For the second song off her upcoming album Fearless, Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez makes the leap from contemporary Broadway to country. In “Life Is Sweet,” cowritten by former Sugarland lead Jennifer Nettles, Gonzalez sings with her In the Heights and Hamilton co-star Christopher Jackson about using strife as a reason to love. EW has the exclusive debut of the duet below.
Gonzalez, who currently plays fast-talking Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton, and Jackson, who originated the role of George Washington in the juggernaut Broadway musical, are no strangers to singing together. They played star-crossed lovers Benny and Nina for years during the run of In the Heights, and that’s why Gonzalez says recording the song “feels like home.”[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/347629426?secret_token=s-CbEpc" params="auto_play=false&hide_related=true&visual=true&show_comments=false&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&color=050505" width="100%" height="450" iframe="true" /]
“It’s an incredible thing because you get to see how our voices have changed, but our connection has always stayed the same through our time,” Gonzalez tells EW. “We both knew where we were coming from, and we both knew when we were going to breathe, and when we were going to move, and it just felt like I was home.”
The duet follows the Oct. 6 release of “Fearless,” the title track that Gonzalez tapped Hamilton and In the Heights creator and friend Lin-Manuel Miranda to write for her.
Earlier this year, Gonzalez posted a picture with a group of friends and called them her #FearlessSquad, encouraging others to connect and empower each other via social media. She effectively started a social media movement with thousands of posts on Twitter and Instagram, which ended up inspiring the title for her album.
In the interview below, Gonzalez talks about the new duet, the inspiration behind the upcoming LP, and preparing for her debut at the prestigious Café Carlyle in New York City.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Considering the meaning of “Life Is Sweet,” what were you thinking about when making this song?
MANDY GONZALEZ: I was thinking about a couple different things. I’ve been married now, we’re celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary this weekend. Being married and going through things — I think somebody that’s been with somebody for so long knows that there are so many ups and downs. And sometimes it’s through the downs that you have to learn how to make it through. With this song, I was thinking of that. I was thinking of my own parents who have been married for 45 years. As a child, watching their struggles and all of the things you can go through. So, I think it’s the desperation and the fearlessness of love that I was thinking about when I was singing the song.
How did Jennifer Nettles get involved with this album?
Jennifer and Bill Sherman, who is the producer of my album, got involved because they had written this song together. When I started working with Bill, he sent me this, and this was one of those songs that when I first heard it I cried. I’ve always been a fan of [Nettles’] work, of course, and her voice. And I feel like it’s from a woman’s point of view, the lyrics, and that’s a really beautiful thing. She’s somebody I admire, so to sing those words, I feel like she knows where it’s at and where I was coming from. And I could feel where she was coming from.
I was listening and I thought, ‘This reminds me of Sugarland.’ And then I found out this was the one she co-wrote. Are you a country fan?
I grew up certainly listening to country music and that was part of the music we listened to growing up, but my life kind of went into this other field, which was theater. I moved to New York and I started on Broadway. It was never in my trajectory to do country. I think the thing about country music that fits so well with theater and musical theater is the storytelling. I’ve been a storyteller from the beginning, and that’s really what I wanted to do with my life. I can relate to it and that’s why I think I connect with it so much.
“Fearless” also shares that narrative quality, and has generational themes as well. It tells a story.
Because of this movement, and the album coming out of this movement, I told Lin that I really wanted an anthem for the Fearless Squad and I wanted a song called “Fearless.” Then, I also told him about my parents’ story and how my parents met as pen pals during the Vietnam War. My father was drafted when he was 18. And my mom was a Jewish girl from the Valley in California. She heard about this program where you could write to different soldiers who didn’t have anybody to write to, and my father was one of those soldiers. And they corresponded through the year, and my father, on the bottom of every letter, he put, “Love always, Paul” and then the amount of days it would be until he would see her.
She never thought that he would show up. She just thought this was a little romance through letters. And my dad went home to California to Reedley, and he got in his car and drove down to my mom’s. He showed up on the door step, and said, “I’m here.” And my grandparents were very reluctant to let him in to our lives because he was from a different culture. He was Mexican-American, and he was different. My mom fell in love with him, and they forbid it, and she decided to elope. I told Lin this story and within two weeks he sent me this song.
What was it like to premiere that song in Times Square?
I got a call from Lin’s dad that they were doing an event at Viva Broadway, and I had done Viva Broadway with Lin for In the Heights when it first started, when they first started putting that organization together to celebrate Latinos on Broadway. And to see how far it has come, it was truly amazing that it was in the middle of Times Square. It was truly terrifying, thrilling, and powerful to sing “walls come down” in the middle of Times Square in the times we’re n. It was incredible, and it was the perfect place to premiere this song.
You’re covering the In the Heights song you’re kind of known for, “Breathe.” How are you going to change that?
I’m doing a new take on that. I went into the studio with Bill and I said, “I want to tell this story from the perspective now. Who I am now. How I’ve grown up, and what that sounds like in my voice.” So I wanted to lower the key a little bit. I wanted for it to just be my voice on that song. When I listen to the song, it definitely gives me chills to think of where I started with that song and to see where I am now. It’s kind of like singing it to my daughter a little bit. It’s from that perspective.
How has it been recording this album during your tenure as Angelica?
I’ve been doing Hamilton and everything else, and it feels right because, you know, I’m a mother. And as mothers we have to multitask on a daily basis. And so I think that there’s a need for me to constantly be busy. I was also shooting Madame Secretary during this, but when we were sitting down in the studio it was purely studio time But, at night I would go and I would do the show. I never missed a show, and Hamilton was super supportive of me.
I got the nickname of The Beast — for my vocal prowess, not for my hair or anything like that. But my friends always called me that, and it kind of stuck. It’s because I missed this one vocal rehearsal in In The Heights, and somebody said, “The Beast don’t need no vocal rehearsal.” I think that being a mother, putting out an album, being in a Broadway show, as well as trying to do everything else, I wear that name now with a badge because I think it’s pretty badass.
You’re about to make your Café Carlyle debut later this month. It’s a rite of passage in a way.
Oh my gosh, I can’t even tell you. It’s definitely a rite of passage. I mean, Chita Rivera just played the Carlyle. It’s a place that I’ve always wanted to play, and now it’s happening. I don’t know if I’m the first Gonzalez or not but I very well might be and I hope with Fearless that people are going to know my story and where my family comes from and be inspired. So, I’m happy that the Gonzalez name is going to be playing at the Carlyle. It means so, so much to me.
How is it different from other venues?
The Carlyle is one one of the concert halls that is the classiest and it’s got such incredible sound, but it holds so many stories. So many incredible artists have played there and so many of my favorites who have opened the doors for me. So, to play there, and to also become one of those artists, it’s an incredible thing. It’s not taken lightly. I’ve been rehearsing my tush off so I’m going to be more than ready to hit on Oct. 24. I’ll be ready to slay, as they say.
Gonzalez’s album Fearless drops Oct. 20.