Dreams are hard work. Just look at Lindsay Mendez, who is headed to the Tony Awards as a featured actress nominee for her arrestingly original take on one of the greatest best-friend roles of all time: Carrie Pipperidge in the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “Carousel.”
As a grade-schooler Mendez was already performing alongside adult professionals in Los Angeles-area civic light operas. She’d sleep on the drive home to Norwalk — mom kept pajamas ready — to be fresh for school and the next night onstage.
That all-out commitment has propelled Mendez, 35, through a decade of high-profile Broadway roles, beginning with the 2007 revival of “Grease” (she played Jan, featured in “Mooning” and “It’s Raining on Prom Night”) and continuing with “Everyday Rapture,” “Godspell” (“Bless the Lord”), “Wicked” (playing Elphaba as the show celebrated its 10th anniversary) and the play “Significant Other” (as the last-married bestie to the central character). Off-Broadway she created the lead role in 2012’s “Dogfight,” the breakthrough show for songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen”). And now: her first Tony nomination, with the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for her category already in hand.
In “Carousel,” Mendez portrays a young millworker in late-1800s New England who does her best to brace up her friend Julie when love turns complicated. Carrie — a level-headed rule-follower — typically comes across as demure. Not here. Strong reactions etch themselves across Mendez’s face and, subtly but firmly, she leaves no doubt about who’ll have the final say. But she’s also a great deal of fun, especially in her signature song, “Mr. Snow,” in which she giggles and rhapsodizes about Carrie’s fisherman beau, her robust mezzo soprano turning crystalline.
“Lindsay has immutable and impeccable honesty — on stage and off,” “Carousel” director Jack O’Brien says: “a kind of willingness to look life squarely in the face.”
In a lively, laugh-filled phone conversation from the Manhattan apartment she shares with husband Philip Wakefield, a jazz drummer, Mendez talked about “Carousel” and the Southern California performing experiences that got her there, which began at age 6 in community theater and advanced to such presenters as Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, Musical Theatre West and McCoy Rigby Entertainment at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. She headed to New York directly after graduating from Orange County High School of the Arts. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Your Carrie is a surprise. Where did that come from?
It came from Jack O’Brien — and us. This piece has a lot of ghosts with it, and knowing what the subject matter was [Julie’s abuse at the hands of her unemployed, frustrated husband], I think it was important for all of us to say: What would an audience of now think of this and how do we look at it responsibly? We wanted to make sure that these women were powerful and took care of themselves — made mistakes, like everyone does, but that they could carry on with their lives.
Carrie says what she means and never thinks before she says something. She’s really brave. She’s what I wish I was all the time, even if it would maybe get me into trouble sometimes. Because we’re looking at the story through a 2018 lens, I felt like Carrie has to be the person to hold Julie to task and love her and kind of be a pillar of strength for her.
You seem very no-nonsense in dealing with Mr. Snow too.
He’s kind of no-nonsense as well. She learns that from him, a bit. At the end the play she’s ruling the roost and in charge of that family. I love that she develops that strength. I think it was important to hone that in, so that the audience is not watching women who are stuck or weak in any way.
What’s it like sharing a stage with all that talent? Joshua Henry. Jesse Mueller. Renée Fleming. And your Mr. Snow, Alexander Gemignani.
It’s unbelievable. When we first started, I took a look at all of the cast and thought, well, these are people from a lot of different mediums of the arts; how is this all going to blend together and work? And then I realized that everyone came in with such a deep appreciation of each other, because everyone brought different talents to the group, and we’ve all learned from each other.
What do you think of being part of a racially diverse cast that makes late-1800s Maine look like America today?
I probably feel a little bit more strongly about that because I happen to be Mexican. [Her roots are also Russian Jewish.] I think that people want to come and see that all types of people are represented in theater. I think it would be irresponsible to not do that. I heard a statistic yesterday that only 2% of Actors’ Equity members who are working are Latino, and that just hit me so hard. When shows like “In the Heights” or “Evita” or “West Side Story” aren’t running, Hispanic people aren’t getting that much of a chance.
So take us back in time. You grew up in Norwalk.
My dad [Mike Mendez] was the director of parks and recreation for the city of Santa Fe Springs, and he was also on the City Council of Norwalk. My mom [Beckie, who died in 2013] was a homemaker. She took me to voice and dance and every audition — and my brother [Michael, now an actor in New York]. She would cart us around every day. And my dad, working so hard. They are completely the reason that I am here.
How did you discover performing?
My sister [Lauren Hernandez] did a production of “Annie,” and I remember — I think I was 3 or 4 years old — I just screamed to my mom that I wanted to do that. So my mom put me in dance class pretty early on, 4 or 5 years old. And I started studying voice when I was 6. I pretty much always just wanted to do this.
What was the first show you were in?
“The Sound of Music” — Rodgers & Hammerstein! — at the Santa Fe Springs Community Playhouse. I was 6 years old, and I was Gretl. I learned my lines by my mom recording them into a tape that I would listen to, because I couldn’t read yet.
As a high school junior in 2000 you won a Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award in the non-classical voice category. Adam Lambert was also a finalist?
It was between he and I, and I won. I’m sure he’s the one laughing at the bank now. [Laughs] The following year Reprise cast me in “Call Me Madam,” with Karen Morrow. I missed, like, three weeks of school because it rehearsed in the daytime. I was in the ensemble. It was my first all-Equity production.
Do you get back to Southern California?
This past December I did a concert for Musical Theatre West. But I don’t get out as much as I would like to. I would really love to do a run of something out there, to come back to my stamping grounds and perform.
What’s the most profound thing that’s happened to you as a performer?
When I was working on “Dogfight,” I was in a rehearsal with [director] Joe Mantello and Derek Klena. We were working on a scene, and we kept doing it and Joe kept giving us notes, and then we’d try it again. At some point — we had done it three or four times — I said, “Achh. I just want to get this right for you.” And Joe said, “Lindsay, you’re never going to get it ‘right.’ There is no ‘right.’ I just want you to keep trying things. Every night something will be different. I want you to breathe and live in it, and be open and react.” It’s so funny. I find that actors are all control freaks in a business where we have no control. [Laughs] To learn that I had to let that control go, that granted me so much freedom. I’m grateful to Joe every day for that.
Playing Elphaba in “Wicked” — what was that like?
Oh, boy. It was an amazing experience, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s just such a massive role, the whole thing, from getting green — the whole process of it, it’s so full-time. I felt I had to live my whole life for “Wicked” because it’s so vocally and energetically demanding. I felt like I ran a marathon every day.
What do you hope is next?
A nap? After all this. But, I don’t know. Right now I’m only interested in things that scare the hell out of me, that feel like a huge challenge. So maybe TV or a film. Maybe Shakespeare, a classic play. Something very different from this.
Your life sounds like a dream. Is it?
[Laughs] Is anyone’s life a dream? I’m not sure. I do feel like I’ve been extraordinarily blessed, but I also know I’ve worked really hard, and I’ve had a lot of downs with my ups. I’m grateful every single day that I get to make my living as an actor in the toughest city in the world. I don’t take it for granted. I just kind of ride the wave.