicals.

RD: Would you like to continue on Broadway - or do you have interest in TV or "Going Hollywood?"

MG: I'd just like to continue. I'd like to continue working, and to always be broadening my horizons.

RD: Who's your favorite composer?

MG: There's so many. If I had to pick just one, then Stephen Sondheim

RD: What sort of music do you listen to when you're not singing it?

MG: I'm really kind of square. I'm not square in the sense that I do listen to a lot of contemporary stuff, like for example I love Beyonce's new album... I listen to a lot of contemporary stuff, but when it comes to the theater, I'm very…well, I listen to Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall just because that's what inspires me. Bette Midler, Whitney Houston to name a couple more. I listen a lot to musicals - I'm just a geek, you know!

RD: There's nothing wrong with that! Are there any particular actors that you'd like to work with?

MG: Oh my gosh – there's so many actors that I'd like to work with. I don't think I can pick one. I'd love to work with Cate Blanchett, with Chita Rivera, Douglas Sills, Hunter Foster, Alice Ripley. There are just so many people, it's so hard to pick just a couple – Rita Moreno and Alfred Molina to name some more.

RD: Do you get to see many shows? I know it's tough when you're in one yourself…

MG: Not as often as I'd like, because of my schedule. It's hard to motivate myself to go to the theater on my day off. But this coming fall, I want to see everything that's out there – to really get a taste of everything. Off-Broadway too, because really some of the best stuff on stage in New York is Off-Broadway.

RD: What sort of other hobbies and interests do you have aside from performing?

MG: I like to knit! I like to knit hats and I'm working on a baby blanket right now. I like stuff that takes my mind off things. I like to be with my dog, and my boyfriend – to go picnicking, bike-riding, talking to friends, writing letters…

RD: People still write letters?

MG: I do! You just need to get the right stationery…

RD: Have you given any thoughts to solo things - like recording your own CD?

MG: Jim Steinman had actually approached me about doing some stuff, but he's been busy doing Bat Out of Hell 3, and Wuthering Heights for MTV so we haven't really gotten a chance to record them yet, but he has a few songs that are really great and I'd love to do them.

RD: New songs or…?

MG: Two new songs, and one older one – but really good. I think he's so great, and that his music is really, really great. It's very much the kind of music that I'm into. As far as a recording career, I'd love to do it if the music's right. I'm very passionate about music - about what I like and what I don't like. So it always comes back to that – the music.

RD: And how about on doing a solo show – like a concert at a cabaret room?

MG: Yeah, but that's so terrifying! I'd love to do that, actually. I think that, when I've time, I'll put something together. I'd have to have the right arranger and accompanist. That's what I think makes the whole thing really work.

RD: I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today…

MG: Thank you so much… These were great questions everyone!

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