This story was originally published on Nov. 13, 2015. Since we’re talking all things Hamilton this week, we’re repromoting it.
What is it like to be Alexander Hamilton? Three guys know. There’s the real Hamilton ( … you can’t ask him). There’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the literal genius behind the musical you probably can’t get tickets to until next November, who, for six days a week, plays the most popular orphan on Broadway since Annie. And there’s Javier Muñoz, Miranda’s alternate, who stars in Hamilton every Sunday. He also steps in whenever Miranda is out during the week, and it is this unconventional scheduling that has led to Muñoz performing for both of America’s first couples: Michelle and Barack and Jay and Beyoncé.
Muñoz and Miranda go back a long way — Muñoz made his Broadway debut playing Usnavi in In the Heights, another role penned and originated by Miranda — and have a partnership Muñoz says is “unlike any working, creative relationship I’ve ever had.” Muñoz called Vulture from his dressing room during a two-show day to talk about how it feels to play a Founding Father as a Latino actor, what Hamilton was like when it was still just a mixtape, and how hard it must have been to go to the bathroom in the 1770s. (Spoiler alert: very.)
While I was waiting for your call just now, I was watching a bunch of Ham4Ham videos on YouTube. I’m really into this one where Okieriete Onaodowan sings “Defying Gravity” as Mickey Mouse. So specific and also random, but it works! Do you have a favorite performance you’ve done or seen?
I have a few. The little In the Heights reunion one that we did was pretty sweet. But I’ve gotta say, nothing beats “The Schuyler Sisters” performed by our three kings. That was pretty incredible.
Take me back to your introduction to Hamilton. You were in a bunch of the workshops and you played a lot of characters, right?
I definitely remember getting a call from Lin and him describing the idea via voicemail. I was sort of sitting there thinking, “What?” But it’s Lin! So I trust him. Obviously, I’m gonna say yes. Let’s get in the room and see what this is. It was just a collection of songs at the time. And I joined from that point forward. And you are correct, I played multiple characters throughout the development of this. At one point, at a small, developmental reading, they needed one more voice for “The Schuyler Sisters,” and I got to play Peggy, and it was hilarious.
And it wasn’t a musical yet?
There was no Act I or Act II. It was still called Hamilton Mixtape. And it was just an idea brewing. But from that first rehearsal, I can definitely recall hearing the music for the first time and thinking, “I don’t know what this is gonna be, but damn it, it’s just so good. And it only got better. We did workshop after workshop after workshop. I believe I was part of just about every single one up until last year. When the official workshop happened, I was in Oregon doing the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and that was a hard decision to make, because I knew if Hamilton was going to go on and I wasn’t available, it would go without me.
When I was in Oregon, I got an email from my agents and it was asking for a video submission for Hamilton. And it took a day because I went, “A video submission for a show I’ve been part of the development of?” I was caught off guard. But I trusted it. I had resigned myself into thinking that I would not be a part of Hamilton. So I thought, of course I’ve got to do this. Less than a week later, I got another request that was strictly for the part of Hamilton. And all of the lights went off inside of me. “Oh my God, are we doing this again? Is this Lin and me going in on a character again? Is this In the Heights again?” And I got very excited about the prospect of that.
What is it like to share this role with Lin? How would you describe that relationship?
I’ll tell you, this is unlike any working, creative relationship I’ve ever had. It’s not easily duplicated. You can’t just throw two people together and ask them to create a role together. Actors have to feel very safe in the process of creation, and if you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen, it stifles the creativity, period. However, when it comes to me and Lin, I feel safest in the process with him. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There’s just no ego involved. We are constantly giving everything we have. I watch him and discover so much that I can play and use and do, and I want to say that it’s mutual, and we just go back and forth.
We literally tag each other in. “You’re up: Go.” It’s all about finding what works. There’s no other agenda. It’s literally like: Who is this character? How do we flesh him out? What are the choices that work best? It takes a great deal of humility and even a greater deal of trust for two artists to do something like this together. From the very first moment of Heights, together with Lin, we had that. It’s an honor to be trusted that much by anyone, let alone Lin.
How do you get ready to do a performance like this? Today is a two-show day for you and it seems like — I know it’s your job to be able to do it, but as someone in the audience, it seems so exhausting. Not just emotionally and mentally, but physically.
This is a big old mountain to climb, every single performance. I learned the very first run-through I had, which was at the Public, you can’t look at the whole show you’ve got to do. I have to wait backstage for my entrance and just look at that entrance, and just look at what is right in front of me right now, and when it’s gone it’s gone. If I screwed it up, laugh at it and move on, because there is no time. Because if you look at the mountain, you will not want to climb it. You’ll want to piss your pants and run away.
What does it feel like to wear that costume? Does it change how you think about what it would have been like to live during Hamilton’s time?
Clearly, they did not use the bathroom a lot. Because these are costumes that are almost impossible to get out of when you have to go pee. It’s like, what were they thinking? I cannot imagine what they smelled like in the summer. It must have been atrocious. But it’s very cool. These are just exquisite costumes that not only look incredible but feel powerful to wear. And they do help, as an actor, just take you out of whatever your day was before and what it’s going to be after.
So if this show were cast to look like the real founders, obviously, the cast would be a bunch of white guys. What does it feel like for you to be a part of this cast that is totally multicultural, especially in the context of the people you get to portray?
I have always — let’s say, since college — it’s always been a curiosity to me why I would not be considered for many roles simply because I’m a Latino actor. It was always a curiosity to me why it doesn’t come down to just: who is the best, cast the role. And that is a lifelong, career-long feeling and thought and experience I’ve had. To be able to walk out onto this stage and see a diverse cast that looks like who I see when I take the train, that I see on the sidewalk, that I see at the gym and the grocery store when I’m out doing chores and exercises, to see the society I live in represented on that stage with me, makes sense. And all of the best actors for the role were hired. That, to me, is the best that theater can do.
I have to imagine that those feelings are only amplified when you are performing for the President and the First Lady. What was that like? What were they like?
It’s crazy! It’s so crazy. I still just don’t even know how to put it into words, man. How do you describe it? I don’t know how to describe the feeling of performing this piece, for our President, and First Lady, and especially a president and first lady that I voted for and like! And to have them be so lovely and generous. That’s extraordinary. That’s a once in a lifetime thing.
What did they say to you when you met backstage?
So the first time the first lady came, off-Broadway, I was so, just in awe of meeting the first lady and, like a shy kid, I just didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t been on that day — I was just at the theater, but not performing — and I said to her, “I’m an alternate, I wasn’t on today.” And she says, “But you get out there! You do this!” And I said, “I do, thank you!” Like a five year old.
How about the president?
The first thing the president said to me, he was shaking hands with folks next to me — I’ll never forget this moment — without me moving or gesturing, he came straight to me, shook my hand, made eye contact, and said, “You are wonderful.” I don’t even know what I said! That’s my president! WHAT. That’s glorious. So it’s unreal, man.
Did that prepare you for meeting Beyoncé? That is, assuming anything could prepare you for meeting Beyoncé?
Let me tell you: No one let me know that she and Jay-Z were there, and they were so brilliant to do that. Because the moment my dresser told me, I collapsed behind my chair in the dressing room squealing like a child. I could not have done the show if I’d known they were out there. And they are really cool and really lovely. Meeting them is what you hope it’s like when you meet the artists you admire.
At what point in the development process did you realize that you were a part of something historic? Did you have one of those moments of, “This is a much bigger deal than I ever anticipated”?
You know what? It was when we started to get celebrities in our house, and it was at the Public. We started to slowly get the politicians and the celebrities coming to the show and I was just thinking, “Wow, I didn’t expect that.” Quite honestly, it still wasn’t a thing in my head until opening night. It just really started to sink in, then, that this is way bigger than any of us. It became that, in my mind: This show exists and will exist forever in the minds of everyone who was here to experience it and after. That’s like trying to wrap your brain around the universe constantly expanding. You can’t really do that, but that’s the feeling. Certainly back when it was just music stands and a piano, I thought, this is a kick-ass musical.
As long as we’re talking about stuff that’s hard to wrap your head around, if you could time travel and talk to Alexander Hamilton, what would you say to him?
So much. I think the first thing I might ask him is, “Dude, WHY the Reynolds Pamphlet? What were you thinking? What were you thinking?”
Yeah, that was a bold move.
I’d probably want to know what it was like to just, at the very beginning, to grow up in his circumstances and to find it within himself to leave in search of something better and more, because that takes such courage. That’s just so brave. It makes me think of my parents and it makes me think of the immigrant journey to come to this country and try. I’m born and raised in Brooklyn, and that, to me, that’s the silver spoon in my mouth. And there was nothing easy about that, but it certainly wasn’t the challenge I can imagine anyone facing coming to this country for the first time, let alone, coming from nothing, which is what he came from. I would want to know everything he could remember about what that decision was like, and what that life was like there, and what that journey coming here was like.
What about the rest of these characters? Who do you think you’d want to be friends with?
I would totally, totally, totally want to be Angelica’s best buddy. She is so fascinating. And then you have Renée [Elise Goldsberry] playing her, who is even more fascinating. I think she’d be the one I’d be like, “Hi, tell me everything.”
So as an alternate, you’re on every Sunday and then you have to be available every other day, just in case? Is there, like, an Alexander Hamilton bat signal they send up in the sky and then you run to the theater?
If only! I’m at the theater for every performance. At the moment, I’d be the only person able to go on. In the future there will be more covers, and there’s another actor in the company who is in the process of mastering the role. It’s a beast, and he’s onstage in the ensemble already. So I’m here every single performance, and I wait until the last sacred moment that I know it’s safe to leave the theater.
Does this mean you’re the flakiest friend in the world right now? Like, “Hey, I’d love to get dinner with you. But I won’t be able to tell you for sure if I can make it until literally five minutes before dinner.”
It’s more like, “I could have dinner with you, but I can’t have any alcohol and I have to save my voice, so I can’t speak to you. I can write on a piece of paper instead.” It takes a lot of compassion to be friends with me right now.