‘Hamilton’ star says bubbe helped shape her musical path

Mandy Gonzalez will perform at a fundraiser for St. Louis-based literary magazine

Mandy Gonzalez

‘Hamilton’ cast member Mandy Gonzales will perform April 16 at a fundraiser for the non-profit literary magazine ‘december.’

Got yourself a coveted ducat to see “Hamilton” when it plays in St. Louis April 3-22?

Regardless of whether you do or don’t, you still can purchase tickets to Mandy Gonzalez when she performs at the Sheldon Concert Hall at 7 p.m. Monday, April 16. Gonzalez currently stars in “Hamilton” on Broadway, portraying Angelica Schuyler, the title character’s sister-in-law. 

In case you were wondering, Gonzalez happens to be Jewish. Her 95-year-old grandmother, or bubbe as she calls her, grew up here and was named the “Yiddish Queen of  St. Louis” when she was 16.

Who knew?

“She keeps the picture in her wallet,” says Gonzalez, 39, whose father is Mexican-American and mother is Jewish. Gonzalez celebrated her bat mitzvah and says she “strongly identifies” with Judaism and “the beauty and culture” of the religion.

“Having a faith community is such an important thing for a young person,” said Gonzalez, who has been married to Doug Melini, an accomplished painter, for 15 years. Together, they gave a 6-year-old daughter.

The award-winning actress and vocalist will perform her one-woman show to benefit the Writers and Artists Compensation Fund of december Magazine, a twice-yearly non-profit literary magazine based in St. Louis. 

According to publisher Gianna Jacobson, who also is a past president and current trustee of the Jewish Light, december is one of the few literary magazines nationwide to pay its contributors.

“Mandy really understands and lives the experience of being a working artist,” said Jacobson. “When I asked if she would help us raise money to help pay our writers and artists, she said, ‘As a performer, I believe in not only encouraging artists, but also acknowledging their talents with fair compensation. It is an honor to be involved with december as part of this event and help them to continue to nurture their artistic talent.’ ”

Speaking of nurturing artistic talent, Gonzalez points to her Jewish grandmother as encouraging her to pursue her love of singing.

“I spent every weekend with my Jewish grandparents and it was really my bubbe who gave me my love of music,” said Gonzalez. “She loved torch singers like Ethel Merman, Eydie Gormé, Judy Garland. I was the only one of the grandkids who would sing back, so there I was, belting out ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ from ‘Gypsy’ and her saying, ‘Yeah, yeah. Keep on going.’”

Keep on going she did, with her first big break coming as a back-up singer for Bette Midler’s Millennium Tour in 1999.  She soon made her way to New York where in 2005, she starred in the Off-Broadway production of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough musical, “In The Heights,” as Nina Rosario, and reprised her role three years later when the show moved to Broadway.  After a starring stint as Elphaba in “Wicked” (replacing Idina Menzel) she again teamed up with Miranda when she joined the cast of “Hamilton” in 2016. She also has a recurring role on the TV show “Madam Secretary.”  

“Lin is pretty much a brother. He’s family to me,” said Gonzalez when we spoke recently. “He’s someone I admire so much. So when I was putting together this first album my producer asked, ‘If you could work with any lyricists, who would they be?’ I had three in mind: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt and Jennifer Nettles. And all of those three said yes.”

Gonzalez’s debut solo album, “Fearless,” which came out in October, features the title song written by Miranda. She said he was inspired by a movement she created on social media called the “Fearless Squad, which is all about positivity, empowerment and people working together to live their dreams.”

“It’s a movement I started with a hastag (#FearlessSquad) and I now have thousands of members worldwide,” she said. “I felt like there was such a negative tone in social media. I wanted to see if I could use social media to build community instead of tearing each other apart. I try to look at what we can do together to make change.”

Gonzalez said she told Miranda that, along with a story about her parents who made her feel fearless.  They met as pen pals during the Vietnam War. Her dad, a former migrant worker, was drafted at age 19. Her mother wanted to join the Peace Corps but her parents wouldn’t allow it. So instead she started writing letters to soldiers who didn’t have anyone to write to them.

“She got my dad’s name and corresponded with him throughout his time in Vietnam. They fell in love. When he came back from the war, he stopped at her doorstep and said, ‘I am here.’ And they’ve been together for 45 years.”

Gonzalez said that at first their families didn’t approve of their relationship. “They come from two different worlds,” she said. “But through their love and fearlessness, they stayed together.”

After hearing that story, Miranda wrote “Fearless” within two weeks. 

“Lin is like the light that shines,” said Gonzalez. “He’s one of the most giving people I ever met and one of the most genuine. I’m so grateful to him as well as Tom Kitt, who wrote an incredible song called ‘Everyday.’ Tom is writing the music for the new TV show ‘Rise.’ The two of them, as well as Jennifer Nettles, are such busy writers and for them to take the time to contribute to my album was incredible.”

Gonzalez describes her upcoming show at the Sheldon, which she performed for two weeks at Café Carlyle in New York, as a “narrative of her life.” It will feature songs from her new album as well as ones from “In the Heights,” “Wicked” and other Broadway shows, along with jazz and R&B standards. Oh and don’t be surprised if you hear a little Bruce Springsteen, too.

“The show is really about being fearless and why I chose that title and why I fear a little less these days,” she added.

Tickets to “Experience Broadway’s Mandy Gonzalez” are available at Metrotix (metrotix.com) for $100. Patron tickets, for $250, which include a meet-and-greet with Gonzalez, as well as discounted tickets for working writers and artists, at $35, can be purchased at decembermag.org or 314-301-9980.