There is a new Hamilton in “Hamilton,” although President Obama and Beyoncé have seen him already.
On Monday, Javier Muñoz replaces Lin-Manuel Miranda, and steps into the title role of the biggest Broadway show in years, playing the nation’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
He is not exactly new to the role. Over much of the last year, Mr. Muñoz has relieved the star once a week, and on other days watched the production from a stool just offstage, waiting in case Mr. Miranda ever took a tumble. (He did not.)
Already, he has a reputation and a fan base. He’s been described as the sexy Hamilton because of the swagger he brings to the role, and Mr. Miranda bestowed on him a hashtag-nickname, Javilton, that has stuck.
Mr. Muñoz has some obvious similarities to the man he is replacing — both have parents from Puerto Rico, graduated from New York City public schools and encountered Broadway as children, becoming passionate about theater. And their careers have been entwined for years — Mr. Muñoz was Mr. Miranda’s alternate, and then his successor, on “In the Heights,” and has been his alternate throughout the development of “Hamilton.”
But Mr. Muñoz brings his own life experience to the role. The son of a doorman, he grew up in a housing project — the Linden Houses, in East New York, Brooklyn, which he recalls as scarily violent and dangerous. “I can’t lie — I’m still afraid of it,” he says. “It was so much fear growing up there.”
He is 40, openly gay, H.I.V. positive and a cancer survivor — he had surgery and radiation last fall, missing weeks of performances in “Hamilton,” but has been back in the cast for months. He said he feels strong — the virus is undetectable, the cancer screenings negative — and is raring to go. “I had my first follow-up in March, and all green lights,” he said. “I’m good.”
Last week, as he prepared to take over the role full-time, he sat down to talk about his life and “Hamilton” at Candle 79, a vegan restaurant on the Upper East Side where he has repeatedly worked as a host between acting jobs. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What’s it like to step into the lead role of the biggest musical in memory?
I was on Facebook the other day, and Lin released that little teaser of his song with Jennifer Lopez, and I sort of sat there and went, “I’m taking over for this guy?” That just feels incredible. [But] it comes down to the work, right? I’ve been jumping in there every week, and I’ve helped build this character. So it’s like, I’m just enjoying this, man. This is just fun, and glorious.
Did you ever feel as if people wished they were seeing the other guy?
I felt that way with “Heights.” It would take a lot to earn the audience — to be like: “Really, I’m good. I don’t suck. Just come with me. It’s going to be O.K.” But with “Hamilton,” we were at the Public, and we mapped out three shows that I was going to go on, and the days varied. It was a test, and it started with such a positive impact because of the history I have with Lin.
Going on when President Obama was in the audience must have helped.
That’s the turning point. And it helped me feel more confident, too. To know I had their trust. I knew, but that gesture was so generous and really made me feel O.K.
Why are you an actor?
I decided in high school — at Edward R. Murrow in Brooklyn. I just fell in love with the idea that theater can be a mirror, theater can be a commentary, theater can be powerful and can start a conversation that needs to happen. I started working for a children’s literacy organization that used theater to teach literacy in after-school programs, and that was another powerful thing — suddenly the kid who really had trouble reading in class, or was embarrassed to speak out loud because of their accent, was inhabiting a character, using their imagination, reading and writing. That blew my mind.
Did you go to Broadway when you were growing up?
I did — school trips. The first thing I saw was “Me and My Girl.” And I loved it so much — I was singing “The Lambeth Walk” for weeks. After that, any time there was a school trip to Lincoln Center, or anything that was arts related, I was so into it.
What happened with your health last fall? How did you know you had cancer?
I have been living with H.I.V. since 2002, and I’m undetectable. I’m healthy, I’m strong and I’m very out about that because of the stigma still attached to it. But I’ve had a healthy fear about my health since I tested positive, and I asked how to test myself for lumps, because both my parents had cancer. And very early on in my learning how to do a self-examination, I found the lump. I wasn’t immediately worried because of where it was — and I do want to keep that private because that’s the only thing that’s mine in this. But I brought it up to my doc, and that’s what led to further testing and discovery.
You didn’t want to tell anyone at “Hamilton”?
I was filling myself with disappointment, as if you can blame yourself for cancer. But that’s a thing, you know. I had to reveal it, and then I had to own that I needed help, and I had to ask for help, and that was the hardest thing in the world.
You express a lot of gratitude on social media.
I have this joke — if it’s funny or not funny, I don’t know — but the joke is that I have died several times already, and that’s how it feels. My life completely and drastically changed in 2002 when I was diagnosed with H.I.V., and then again last year with cancer. And you can’t unknow what you know. Life is not the same after that. But I’m alive, and I’m for all intents and purposes healthy and well. And I’m grateful for that.
You planted a garden on the roof of Richard Rodgers, the theater where “Hamilton” is performed.
There’s so much energy on the stage, there are so many things we’re doing day in and day out, and I needed something there that felt still and calm, and gardening gives me that stillness and that calmness. Also, I’m growing something. And it may sound cheesy or corny, but it’s really not. The fact that life is created in that little garden bed heals me. It just does.
How many shows a week will you do?
Seven. It’s the same structure. [For the eighth performance] someone else gets to be sexy — I’m going to go eat pizza.