Lindsay Mendez Is Ready to Win
No two Lindsay Mendez roles are alike. From the vulnerable outsider Rose in “Dogfight” to the fiercely loyal Laura in “Significant Other” to the misunderstood Elphaba in “Wicked,” none of them are the “typical” leading lady. You might call them “unlikely” or “unconventional,” but Mendez doesn’t think it’s about the characters.
“Do you feel like maybe that’s because I’m unlikely and unconventional? Because that’s what I think,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the roles, I think it’s Lindsay Mendez, who is unlikely to win.”
After playing outsiders for years, Mendez is finally “winning,” so to speak, onstage and in life. As the no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is Carrie Pipperidge in “Carousel,” she’s playing a character “who gets everything that she wants,” and on top of that, she just got nominated for her first Tony Award for the role.
“I feel like Carrie is so different from anything I’ve played before, because I usually don’t get to play the person that wins. I usually play the loser,” Mendez says. “And Carrie lives her best life with no consequence. She has some bumps, but she just has no fear.”
While Carrie isn’t necessarily the “leading lady” of “Carousel” — that’d be her best friend Julie Jordan, played by Jessie Mueller — Carrie is a star-making part. Audra MacDonald won her first Tony Award for her performance in the 1994 revival, and musical theater legend Barbara Cook said playing the role in the 1954 revival was the first time she felt taken seriously as an actor.
Mendez had never seen a production of “Carousel” before her audition, and after working for years on contemporary musicals with writers like Ryan Scott Oliver and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, jumping into a classic musical was new territory.
“Growing up as a little Mexican girl in California, I never really thought that Rodgers and Hammerstein was my thing,” she says. “I didn’t really see myself in those shows.”
For one, Mendez is known for her belt, and Carrie is a soprano part, a vocal register Mendez doesn’t visit frequently. She’s also dancing in a show for the first time in a while. Although she grew up in dance classes, she hasn’t been afforded many opportunities to dance onstage, so choreographer Justin Peck (“I’m just crazy for him,” Mendez says) created a moment for her in “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.”
But Mendez never imagined she would be leading a big Broadway musical revival. She really only pictured it later in life – Mama Rose in “Gypsy” is the only role on her acting bucket list.
“But that’s years and years from now,” she says. “I always saw myself as an old actress, but never my own age.”
“I’ve always felt a little bit like I can’t believe I’m still working and getting to play these parts, because I do feel very different from what I feel is conventional to be playing lead roles, just in how I look and who I am as a person,” she continues. “I look at all my girlfriends who are lead actors on Broadway, and they’re all stunning and size 0, and there’s a way that I always thought a leading lady would look or present.”
It’s an impressive moment of vulnerability, as Mendez exudes a confidence and kindness that you’re sure she could do anything. However, that self-assurance has come after years in the business.
She moved from southern California to New York after high school to pursue a career in musical theater and landed a European tour of “Grease” soon after—“I did a lot of ‘Grease.’” (The show would go on to mark her Broadway debut.)
“I just always knew I wanted to do this, I never had any other desire,” she says.
Mendez was known as the “girl with the big voice,” and many of her early Broadway credits had her using that talent from singing backup for Sherie Rene Scott in “Everyday Rapture” to belting “Bless the Lord” in “Godspell.”
However, it was when she got cast in “Dogfight,” Pasek and Paul’s chamber musical based on the 1991 film, that things really started to change for her. Mendez played Rose, a young waitress who is taken to a party by a Marine only to find out later that the party was a competition to see who could bring the ugliest girl.
“Everything since ‘Godspell,’ I’ve felt legitimately very afraid that I was not going to be good, or that I wasn’t going to be able to do it,” she says. “But I think I thrive in that. I thrive in being like, I think I’m bad. I know that sounds really messed up, but I like to feel like the worst person in the room,”
She also has an instinctive feeling when she thinks a role is right for her, something she felt with “Dogfight,” “Significant Other,” and now, “Carousel.” Although Carrie was outside her wheelhouse, she felt a kinship with the character, and after her audition, she landed the role moments after exiting the building.
Mendez admires the character’s no-nonsense nature and how she’s able to tell her friend her honest thoughts, even when her timing might not be great. What she was really drawn to was the character’s humor, something she hasn’t had many opportunities to explore onstage.
“I grew up watching all these old MGM movies and a lot of Lucille Ball and Judy Garland, and that type of humor, the way show’s written in the 40s, the humor of it, I really, really understand that humor,” she says.
The question of “Why Carousel in 2018?” lingers. At the center of the musical is a troubled man who hits his wife, and in the age of Time’s Up and #MeToo, is that really a story that needs to be told?
“These things really happened back then, and they still happen now, and our job in theater is to illuminate lots of different stories, not just stories that make us feel good, but stories that are real and complex,” Mendez says. “And women are real, and complex, and so is love. I think it wasn’t about us judging it, it was about us getting inside it and understanding how that can happen and why. But it was also figuring out how to make these women strong women.”
For Mendez, the focus is on Julie and Carrie’s friendship and the story of two women and how their lives evolve. “I think it’s about seeing these two girls who grew up working in the mill and how each of their stories could go just by making a decision one way or another,” she says. “None of it’s all rosy, no matter how you look at it.”
Mendez too has grown and changed since she first landed in New York. Asked to look back on her beginnings on the morning of Tony Award nominations, she laughed a little and then offered her younger self these words of advice.
“I would be like, girl hang in there! I know you don’t see it now, but you’re going to be accepted and there’s a place for you,” Mendez says. “I don’t think I knew that when I came here. I was shockingly not afraid, but I didn’t really know what my path would be and I definitely didn’t see this. I would just say: Hang on girl. It’s going to be an amazing ride.”