Javier Muñoz remembered when he heard that President Barack Obama was going to attend an early Broadway preview of Hamilton. As the alternate for the lead role regularly portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, he had been slated to play the part on the July 18, 2015, Saturday matinee Obama planned to attend. But, when he heard the news about the day’s special guest, he figured he suddenly had the day off.
“Immediately in my head, I thought, ‘Oh, so I guess my first show will be next week and Lin will go on,’” says Muñoz. “I sort of resigned myself in that moment to not performing.”
But Miranda and director Thomas Kail asked him to come in early the next day. At that time, they told him he would go on as scheduled.
“Lin looks me square in the eye and said, ‘And you’re going to be great,’” remembers Muñoz.
That was the first moment that most people in the world learned Muñoz’s name. A year later, however, he is considerably more well-known. Beginning July 11, the native New Yorker became the most famous replacement actor in Broadway history, taking over the role of Alexander Hamilton full-time. But don’t expect him to be nervous.
“I very rarely get nervous,” he says. Not even when Obama was in the audience? “I really wasn’t.”
His top priority that auspicious day was not to impress the leader of the free world, but to satisfy Miranda. He knew the composer was using those days off as his final chance to fine-tune the ambitious rap musical he had created.
“I wanted to tell the clearest possible story for Lin,” explains Muñoz. “Everything else was just sort of exciting.” Obama coming back during intermission for a photo op and a chat? Just gravy.
From a certain perspective, Muñoz has good reason not to be jittery about his new gig. Sure, the eyes of the world will be looking toward him to see if he upholds the high standard of what is the most famous and sought-after stage show on the planet. But it’s not as if it’s an assignment that’s new to him. Muñoz has been connected to the show since it’s inception, and has been performing the title part regularly for more than a year.
“It feels very natural,” he says of his new eight-shows-a-week life. “I’m very lucky to have been doing this every week. It’s such a massive role, and not one easily stepped into. To have done shows every week for a year is essentially the greatest gift.”
He is quick to assure wary theatregoers that, when it comes to Alexander Hamilton, the role comes first, the actor second.
“I would say it comes down to literally that we are different people,” he says when asked how his performance differs from Miranda’s. “The DNA of the character is always the same: what he wants, what he’s after, how he’s going to get it, what he wants to achieve—all his wants are absolutely the same. It comes down to that fact that we are two individuals who are going to bring our individuality to that. I see no separation, because the essence and the core of the character are the same.”
Still, he has focuses that might differ from those of Miranda. The sinewy song “Say No to This,” in which Hamilton struggles with the temptation to have an affair with a needy woman, is a particular favorite. “It’s one of those few times I get to sing and have my own style to it,” he explains. (This preference is in keeping with Muñoz’s reputation among fans as the “sexy Hamilton.”)
Hamilton is the second Miranda show in which Muñoz has followed the composer-performer into the lead role. He first followed that path in In The Heights, Miranda’s breakout musical. When Miranda left the hit show, Muñoz, an ensemble member, took over the central role of shop owner and narrator Usnavi.
In the Heights not only marked the beginning of Muñoz’s professional relationship with Miranda, but also the saving of the actor’s performing career. At the time he auditioned for the project, he had given up acting and was waiting tables at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. It was a professional shift that he had engineered, even if he wasn’t entirely happy with it.
“Both of my parents, within six months of each other, had been diagnosed with cancer,” he explains, a diagnosis Muñoz then received himself last year. But at that time, Muñoz says he “moved back home to help them with things like laundry and groceries. I, too, was struggling as an actor who wasn’t working much. I decided life at that moment demanded a choice. I wanted to be more of a help to them and not be a burden. I made the choice to quit the business.”
Still, he missed his old pursuits. “I hated it,” he admits, referring to the restaurant work. “I hated leaving what I loved. I hated having a rigid schedule. But it was practical.”
Shortly afterwards, he came across In the Heights and auditioned. His parents, up until then, had been hesitant about their son’s stage dreams. He had grown up in the Linden Houses projects in East New York. Though his father and brother were always creative, pursuing painting, drawing and music, no one in his family ever attempted to actually carve a career out of the arts before Javier. But when his mom and dad saw the workshop of In the Heights, they told him they wanted to support him.
“We became a team at that moment,” says Muñoz. “I would help them through their cancer. They would help to support me in my career in the arts and not give it up. We made it happen together.”
It was a good gamble, even if the bet took a number of years to pay off in Hamilton-sized dividends—and those benefits aren’t just career-oriented.
“It’s made me a better man,” says Muñoz of the lightning rod of a musical. “It’s demanded, in this particular cast of people, that I grow and challenge myself in ways that have only made me better. And professionally, talk about a laundry list of hopes and dreams, and I’m just checking them off with this show.”