Originally published on Playbill.com
View this story online
“We’ve been in the room together so often that we’ve become almost one mind. The joke that we have sometimes is, ‘Where do I end and you begin?'” says Javier Muñoz of Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Following a decade-long relationship, collaborating on and offstage, Muñoz’s work with Miranda has changed his life in immeasurable ways. In fact, Muñoz is currently Miranda’s standby in the hit musical Hamilton, performing the title role once a week.
Sitting in his purple and yellow painted dressing room after an afternoon performance, the thoughtful and energetic Muñoz recalled how, after years of auditioning, he had decided to stop pursuing an acting career and go into the food and beverage business, opening the restaurant 44 1/2. But when he was sent the script and CD of music from In the Heights, the quality of the writing drew him back in.
“I said, ‘How can I not try?’ and that was it,” he said. “That audition was when I met Lin, Alex [Lacamoire], Tommy [Kail], Quiara [Alegría Hudes], Bill [Sherman]… and they cast me in it. And that began everything.”
Muñoz was originally cast as Lincoln, brother to Nina, a character subsequently cut from In the Heights. When the musical’s team traveled to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, Miranda, who starred as Usnavi, needed to watch performances and write. At that point, no one other than Miranda had performed the main character.
“I tell you, I have auditioned for major, major things and people. I have never been more nervous, never wanted something more than that audition,” Muñoz said. “In a situation when I am nervous, I think back to that moment before I went into the room to audition for these guys, for Usnavi, and I remember that I’m still not as nervous as I was there.”
In the Heights went from the O’Neill to an Off-Broadway run in 2007, followed by a 2008 Broadway opening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton is currently running. The musical went on to receive 13 Tony Award nominations, winning Best Choreography, Orchestrations, Score and Best Musical.
With a score consisting of rap, hip-hop and salsa music, performing In the Heights proved to be a challenge at first for Muñoz, who had never rapped in public before. To help, Miranda gave Muñoz a CD of his favorite songs and numbers that inspired him when writing the musical. It was, Muñoz recalled, like “I was living in his brain.”
“I was totally terrified because it seemed really personal,” he said. “‘You want to hear me rap? I only do that at home.’ It was like the training I had and everything that I saw or was exposed to as far as traditional musical theatre… that wasn’t ever in the mix, so as far as thinking about saying these things out loud and rapping out loud in front of people.”
A member of the ensemble, Muñoz was the understudy for Usnavi, Sonny and the Piragua Guy in In the Heights. He went on to perform as Usnavi beginning in February 2009, and Muñoz and Miranda continued collaborating. Reflecting on their relationship, Muñoz described it as having “a trust and humility” as they observe each other in the rehearsal room.
“We’re constantly seeing what works and what doesn’t, and just building on it,” he said. “There’s sort of a root to the character that is a combination of what we’ve built together. Then there’s what Lin does and what I do, and that’s based on who we are and what we’re bringing to it as actors. We can be in the rehearsal room — talk about knowing each other so well — I will sense when I know he wants me to take over. I’ll just look at him. We tag in and tag out. It’s just such a synthesis.”
The two had become so close, Muñoz recalled, when Miranda called him to offer him a place in the Hamilton company, he said, “‘You know, I knew you were picked. This offer was coming to you like months ago.’ I was like, ‘Well, thanks for letting me know!'” he laughed.
“It was a wonderful conversation,” Muñoz said. “The phrase that I always take from it is, ‘I need boots on the ground from day one.’ He was basically telling me, ‘Javi, I need you to do your thing.’ So I got the sheet music early, and I started day one with all the music and all of the lyrics currently learned on my own. And by day three, Lin was out for the afternoon, and it was like, ‘All right. Let’s do this.'”
A self-professed “total geek, absolute nerd,” who loved history in high school, Muñoz actually did not read all of Ron Chernow’s book about Alexander Hamilton that inspired Miranda’s musical. Explaining that he wanted to know about the events, but not the person, he said he focused more on the chapters about Angelica and Eliza Schuyler and George Washington, three of Hamilton’s major relationships.
“I wanted to know the actual events in history when they occurred, and from other historians and other sources what it was like. But as far as Alexander Hamilton, because it’s within the context of a show, within the context of this piece… he’s a character taking a specific journey, and I didn’t want real history to influence my being present. I wanted that to be built on me and Lin and let the history that I was looking at paint what was around me. If I know too much about the historical figure, then I just start trying to be that as opposed to listening to what I’m getting in the moment.”
As Miranda continued his work on Hamilton and the musical progressed from its workshop to its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater, and the buzz around the production grew, Muñoz said no one had any idea what it was becoming.
“When I came on board, we were already heading to the Public, there was already a buzz after the workshop. There was already talk about what this was going to be. I guess I didn’t really know that it was going to be anything close to this until the first day of rehearsal for the Public. The first few days of rehearsal, Andy was bringing in work I had never seen him do before, Tommy was at a level, everyone was at their peak level.”
The buzz surrounding Hamilton continued to build, with celebrities like Madonna and Bill and Hillary Clinton attending the Off-Broadway production at the Public Theater and President Barack Obama and his teenage daughters seeing one of the first Broadway previews. They attended a Saturday matinee — at which Muñoz was scheduled to perform.
“That was my first performance as Hamilton, and the President is in the house!” he said. “Don’t sh*t your pants.”
Preparing for the performance, Muñoz shut out as many distractions as he could, focusing on giving the best performance he could for Miranda to watch rather than focusing on the Secret Service in the audience.
“It’s beyond exhilarating, but the thing I had to focus on was this was one of three times [Miranda] was going to get to see the show before it was frozen,” Muñoz said. “So instead of allowing myself to get swept up in the energy I felt about the President being there, I shut down my phone and I just kept my focus on that Lin needs to see and hear the show at its best and that’s what it needs to be. And what we all ended up doing was our show, at our absolute best, and that focus just kept me right on track. Laser beams.”
It wasn’t until after the performance that Muñoz said he felt the adrenaline and energy from the day’s event. He said he had slept nine hours the night before the performance, but Saturday night, after the second show, he was unable to fall asleep.
Muñoz has moved uptown and east, away from 37 Arts where In the Heights played in 2007, but he still remembers the Off-Broadway stage fondly.
“Those were precious times. 37 Arts felt like our corner of the world. It was so tucked away. It felt like our little secret while it was happening.”
It’s safe to say that Muñoz isn’t a secret anymore.