By Jennifer O’Shea | For The Signal
Few know of one of Mandy Gonzalez’ first accomplishments: In 1996, she was voted Best Personality by her fellow seniors at Saugus High School.
“Originally, I wanted to be a cheerleader, because they were popular and I wanted to be popular, but I missed the meeting so I couldn’t try out,” Gonzalez said., “I was totally devastated.”
As it turns out, while she didn’t make it to the top of the cheerleaders’ pyramid, she still managed her own ascendant rise.
She may be recognized for her performance as Angelica Schuyler in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Or maybe because she received the Broadway.com Award for Best Replacement as Elphaba in “Wicked.” Musical theater fans might have heard about a more recent accomplishment, the Obie Award she garnered for her off-Broadway performance of “Eli’s Comin’.’”
After Gonzalez missed the cheer meeting, her older sister suggested she join the school’s theater program where her sister felt Mandy Gonzalez truly belonged. Her sister wasn’t the only family member who recognized her innate talent.
Years before the cheer meeting debacle, Mandy’s grandmother saw the musical fire in her granddaughter. She recognized it because it lived in her, as well.
“She was the first member of my ‘Fearless Squad’ because she’s the first person I knew who had the same love of music,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez’ grandmother signed her up for singing lessons in the valley. They used the time in the car for practice, singing show tunes together to and from every lesson. Throughout elementary school and junior high, Gonzalez pursued her passions through music and dance. She made friends, lost friends, experienced moments of pride and just as many disappointments.
The way Gonzalez’ family and friends supported and cared for her throughout her life created the backbone for her social media movement. The Fearless Squad wasn’t official when Mandy was a new performer training in her classes and camps, but with every triumph and every failure, a little piece of the squad developed.
“I wanted to change the conversation to make it about what empowers people — instead of tear them down. I felt like having failure in my life is something that taught me how to stand for myself. Learning that is what really made me want to create the Fearless Squad,” Gonzalez said.
She may have missed her chance to be a cheerleader, but her freshman year, Mandy auditioned for drama at Saugus High School.
“It completely changed my life,” she said. “It wasn’t until theater at Saugus that I felt like ‘Oh now I have a squad.’ We did everything together: made the sets, choreographed numbers, actually created the shows.”
Another piece of her Squad developed.
“Those connections that you make in high school are some of the most trusted relationships because you had each other’s back during a time that was really tough,” said Christine Tavares-Mocha, choir director at Valencia High School. Mandy and Christine shared the stage in seven shows throughout high school.
Christine laughs thinking about a moment she played Maria with Mandy as Anita in “West Side Story.” At the end of a pivotal scene, Maria spins around in excitement.
“I started turning and turning and turning and the lights blacked out and I fell off the stage and I screamed,” Tavares-Mocha said, “and Mandy helped me off the stage.”
Helping in the little moments is part of what defines membership in what she Gonzalez calls the Fearless Squad.
- We embrace differences
- We look for the good
- We dream big
- We help each other when we fall
During their junior year, a squad member needed help. Tavares-Mocha said that after a dear friend was in a near-fatal car accident, the Saugus squad decided to look for the good, dream big and help a sister out.
“We sang and raised funds for her family,” she said. “That was a big turning point in drama. That was our squad.”
Moments such as these are what keep the bond strong. Tavares-Mocha remembers seeing the Gonzalez family at every performance when they were in high school, and Gonzalez’ parents still come to all the Valencia High choir performances they can.
“Her parents are like the ‘room parents’ — they come to all of the kids’ shows that they do here,” said Tavares-Mocha. “They are kind of like that extended family beyond family because they watch you grow up.”
Show after show, year after year, the Saugus squad grew together. Then it was time to graduate and go separate ways. At the end of their last show together, Tavares-Mocha remembers Gonzalez saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll sing together on stage again one day.”
Gonzalez chose to stay local to attend California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. She auditioned for jobs while attending classes. One day, she got a call back. Bette Midler wanted her as a backup singer.
“Before Bette, I was afraid to leave,” she recalled. “But when you get a job you gotta go, and I never moved back. I was afraid but also really excited.”
Singing with Midler provided the opportunity to travel all over the country. At the same time, Tavares-Mocha was dreaming big, singing with famous performers such as Ben Folds and Judy Collins. Even though she was told that pursuing a full-time job as a choir director was futile, she continued to hear her friend’s encouraging words telling her, “Do it. Stand up.”
She remembers, Gonzalez always said, “Don’t be afraid to try to be the best.”
Today, Tavares-Mocha holds a B.A. in Vocal Performance from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is working on her Master’s in Choral Conducting from Cal State Los Angeles. She directs an award-winning choir at Valencia High School, taking the 200-member choir on tours all over the world.
Along the way, the Fearless Squad reconnected.
Gonzalez has taken the time in between the hectic performance schedule to come back and work with Tavares-Mocha and her students twice over the years, as well as returned to her alma mater to help in the theater program. During one of those visits to Valencia High School, the prophecy came true. Gonzalez and Tavares-Mocha sang together on stage again.
“She came back to work with my students and we sang a duet together. It was so cool for my students to see that these are lifelong friends,” Tavares-Mocha said.
Gonzalez said she is one of those people who never forgets where she came from. She invites the world into her mind and heart through the Fearless Squad movement because she knows how important that kind of support is to every person, not just those in the performance world.
“Sometimes when you start to think you’re larger than life, you lose connection with reality and you forget the people that helped you get where you are,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody’s path is so different and along the way you’re going to find your Squad to help you and tell you, ‘Yeah, you’re awesome.’”
In the final scene of Act I of the musical “Wicked,” Elphaba, performed by Mandy Gonzalez on Broadway in the 2010-11 season, embraces her differences and rises up to truly become who she was meant to be. But she never lets go of her invaluable relationship with her friend Galinda. Tavares-Mocha had the opportunity to experience her dear friend defy gravity when she watched Gonzalez on Broadway as “Wicked.”
“Watching her fly in ‘Wicked’ was symbolic for all of us as people she grew up with,” Tavares-Mocha said. “I was balling my eyes out. You realize no one can hold you back. Don’t be afraid to get the best out of life. Go for it.”