When Javier Munoz takes the stage as the new Hamilton in “Hamilton” this July, it won’t be the first time he’s playing the role. He’s been creator-star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s alternate in the musical since it began performances at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, stepping into the part at least once a week. But now the stakes are even higher, given that tickets to “Hamilton” fetch thousands of dollars and there’s still more buzz — if that’s possible — following the show’s 11 wins at the Tony Awards. Munoz talked to Variety about the big change.
Do you know that people call you “the sexy Hamilton”?
I am aware of it. It makes me want to go to the gym twice a day!
How is your Hamilton different from Lin’s?
I don’t really see much of a separation, except that we’re each going to bring our own individuality to it. It’s still the same Hamilton, with the same wants, the same needs, the same goals, making the same mistakes. When I’m in the room with Lin, I’m so keen and focused on every detail. I take in exactly what he’s trying to do, who he’s trying to create, how he wants this character to tell each moment, and then I’m given the opportunity to add whatever I’m going to bring to it. So it ends up really just being a combination of us both.
Was it hard having to wait a week between performances?
It’s sort of like a crossbow, right? Like I’m coiled and ready for release for six days, and then here comes the day, let it go, and out goes the performance. Energy-wise, it was a new experience to conserve and stay focused for the day of.
For the other performances, were you there watching the show?
There’s a little stool that I sit at, offstage left, and I’d sit there and I would take the experience of my show, and I’d rewatch the moments replaying with Lin in the role, except I can focus on, say, what Leslie [Odom Jr.] was giving in that moment, what Renee [Elise Goldsberry] was giving in that moment, or Chris [Jackson], or [ensemble member] Carleigh Bettiol. Anyone on that stage that I found growth with in a certain performance, I could then sit back and watch it again and again and really digest it, and then go back that next Saturday or Sunday and grow from there. It actually was a gift to have a week to sit with that.
Are there touchstones in Lin’s performance that you carry into yours?
There are nuances and subtle details, a certain cadence he’ll have in a phrase or the way he’ll deliver a line. Like in the song “My Shot,” “I’m past patiently waitin’ / I’m passionately smashin’” — that whole segment, when the band drops out and Lin’s delivering it, I hang on those words. It’s really the height of the song for Hamilton. It’s the switch. It’s him accepting the role that he’s now going to be taking in this country. I hang on Lin’s cadence in that, to hear what he’s punctuating, to hear what he’s underlining, and let that inform me. I want to make sure I register those kinds of little things, because they’re crucial, I think, in making sure that it’s the same Hamilton.
Some of the people you’re performing for have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for a ticket. How do you handle that pressure?
I think anyone who pays anything to come and see a performance deserves my absolute best. That’s it. There are so many aspiring artists in this business, and for me to achieve what I’ve achieved and be where I’m at is precious, and I can’t take that for granted. So if I’m given the opportunity to perform, then it’s gonna get my everything. And then with that on top it, the fact that someone’s paid money to see it? You’re getting my best.
Does the audience at “Hamilton” feel any different than other audiences you’ve performed for?
I have to say yes. There is electricity in that house. It’s just alive in a way I’ve never experienced before.
Are they harder to impress? Or easier, because they’re so eager to like what they paid so much money to see?
It’s still reliant on us, the actors. We can’t just half-a–. A paying audience deserves a kick-a– performance. But audiences come with such positive energy. It’s really wonderful.
You performed for Obama early on.
That was my first show.
My very first Broadway performance in “Hamilton” was for our president. That day we were warned to get there early because of heightened security, and I got up to the security line, and the officer was not believing that I’m in the show. I had to pull out a Playbill and say, “That’s me. Here’s my ID. I’m in the show. I’m, like, playing the lead today, dude.” But I didn’t feel any fear or anything like that. It just made it more thrilling. I felt electric and on fire the entire time.
Do you remember what the president said to you afterwards?
Oh my God, yes. I’ll never forget this moment. He came to talk to us at intermission, and so they lowered the fire curtain and we all gathered onstage. He came to greet us, and he was wonderful and eloquent and charming and just warm. And then he’s sort of making his way through, in the midst of shaking hands with other people in the cast, and embracing them, and then like he flipped a switch, he turned right to me, shook my hand, looked me square in the eye, and said, “You are wonderful.” And then kept going. I didn’t really move. When the president of the United States takes a moment to say anything to you? That was extraordinary. Act II was even better than Act I.
Who’s your favorite celebrity or politician to see the show?
The list of top favorites would definitely be Beyonce and Jay Z, and Mel Brooks, and Bradley Whitford. And absolutely the president. Sutton Foster was amazing. But I’m gonna say it’s a tie of two people: Allison Janney and LaChanze [the Broadway favorite who won a 2006 Tony for her performance in “The Colored Purple”]. I know that seems sort of out of left field. I was 19 when I first saw LaChanze in “For Colored Girls…” at Seward Park. And for multiple reasons — because of her work, because she was an artist of color — all those things made me say, I would aspire to be able to do what she does. And then Allison Janney, she’s so wonderful and lovely and real. Those would be my top two. But everybody else too, they made my heart flutter.
You’ve had a intense year, with “Hamilton” and your battle with cancer. What’s this moment right now feel like?
If you can imagine this, I feel like I’m on a mountain top. I’m not at the top of the range yet, there’s farther to climb, and that’s whatever else is coming in my future. But where I’m at is: I feel like I’m standing on top of the mountain. And I could not have arrived here without each and every moment happening the way it did. The strengths that I have now, I have because of everything that has happened. I’m healthy, and I’m so good, and I’m so strong, and it’s all gratitude. It’s like, yes, that all happened, I own it, and it only made me stronger and more compassionate and that’s the kind of person I want to be. I would not wish any of these challenges on anyone, but I’m very conscious of how lucky I am, and I’m very grateful for the great fortune to be here, alive and well, and strong right now.