On July 9, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the record-shattering, groundbreaking, Obama-praised Broadway musical “Hamilton,” will leave the show, he announced Thursday. Before he does, two stagings with the original cast will be filmed for posterity.
Then, on July 11, Miranda’s understudy and alternate Javier Muñoz will take over the leading role.
The Brooklyn-born actor is stepping into one of America’s brightest spotlights, but during the past year, it was unclear if he’d ever take the stage again.
Muñoz was diagnosed with cancer in October 2015.
“I had never been more scared in my life,” he told People, reflecting back on the disease that nearly stole his life and, barring that, his livelihood. “It’s a rare thing in my life to find myself face to face with something I’m scared of, and I was scared of this.”
So scared, in fact, he didn’t tell anyone about the diagnosis for weeks. He still hasn’t publicly stated which type of cancer he had. Instead, he would call in sick when he was physically unable to perform — until, eventually, even attending the show to take notes (another part of an understudy’s job description) was too taxing on his body.
Finally in November, he underwent surgery and subsequent radiation therapy, which forced him to take a more than two-month leave of absence from the production. Most shows would have simply replaced the understudy, but Miranda and Muñoz had too long of a history for such a quick cast off.
Muñoz was actually Miranda’s alternate in his previous Tony award-winning Broadway musical, “In the Heights.” Following Miranda’s departure, Muñoz took over that role as well, earning a Drama Desk award for his work.
Years later, Miranda reached out to his longtime alternate when “Hamilton” was still nothing more than a loose collection of songs called the “Hamilton Mixtape.”
“I definitely remember getting a call from Lin and him describing the idea via voicemail,” Muñoz told Vulture. “I was sort of sitting there thinking, “What?” But it’s Lin! So I trust him. Obviously, I’m gonna say ‘yes.’ ”
He helped Miranda transform the mixtape into a full-blown musical. The creator wasn’t about to replace Muñoz while he was in a hospital bed.
“There was no thought at all about [replacing him],” Thomas Kail, director of both “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” told the New York Post. “Javi’s someone who has given so much. Now we wanted to make sure he had what he needed to be well, and to know he wasn’t alone.”
While it didn’t last long, the recovery process proved arduous. The actor had been singing and dancing in front of packed audiences for three hours at a time just weeks prior. Now, he celebrated the ability to turn over in bed or walk down the stairs.
His parents helped him through recovery. They knew what cancer was like — 12 years ago, both of them were diagnosed with a form of the disease within six months of each other.
Finally, on Jan. 17, he returned to “Hamilton,” but he didn’t think he would be able to perform the entire, physically demanding show.
As someone who's lucky enough to have seen Hamilton with both Javier Muñoz and Lin-Manuel Miranda, I can say it's a great show either way.
— Keith Calder (@keithcalder) June 16, 2016
He told People he thought, ” ‘I’m never going to reach the other side.’ It looked impossible at the start. It was immense work to get through it.”
But he did.
“Coming out of this, it’s sort of reinvigorated my passions,” he told People. “If success comes with those things in some way — and everyone has their own definition of success — that’s great. But it’s the art that’s my goal. It’s the work that’s my goal. It’s creating something wonderful.”
Muñoz shouldn’t have much trouble filling the Revolutionary-era shoes vacated by Miranda. For most of its run, apart from the time missed due to cancer, he’s been doing it every Sunday since the show officially opened on Aug. 6, 2015, along with filling in for Miranda whenever needed.
The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley has praised his work, describing him as having “a penetrating stare and a Don Juan smile” and calling him the “sexy” Hamilton who plays the role with a “cutting carnal edge.”
And he’s no stranger to high-pressure performances.
He just happened to fill in for Miranda when the first couple — Jay Z and Beyoncé — attended the show for the first time. Oh yeah, and he was in the titular role for the first time when President Obama and the first lady first saw the musical, according to Variety.
3) I'm so thrilled for @JMunozActor. We created the role together. I'm still jealous he got to perform for Jay-Z & Beyonce.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) June 16, 2016
The spotlight, the celebrities, the fame — it’s a far cry from his childhood. Born to Puerto Rican parents, Muñoz grew up in the Linden Houses, a project in East New York, Brooklyn.
“We grew up relatively poor in a first-floor apartment with gates on every window,” Muñoz told the New York Daily News. “It was scary coming home, because it was a rough and violent neighborhood.”
As for his new role as the lead in “Hamilton,” Muñoz is prepared, taking the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” mentality onto the stage.
Heartfelt gratitude for so much positivity today; thank you!@HamiltonMusical
— Javier Muñoz (@JMunozActor) June 17, 2016
“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,” he told Variety. “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.”
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