Mandy Gonzalez, FEARLESS

Mandy Gonzalez, FEARLESS

Broadway performer Mandy Gonzalez —who most recently appeared as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton— joins Zibby to discuss her new middle-grade novel, Fearless, as well as how her own journey served as inspiration for the story. Mandy shares how she first fell in love with theater by listening to old records with her grandmother, when she realized she wanted to write a book like this for her fans, and why it’s important for young artists to surround themselves with creativity.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mandy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Fearless.

Mandy Gonzalez: Thanks, Zibby. It’s wonderful to be here.

Zibby: What a treat. Could you please tell listeners what Fearless is about? What inspired you to write this novel?

Mandy: Fearless follows the character Monica Garcia, a talented seventh grader who loves to sing and dreams of a life on Broadway. Along with her abuelita, we follow their journey from a small town in California to opening night on Broadway. Along the way, Monica meets her Fearless Squad. Together, they learn that anything and everything is possible, especially on Broadway. It’s just so much fun and such a great adventure. I like to call it a little bit of a Broadway adventure. It definitely is a love letter to Broadway because I, like Monica Garcia, had a deep love of music. I also dreamed of living a life of working on Broadway from a very, very young age. I was really lucky because I had a grandma who loved musicals. We would listen to old cast albums on records. Remember those?

Zibby: Yes, I do.

Mandy: We would watch Broadway movie musicals together. I really just fell in love with these incredible stories, but also these belt-y torch singers. One of my favorite singers from the time that I can remember, that I was about six, was Ethel Merman and Judy Garland, Eydie Gormé. These are the people I listened to with my grandma. It only felt right that when I was creating this theater on Broadway, that I title the theater The Ethel Merman Theater. I feel like she is a performer who gave her entire life to Broadway. She deserves her own theater. I was like, there’s no theater for her, so I’m going to make it. Really, that was my inspiration in creating the story, trying to create a story for someone like me that was in middle school that didn’t have an arts program, but had this love of musical theater and didn’t have a squad to find where I could express that. Listening to these old albums and watching these movie musicals, I was constantly looking for names and characters that looked like me. I did not have a lot of luck in that. It was important for me to write this story and to create stories so that kids can see themselves in the arts, to know that a life in the arts is possible.

It’s full of things that you could never imagine like superstitions and traditions and all of these things that I felt made it feel like home for me. I hope that when these young readers and any age read it, that they feel like, oh, Broadway is a place for me too. That’s somewhere I want to go. Now that Broadway is kind of reopening, I hope that when they read it and they come to Broadway or they go to a theater in their town, they start looking around going, is there a ghost in here? Did that door move by itself? Really, that’s what it is. When I was a kid and I would go camping with my parents — I’m from California. We’d go to Yosemite every year in the summer. My dad would tell ghost stories. People would be like, it’s so great, campfire stories. My dad would tell stories like La Llorona, the woman in the lake that haunted her children. I was fascinated by those kind of stories because that’s what I grew up with. Then I got to Broadway and it was like, oh, there’s a ghost in the theater and a ghost light. If you don’t touch this on opening night, the whole show could be ruined. I was like, this is exactly what my family’s like. I felt like the two worlds totally met when I got to Broadway or when I started working in the theater.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What an inspiring story. By the way, you are so fun to listen to and watch. You can just tell you’re in the right place being in front of an audience because there’s something just so captivating about you and how you talk and present. It’s really cool to watch.

Mandy: Aw, thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Wait, so you’re living in California. You’re vacationing in Yosemite and hearing ghost stories. Next thing you know, you’re in Hamilton. How did that happen with no arts program? I’ve listened to plenty of records of showtunes. My mom dragged me to lots of — not dragged, took me to many plays, some against my will, I will say, but I’m not going to be a Broadway performer. There’s no hope. How did you, aside from your immense talent, make that leap? How did you do that?

Mandy: You sound a lot like my sister and my brother who also listened to those showtunes with my grandma and were like, whatever. My sister’s like, “I’m just going to listen to The Cure and Duran Duran. I don’t need this.” I was the only grandchild that sang back to those records. I had a grandma who saw a talent in me. Because both of my parents worked full time, I was babysat by my grandma a lot. I’m the youngest of three. I spent a lot of time with her. She would listen to me. She’s like, “Robin –” to my mom — “Mandy’s too loud. She’s going to hurt herself. We have to put her into lessons.” We had no idea what we were doing. I don’t come from a showbiz family. My grandma lived in the Valley in Tarzana. There was this dinner theater that was down the street from my grandma. We would go to that dinner theater. It was one of those places where you could have an all-you-can-eat buffet and then go see a show. It was great. It had all-you-can-eat pickles. I love pickles. So does my brother. My brother would have to come too. Like I said, my poor brother, but he’s totally an inspiration. My sister’s name is Monica. She was an inspiration for this character. Then my brother got really jealous that my sister was in the book. Then I made the character in the musical Tony for my brother, so they’re both in the book, which is very exciting.

Anyway, I would go to this dinner theater with my grandma. My grandma would just go up to people after the show. She went up to this one woman. She’s like, “My granddaughter has talent.” My grandma never spoke like that, but I’m just making her like that. She’s like, “She has talent. I have to get her into lessons. Do you teach lessons?” This woman was like, “Yeah, I’ll teach lessons.” taught Man of La Mancha. My grandma started driving me. She would show up with a box of donuts in the morning to pick me up and leave them with my family and then take me for the day. We would go and do singing lessons. She also found this performing group that I could be a part of that was a kids’ performing group in LA. It was where I met other kids that liked what I did, the same things as me. I loved it. We performed in malls. I was like Tiffany. We performed in the malls. I think I performed “Smooth Criminal.” We did all these songs from the eighties and nineties. We were called Rock Theater because we did rock and theater. It was pretty great.

Zibby: Good name.

Mandy: Then I went to high school. I really wanted to be a cheerleader. I didn’t make the tryouts. I was devastated. I was crying at home. My sister was like, “You know Mandy, you’re so dramatic. Why don’t you join the drama club?” I was like, “I don’t know.” Then I was like, “Okay.” I joined the drama club. That’s where I really started to perform with my peers, people that definitely were the same age. In Rock Theater, there were a lot of kids that were older than me that were already in high school. I was a kid. In high school, we did South Pacific, West Side Story, all of those kind of things. I continued to take lessons outside of school. My singing teacher at the time told me about this Broadway theater camp in Florida. It was run by Ann Reinking. Gregory Hines was going to be one of the teachers, Treat Williams. I got a full scholarship. I went to that camp. It changed my life. It was with kids from all over the country that were the best. That’s what I learned. I learned that it’s very important for you when you’re in a room to not be the best so that you can grow and learn and get better.

I guess I was about fifteen when I’m like, this is what I want to do for a living, and I can. I see a path for myself. That became my trajectory. I continued doing high school theater. I did a show at a community theater. Then I wasn’t ready to leave. I was very close to my family, similar to Monica Garcia. I didn’t want to leave my parents, and so I stayed and I went to CalArts, which was in my hometown. Then I heard about an audition for backup singers for Bette Midler, that she was doing a new show. That was my freshman year. I went to that open call, and I got the job. I left school. That’s when my professional life began. I left my home. Because I was afraid of things, I thought I would be the kid that would always stay home and close to my parents. I ended up being the one that lives the furthest away for the longest time. When I was with Bette, we came to New York. She was so great to us. She put us up at The Plaza when it was still a hotel. Now it’s condos and all that kind of stuff. We stayed here for two weeks because we played the whole tri-state area. I fell in love with New York. I was like, this is where I want to go. I saved my money from that tour, and then I moved here. I never stayed at The Plaza Hotel again. I moved to Brooklyn.

Zibby: Did you take a subway and come out the way your character did in the book, how she was taking the train and rumbling around and then looking, opening up in New York with these wide eyes and awe?

Mandy: Yes, absolutely. Aw, I love it. That’s what I wanted the reader to feel. When I arrived, I really came out in Times Square with my suitcase. I was like, this is it, I made it. Now, because I live in Jersey, my parents will take an Uber or a Lyft. There wasn’t anything like that. Nobody was going to spend money on a cab from JFK to Manhattan. It was like, well, you could take the subway, so we’ll just do that. That really was something that I did often when my parents would come to visit, when I was coming out for the first time. When you see Times Square for the first time, anybody, but if you’re somebody that has been dreaming about it your whole life, it’s just this magical place. It still is, when I get out. Right now, it’s so weird because things are boarded up. That’s so weird. Somehow, the Naked Cowboy is still there in Times Square playing. I’m like, if he’s doing it, we’ll come back for sure. It is this magical place. When I first came, it was the Cup O’ Noodles and all these different billboards. Now it’s so different because there’s all these TV screens. It’s so visually exhausting. As somebody that’s first coming in, it overwhelms you, in a great way for me.

Zibby: For me, I grab the person closest and try to hide my eyes and get out of there.

Mandy: I know, my husband’s the same way.

Zibby: It’s too much sensory stimulation or something. I brought my husband there when he hadn’t been in a while. He was just like, “We’re in the belly of the beast.”

Mandy: It’s so true. When you work there, there’s something about skipping around the crowds and knowing how to get to where you need to go. There’s something kind of thrilling about that, but also like, he-he-he, I know where to go. I know the secret way and where to get a bagel and then get to my show. It’s kind of nice.

Zibby: It’s like your college campus.

Mandy: It is.

Zibby: Everyone else is coming to visit and gets trampled. You’re just dashing from class to class like, get out of my way.

Mandy: Totally.

Zibby: Times Square as campus quad.

Mandy: Now it’s so crazy because they have those benches right where the TKTS is. You can go and sit and relax. When I came, it was like, no, you stand in line for those cheap tickets or else you stand in New York. There’s no place to go to the bathroom. I found my places. It’s like, no, you got to stand and walk. That’s what it is.

Zibby: Yes, not very welcoming at first. You figure it out, or you get out of here.

Mandy: Exactly. Elbows out.

Zibby: So you conquer this whole world and keep rising and getting all these great parts and everything else. Now on top of all that success, you delve into the world of fiction for middle-grade people and then knock the cover off the ball for that too. What else are you not going to do here? You’re getting in everybody’s space.

Mandy: I know. I think that I’ve always been — is it an outlier? I’ve always been a little bit of a loner in some ways and always been one that’s had to carve my own way. I’ve always been one to try and fail a lot. I fall a lot. Then I get back up. I go, okay, let me try this. Let me try that. I’ve always been just somebody that’s had a creative mind. My husband is a painter. He shows at Miles McEnery Gallery. He’s an abstract painter. I’m constantly surrounded by creativity. It inspires me. His work also inspires me. We met at CalArts. That’s one of the best things to come out of that school experience for me, aside from the things that I did learn, but that I met my husband and that we’ve been together all this time. To see his work from the beginning when he was in grad school at CalArts to now, it’s constantly evolved and changed. I think that we as artists can constantly evolve and change. It’s only a matter of putting yourself into a box that people think that you should be that can make you pause and say, well, I shouldn’t do that because of this. There’s so many becauses and reasons you shouldn’t do things. There’s also so many reasons you should. When you do, it expands everything as an artist and makes you see a lot further than you ever thought you could go. That’s been my life. Coming from where I come from, seeing my grandparents who came here from Mexico with nothing and that immigrant lifestyle and seeing, hey, you can go as far as you want to go, and that there were people that made so many sacrifices before you so that you can, that’s always with me. I’m just like, this is, right now, my path. I feel lucky because it’s part of a series. Right now, I’m working on book two, which feels so weird talking about book one. That’s something that I’ve learned about the literary world. It’s very much like, okay, and now we’re going on.

Zibby: How many are in the series? What’s the plan?

Mandy: Right now, I’m signed for two. This next book follows the Fearless Squad. Monica Garcia will also be a big part of this book, but it follows the story of Morton who grew up in Harlem. He is based and inspired by my dear friend Darrell Grand Moultrie who I met during my first show on Broadway, Aida, when I was the understudy for Idina Menzel. I didn’t know that when you’re an understudy or a swing — a swing is somebody who covers five to six roles in the ensemble. An understudy covers one role like I covered Idina, but you’re all in the same dressing room. They put you all in the same dressing room, boys and girls. It doesn’t matter. I shared a mirror with Darrell. Anytime somebody would say something shady, we would look at each other and be like, “Did you just hear that?” We became best friends. He has been my best friend for twenty years. Similar to all of us as artists, he has been a performer, but now he is a choreographer. He choreographs all over the world. Right now, he’s working on a piece for Alvin Ailey and I think New York City Ballet. He’s incredible. It was really important for me to make this second book follow his journey in this world.

Zibby: How are you finding the writing process? Do you love it? Did you ever have any interest in writing before? What’s it been like for you?

Mandy: First, I’ve always been an avid reader. That started for me when I was really young because my mom would take us to the library. I was lucky because I have a mom who loves to read. The library really felt like this gift shop. My mom would leave us at the children’s section. She would say, “You can get anything you want.” I think we could get five books. That’s what the library let you take out. I remember having my library card and filling out my book and really feeling like it was this place of treasures where I could find anything that I wanted and escape into this world. I’ve always been an avid reader. I’ve always been writing stories. My life took a different turn because of my voice and my ambitions in wanting to do this other world. I started creating these characters after my daughter was born. I started to write stories. I started to write children’s stories surrounding these characters. Then I kept writing. I showed my work to a couple publishers in the beginning. They gave me some incredible advice. I really listened to them. I followed that advice. I kept writing.

Then I started my journey with Hamilton. I had a lot of young people that were reaching out to me and expressing to me, feelings of loneliness and feelings of not having a place to belong. I said, “If you don’t have a place to belong, you can just belong with my Fearless Squad.” I put it out there. I started this social movement where kids could feel like they didn’t have to be alone. It was a very positive place. I made up squad rules. I felt like I wanted to create stories for these young people. I went back to those characters that I started with about ten years ago, and I just started to write. Then I went to a reading at Books of Wonder. I met my literary agent there. It was just by chance. I said, “Would you like to read this?” She said yes. It was really that thing of putting yourself out there and trying. Why not? Then I was lucky because she said yes. Then Simon & Schuster said yes. Then it was like, oh, god, I really have to do this. It’s just been so much fun. It was really great because I finished most of it — the last part of it had to be done during 2020, the last editing part of it, but most of it was done by the time the pandemic hit. Most of it was written at the theater. I was surrounded by inspiration, which was really cool.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I have a total favor question to ask. You can completely and a hundred percent say no.

Mandy: I can totally get you Hamilton tickets. No, I’m just kidding.

Zibby: I don’t need Hamilton tickets. I’ve seen Hamilton multiple times. I have four kids. My oldest daughter, who’s just about fourteen, is obsessed with Hamilton. Is there any way you could sing just a line or two for her? You don’t even have to say her name.

Mandy: A lot of things that I say are — what do I say? I tell young people to keep the faith right now, to be fearless, and to know that everything is possible. Whenever you feel like things are too much, just “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now, and work!” because you got this. It’s a little piece.

Zibby: Yay, thank you for that. That’s amazing. You just made me the coolest mom ever for her. Thank you.

Mandy: Aw. How old are your girls, or boys?

Zibby: I have twins who are about to be fourteen next week and then a six-year-old and a seven-year-old.

Mandy: Wow, that’s awesome. I’ve been following you on Moms Don’t Have Time to Work Out. I have to say that you’ve been such an inspiration to me because right now I’m getting ready to go back on the boards and to go back on Broadway. I have definitely gained those COVID pounds. Your Instagram has really been great and given me a little boost. Thanks for doing that.

Zibby: I can’t believe you said that because I literally am thinking I should just shut that account down.

Mandy: Oh, my god, please don’t.

Zibby: I feel like such a sham because I’m such a bad example. For a while, I really felt like we had a movement going. Everyone was losing weight together. It had a purpose. Then I gave up. Now I just feel so ashamed of myself and embarrassed by the whole thing.

Mandy: Oh, Zibby, don’t give up. If you need somebody to — I’ll go on and be like, hey, I love it. I’ll give you a shout to re-boost. I really love it. Don’t give up. Sometimes I do feel like that. My daughter just started school three weeks ago. Once I drop her off, I’m like, do I really want to go work out, or do I just want to go drink coffee and answer emails and do that? When I look at your Instagram, I’m like, all right. You say the same thing. You’re like, if you can just take a walk today, if you can just do that. It’s inspiring. Don’t give up.

Zibby: Okay, thank you. Parting advice for aspiring authors? Then I’ll let you go.

Mandy: Don’t be afraid to tell your story as well. There are parts of your story that you can feel like don’t belong or don’t make you a part of the world that you think it should be, but your story is really your superpower and what makes you unique and what is going to make whatever story you’re writing yours and yours alone. Don’t be afraid to go to those places that make you who you are because you won’t regret it. It’s a lot of fun once a couple of those secrets are out there.

Zibby: This was amazing. I can’t wait to see you perform. Where are you going to next be on stage, by the way?

Mandy: I will be back at Hamilton.

Zibby: You will? Great.

Mandy: I’ll be back at Hamilton in August. I am part of the Hulu series, Only Murders in the Building, that’s coming out. I think it starts in August. You can watch me on there. I won’t tell you who I’m playing, but it’s a lot of fun. I had a blast. That is a new show that stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. It’s hilarious. I had a really good time filming that during this pandemic.

Zibby: Awesome. I can’t wait. Thank you, Mandy. This was so much fun. I just had a blast. Thank you for everything.

Mandy: Thank you, Zibby. I hope to meet one day in person.

Zibby: Yes, that’d be great.

Mandy: See you on Instagram.

Zibby: Okay, buh-bye.

Mandy: Bye.

Mandy Gonzalez, FEARLESS

FEARLESS by Mandy Gonzalez

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