Lindsay Mendez had a banner 2012. After blowing the roof off the Circle in the Square Theatre nightly with her rendition of "Bless the Lord" in Broadway's Godspell, she moved a few blocks away to Second Stage to star as the painfully shy Rose Fenny in the dark, visceral musical Dogfight, for which she received Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League Award nominations. Along the way, Mendez found time to work on a jazz act with her longtime collaborator, pianist Marco Paguia. The pair released an album earlier this year, just in time for Mendez to take on the high-flying role Elphaba in the Broadway sensation Wicked.
On her off nights, Mendez and Paguia's act has been making the rounds of jazz clubs across New York. Now the pair is preparing to make their 54 Below debut on September 9. TheaterMania chatted with the multi-talented Mendez as she shared her secrets on jazz singing, the art of collaboration, and the advice she's been given from her previous Elphaba pals.
I know you've played 54 Below before, but this is your first official solo show there, right?
This is my first time playing with my name on the bill. I love it there; it's so wonderful. I love that they're giving a place for theater people to show off what else they do. It's awesome.
What inspired you to start singing?
At first it was things like watching movie musicals when I was a little girl and wanting to do that. As I became an adult, I listened to a lot of jazz, to the ladies of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae and Nina Simone. I loved that they each covered the same songs and interpreted them totally differently. I thought that was so cool. They could each paint their own picture of that moment. I was so inspired by that that I wanted to try my hand at doing it.
How did you find your collaborator, Marco Paguia?
Marco was hired to be the musical director of Everyday Rapture when it went to Broadway. We met doing that show and he told me he had a jazz album. I listened to it and I was so blown away — I couldn't believe how incredible it was. He did all the arrangements [for] this jazz trio he had. He told me he didn't play anymore because his trio was from Chicago and he lived in New York with his wife [and that] he really missed playing. I said, "Would you ever want to have a band with a vocalist?" He thought about it and said, "I would love to give that a go." We decided to play a gig during Everyday Rapture. We had our first gig at Joe's Pub. I never really thought I would have a jazz band. But now, I couldn't think of anything else I'd want to do more.
Tell me about that first gig.
It was terrifying. Marco has pushed me so much to step out of my comfort zone. Marco plays something different every time, and so do the other guys, so I really just have to trust that they'll be there, 'cause there's no music in front of you. You're doing it by feel and it's all a little experimental. That gig was really scary for me but I didn't mess up too many times. I did well enough that Marco thought, "Eh, I'll give her another shot." [laughs]
[But now] we really found what our sound is. It's consistent, but we can cover so many different styles of music. It feels really natural to us now. That's what a band does; you work and hone your arrangements, figure out who you are, and that's what we've been doing the past couple of years. Now we're hitting our stride.
Do you have a favorite song to sing?
That is not a fair question! I love all of them, for different reasons. I love doing "Ordinary People" because it's so funky and fun, and yet I love doing really soft, intimate ballads like "Lilac Wine," which are a little more traditional. I have a wide range of styles I like to sing, and what I love about this gig is that I get to run the gamut. That feels fair to me. In the shows I do, I feel like the character has one voice and at my gig, I don't have to follow those rules.
Speaking of the characters you've played, your performance as Rose Fenny in Dogfight earned you well-deserved Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, nearly a year after the show closed. Was it surprising to be remembered so long after it ended?
We were all really surprised; pleasantly surprised. I'm so moved that people still talk about it. [Dogfight] definitely changed my life in a million ways. It was the start of a lot of really great things for a lot of people. I couldn't be luckier to be directed by Joe Mantello. Let's talk about that. I completely feel like I owe that performance 1000% to him.
And now you're back with him, starring as Elphaba in Wicked, which he directs.
I'm so happy there. I love the people there. I'm treated so well. I feel so honored to be doing it for the tenth anniversary, and to be there with [Dogfight leading man] Derek [Klena] is amazing, and I love Katie Rose [Clarke], my Glinda. It's been an incredible experience, really.
Did previous Elphabas give you any helpful advice?
Definitely. I talked to Stephanie Block on the phone my first week in and she was like, "Be prepared that it's gonna get harder, then it'll get easier, and then it'll get harder again. Just make sure to treat yourself well." She was right. Some weeks I feel pretty good, and some weeks I feel so exhausted. It's just kind of a roller coaster, a monster of a part. I feel so much support from those women. I'm friends with her and Julia [Murney], and [role originator] Idina [Menzel] came to the show a couple weeks ago. It's a club, playing that role. You just can't understand the depth of it until you actually are green eight times a week. But I'm also like, "Wow, I'm so honored to be in the company of those women, because they''re all incredible." And it's like a little sisterhood I'm so proud to be a part of.