NEW YORK (AP) — The night Mandy Gonzalez made her triumphant debut in "Hamilton" on Broadway, there was a special guest in the audience cheering her on: a Jedi Master, in fact.
Mark Hamill came backstage afterward and took photos with the cast of the hit show. Gonzalez's husband was there, too, and she jokes that he was as excited for her that night as he was to meet Luke Skywalker.
"I understand. That's like a deep love. It's like people I had on my wall at 15," said the actress. "When I meet them, it's deep, deep feelings there. So I understand."
A long list of celebrities has followed Hamill, including Paul Rudd, Sean Penn, Adele, Eddie Vedder, Alfonso Ribeiro from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," the girl who voices Doc McStuffins and John Tesh.
Such is life now for Gonzalez, a Broadway veteran of shows such as "Wicked," ''Aida" and "In the Heights" who has replaced Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler in Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about Alexander Hamilton.
"I've never been a part of anything like this. Even though I've done 'Wicked' and I've done these other shows that have been big, it's really something special," she said. "I only hope to continue the journey and do justice to that role."
In many ways, Gonzalez has gone back to the past. She was in the opening cast of Miranda's "In the Heights" and has been reunited now with some of the actors who also made the jump to the new musical, like Christopher Jackson and Javier Munoz. Plus, she's in the same theater where "In the Heights" played. She's even in the same dressing room. "I truly feel like I'm back home," she said.
Gonzalez grew up in Santa Clarita, California, in a house filled with music. Her dad worked three jobs and on Sundays, his one day with the kids, he'd put Elvis movies into the LaserDisc. Meanwhile, her grandmother loved musicals. "So my life was pretty much show tunes and Elvis growing up. I fell in love with music through that," she said.
She attended the California Institute of Technology until she won a part backing up Bette Midler on tour. "I went back to California and I said, 'I'm leaving the LaserDisc behind. I need to move to New York.'" She did — and won an Obie Award her first time out in "Eli's Comin'" and then was Idina Menzel's standby in "Aida" on Broadway.
Gonzalez said she identifies with Angelica Schuyler's sacrifice and her sense of duty. She also knows what it's like — swiping a line from the musical — to be "young, scrappy and hungry."
"I worked so hard to be here so there are a few tears shed at the end of the show — for myself. This is where I want to be. This is right where I want to be," she said. "This time in my life, this part, I can relate with it, with her. I think that this is a dream, a dream role."
Gonzalez was part of the team that first tackled "In the Heights" at a reading in the basement of a drama bookshop in Manhattan in 2004. That's when she first met Miranda, who sang all the songs that day. "I had never heard anything like it. I had never seen anything like him. And I've been working with him ever since," she said.
Also in the room was Thomas Kail, an Emmy Award-winning director who helmed "In the Heights" and "Hamilton." He said she brought grace and humanity and warmth to the project — and continues to do so.
"Her diligence, her approach to the work, her seriousness about making theater, was at an incredibly high level," Kail said. "Mandy was always at rehearsal 10 minutes before you and she would stay 10 minutes later. She was always there, she was always ready."
Gonzalez, who is married to Douglas Melini, an abstract painter, is also on the small screen, having snagged parts as an assistant to the president on "Madam President" and an agent in "Quantico."
The couple are the parents of a 4½-year-old daughter, who proudly brought a Playbill of "Hamilton" to show her pre-kindergarten class recently. "She loves the soundtrack and plays it for all her friends," said Gonzalez.
After looking at the photos of her mom's opening night, the little one did have one question: What was Luke Skywalker doing there?
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits