It was a night of hope — and healing.
Just four weeks after the wrenching Valentine’s Day shooting claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez invited a number of the student survivors to join her on stage during her concert in nearby Delray Beach on Monday, and together they raised their voices in a performance intended to demand change, inspire fearlessness and let in a little joy.
“We were all crying,” Gonzalez, 39, tells PEOPLE the morning after the show. “It felt like a way for us to stand together. It was about the power of community.”
Gonzalez, who currently plays Angelica Schuyler in the Broadway production of Hamilton, said she initially felt a little “helpless” when she learned about the deadly shooting last month. But facing a catastrophe with courage and helping others find their voices has always been at the heart of Gonzalez’s message. Last year she founded Fearless Squad, an online community based on empowerment, inclusiveness, and positivity.
When she realized her Monday concert in Delray Beach, Florida (taking place during a brief Hamilton break) was just half an hour from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, she wanted to find a way to help — and encourage those affected by the tragedy a way to promote fearlessness in their own lives.
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Gonzalez reached out to students including Cameron Kasky, founder of the #NeverAgain Movement, after someone in her Fearless Squad pointed out that she and Kasky have a personal connection: The student attended a master class she taught at French Woods, a performing arts camp in upstate New York.
“I reached out and said, ‘What do you need from me?’ and they said ‘We want to sing,’ and I said ‘I can do that!’ ” says Gonzalez, adding that her connection to Kasky made the effort feel even more “personal.”
A night I will never forget with the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. We sing for change. ???? @AMarch4OurLives @NeverAgainMSD @Nelba_MG @anagraceproject #FearlessSquad pic.twitter.com/SbeVXPiD8T— Mandy Gonzalez (@_mandygonzalez) March 13, 2018
Gonzalez arranged a FaceTime call with the students in her Hamilton dressing room about two weeks ago — her fellow Schuyler sisters popped in to say hi — and the group decided on four songs to perform onstage together in Florida on Monday: “Breathe” and “When You’re Home” from In the Heights, plus “Starts Right Now,” and “Fearless” — the title track from her debut album released last fall, and penned by her longtime friend Lin-Manuel Miranda. The song was inspired by Gonzalez’s Fearless Squad movement.
Gonzalez says meeting the students in person on Monday, and performing with them on stage, was deeply moving.
“All of the sudden I’m meeting these people who are getting through this tremendous loss,” Gonzalez says. “I saw on TV recently someone say that ‘children are like weeds — they can bend in the wind.’ They come back up … These kids are everything we want to be.”
The experience also took on deeper meaning because Gonzalez invited her friend Nelba Márquez-Green, who lost her 6-year-old daughter Ana during the Sandy Hook tragedy, to travel with her to Florida and speak to the students privately. She also introduced them to the audience as they joined Gonzalez on stage.
“She told them how much she is behind them and asked questions like ‘Are you sleeping? Are you eating? Did you call your mom?’ She knows what’s it’s like to go through this,” Gonzalez says.
The Broadway veteran says the joint performance also let in a little joy for the students, which is also part of their healing process.
“Joy is part of the fight, too — you have to have both,” she says. “At 16 and 17 I was just thinking about what play to be in, but these kids are thinking about how to change gun laws and burying their friends. But this was an opportunity for them to have a night of just being kids.”