Playing Alexander Hamilton is nothing new for Javier Muñoz — he’s performed the title role in the megahit musical since its start Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2015. But that was only once a week, when he alternated with the show’s creator (and his friend), Lin-Manuel Miranda. When Miranda left the show in July, Muñoz inherited the role full-time, receiving critical acclaim in the process.
For Muñoz, 40, a native of Brooklyn’s East New York section and graduate of New York University, history is repeating itself. The same basic thing went down when he starred in Miranda’s first musical, “In the Heights.” But in his time playing Hamilton he’s experienced higher ups (performing for President Barack Obama) and lower downs (being diagnosed with cancer last year and having to take several weeks off for treatment).
He’s endured health scares before (the actor is HIV positive) but his cancer recovery makes playing the role now all the sweeter, he says.
So what’s it like to finally have Hamilton be yours completely? You’re not Robin anymore — now you get to be Batman.
Yeah. [He laughs.] It wasn’t till the middle of our first year when I thought . . . OK, I’m in good shape. I know what I’m doing. Now, to finally be doing the show . . . night to night . . . is beyond rewarding. And given my own personal journey to get here . . . it’s gratifying, to know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. That feeling . . . that’s immense. And beyond my ability to wrap my brain around. But it’s how I feel.
In the show, it’s Hamilton vs. Burr. But is there anything Burr says or advises that you, personally, agree with?
Yes. In fact, when the show was being developed, I kept finding myself gravitating to Burr’s arc. It’s something I’d love to explore in the future.
You mean you’d like to play Burr sometime?
Absolutely. Should that opportunity arise. But it’s useful to have those moments where I agree with Burr, because Hamilton sought Burr out. He thought he could learn from Burr. Then . . . Washington, the man of the period, takes Hamilton in and makes him his right-hand man. That’s the turning point. That’s when Hamilton starts to have that overconfidence and conflicts start to arise.
I hear you’ve got a green thumb. Where’d that come from?
Tell me about this garden you’ve got going at the theater.
It’s on the marquee . . . above the box office. We can sit out there. The garden is . . . my solace. After my cancer treatment, I was so restless. My endurance had returned — but I had this energy that needed to go into something other than the show. I needed nourishing of some kind. I considered meditation, but I already do that in the mornings.
Really. I’ve been thinking of trying that.
I highly recommend it. It brings everything into focus, then I’m ready for whatever the day is going to bring. So I briefly considered more meditation. But . . . seeds were delivered from Monticello. I picked up a bunch thinking I’d grow them in my apartment. My mother can look at a seed and it’ll grow. It’s ridiculous. Then I thought, well, maybe at the theater. I wanted to nurture something. I don’t have children, I don’t have a pet. Gardening just made sense. I’ve tried to make it so the cast and crew can enjoy it at any time. I’ll peek out there and I’ll see our sound department guys or the ushers hanging out by the garden. I’ve told them a million times, I’ll go to hell and back for these people. They lifted me up when I needed it.
Good for you, by the way, on your recovery. I suppose your morning meditation helped, relieving stress and all that.
Yeah. Someone recommended a simple, introductory meditation, A compassion meditation, and the exercise was very much a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of thing. I couldn’t sit still for longer than five seconds. First you find a breathing rhythm, then you repeat these sentences in your mind. One day it lasted 30 seconds, the next maybe 35, the next week maybe a minute . . . I just let myself ebb and flow, and if it didn’t work some mornings, fine. It’ll work tomorrow. It’s hard in our day and age to shut out the cellphone and social media, the news, music and all those messages we get all freakin’ day long. It’s difficult to ask yourself to stop swimming in the pool and just . . . float. It took a good year before I got up to 10 to 15 minutes. Now my meditation is 30 to 45 minutes.
OK, so if I try it, you’re saying, “Don’t rush it.”
Yeah, it took me years.