They talk about the pressure of taking over for Lin-Manuel Miranda the star, the genius, the originator. But Javier Muñoz has performed for President Obama. Battled cancer. Confronted HIV (and the man who gave it to him). Think you know this story? Just you wait, man.
There are more than a thousand caricatures on the walls at Sardi's, the old Broadway hang, but these days you can't set foot in the dining room without noticing one drawing in particular staring back at you: Lin-Manuel Miranda. It's a fickle business. But Javier Muñoz, a week into his tenure as the new full-time Hamilton, walks past Cartoon Lin, so busy being gracious to the swarm of restaurant staff who have gathered to greet him that it's unclear if he even knows it's there. The staff barely even registers the other patrons, which is fine. We're not the new Hamilton. We're not even the old Hamilton, whereas Javier is both: He was Miranda's alternate from the show's inception, and from the show's inception, he was the natural choice for Miranda's designated replacement, once Miranda was ready to move on to go cure poverty and hunger and all manner of illness and sadness.
Muñoz doesn't have a caricature yet at Sardi's, but that's okay because his face is like a very handsome caricature of a very handsome face. His smile is so wide that it seems to wrap around his jaw. His eyebrows are incredible yardsticks of endocrinatic braggery that shade his eyes and jump on his forehead. The tip of his nose reaches down, and the tip of his chin points upward; his face gets so animated when he performs that it looks like they might kiss.
He looks, in other words, nothing like Lin-Manuel Miranda, the puppy-eyed and wholesome-seeming man who wrote Hamilton and originated the role, and who left the show earlier this summer. Miranda has always seemed like a public intellectual, or like a really great high school teacher you'd remember with infinite fondness. Muñoz is different. He's sexy and puts his body into the show. He writhes and he wiggles, taking his job as a founding father less seriously than the show's founding father. This Hamilton is a man before he is a father; he's the Hamilton you're still thinking about after the stage darkens and the theater empties and you're home in bed and the lights are out. A friend who's seen both men puts it like this: early in the show, when Hamilton arrives in New York, naïve and aching to be taken seriously, Miranda sells it better—but when Hamilton graduates to political machinations and adultery, Muñoz is much more credible.
Muñoz has been a Miranda company man for the last ten years—a member of his theater brat pack, like Christopher Jackson and Renée Elise Goldsberry. And yes, that was Muñoz, playing Hamilton the first time the Obamas came. He is effortlessly Hamilton, maybe even more effortlessly than the guy who wrote the musical. The one thing he isn't is Lin-Manuel Miranda.
He's the guy after Lin-Manuel Miranda, and that's got to be at least a little bit difficult.
But ever since the official announcement in June that Javier would be taking over, throughout the run of interviews he gave, there was no trace of anything but gratitude and humility. And yes, sure, those are easy things to fake in a Q&A. But that's just how Javier sounds—that's how he's always sounded. Listen to what he said about performing for the Obamas, during an early preview ahead of the show's Broadway opening:
"With all due respect to our President, because I love our President, I wasn't thinking about him. It was Lin's first opportunity to see the show. So he had three opportunities in previews just to watch and craft it to make any final changes. So that was my priority, to make sure I'm telling this as clearly and as fully as I can for Lin so he can leave this and this viewing and percolate with ideas about what he wants to cut, change, tweak or leave alone. And that's my job. And so that's really what I was thinking about."
Javier's life story—the mere fact that he's even still here at all—might explain his open-heartedness, his refusal to take his good fortune for granted. But it could just as easily explain the opposite. Brushes with death don't always bring out the best in people; sometimes the fear of mortality, of throwing away your shot, or having it taken from you, can wreck a man, harden him into chasing glory at the cost of his soul. Javier nearly had his life taken from him, twice.
A thing people love about Hamilton is its optimism—how you leave the theater on a wave of goodwill. It comes in handy as you're immediately threatened with both Times Square and the prospect of a Trump presidency. So how much is Javier and how much is Hamilton? Did repeated daily exposure to Hamilton help make Javier this way? Or did Javier bring just as much to Hamilton as it's brought to him?
His parents already had three boys when Javier came along—seven years after their youngest, a surprise to them all. The Muñozes started out in Brooklyn housing projects in East New York before finding a small house in New Jersey. Little Javier, then 6, had tested as gifted and talented, and there was a fund for him to attend a prep school. But Javier didn't want to go to prep school in Jersey. He wanted to go back to Brooklyn.
His wish came true, sort of, in his teens, when his parents separated and his mother moved to Canarsie to a one-bedroom apartment that she and he and his youngest brother, David, shared—his oldest brothers were already on their own. His father had been an illustrator at an ad agency, but the agency shut down and he got a job as a doorman downtown on Fifth Avenue. At night he'd clean offices. His mother worked several medical jobs at once. Meanwhile, David, who was seven years older, watched over Javier, scrutinizing report cards and attending parent-teacher conferences.
Back in Brooklyn, he experienced first-hand the way a minority kid could fall through the cracks, even in such a diverse part of Brooklyn. "Daily things," he says now, "like when an adult is talking to a group of kids and looks at all the other kids but doesn't look at the minority. We feel that. You're made to feel different. Like you are separate."
Javier felt different wherever he went. In elementary school, he had been bussed to a program for gifted kids a couple neighborhoods over, where his skin was too dark. After school he came home to Canarsie, where his skin was too light. He spoke clearly and eloquently, which came off as a kind of snobbery to his neighbors. He was fat then, too, he says. None of this was a recipe for homecoming king in even the most enlightened of neighborhoods, much much much less a place like 1980s Canarsie. "I was called a fag, I was called fatty," he says. "I was made fun of for being a nerd. I was made fun of for being Puerto Rican. I was made fun of for being so light skinned. I mean, all the things. Everything."
And yet when Javier was bullied, all he could do was wonder what was wrong with the bullies. "At home, I was safe and loved," he says. "So there's nothing wrong with me. What's wrong with everyone else?" His parents and his brothers had so firmly embedded in him the notion of his worth that it never occurred to him that bullying could make you feel badly about yourself. Isolated, yes. Annoyed and angry and sad and lonely, yes. But that it would erode your sense of worth—never. Later, in high school, when Javier came out to his family, his parents and to David—his conservative Catholic Puerto Rican parents—they "didn't even blink." (His oldest two brothers came around more slowly, he says, but they've all come around.)
Then he found theater, and suddenly the world began to make sense. He liked that everyone could be involved, no matter what they looked like. He liked the camaraderie and late nights. He liked that every action was directed toward a shared goal, "all in the same boat," he says, "trying to get to the same island." He played a guard in The King and I, a character who just stood there, and he knew he'd found his future. He didn't care that in the 1980s it was next to impossible to see a Hispanic man on stage or in a mainstream movie. He was a teenager; everything felt possible.
One of his mentors suggested he go to Tisch and enroll in the Musical Theater program. He applied and was accepted. He went to NYU every day after to ask about financial aid, and every time he did the answer was, "Not yet." He showed up so often that finally the financial aid office sent him to the Office Where These Things Are Decided, and he was scared, but he reminded them that they'd accepted him, they'd wanted him—so how were they going to make sure he could actually come? He made his case and got his tuition cut from $30,000 to $3,000, which still wasn't chump change for him, and didn't include supplies and books and fees. So he applies for grants. He worked as a nanny, in a bakery, as a restaurant host.
But at school, they didn't know what to do with him. He was only cast in small roles. He was a Latino man in the 1990s. "No even knew how to say my name correctly." They called him Javeer. Or Munzo. Munzo! Once again he was invisible. It didn't feel like a guy who looked like Javier ever stood a chance at doing anything critical on stage.
A few years after graduation, Javier's parents were both diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. Javier quit looking for acting work and got a job as a waiter so he could take care of them. But a friend had written a musical and was hounding him to audition. Fine, he thought, this will be my swan song. One last time, then he'd say goodbye.
But during rehearsals, a woman watching him sing told him about a new musical in development—would he maybe audition? She gave him a CD, and it was this guy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, rapping the opening number for In The Heights. "I'm thinking someone wants to put rap on stage, what?" He took the script home. He saw that this was a musical about Latinos that had no drugs or crime. "They weren't caricatures that I was used to seeing on TV and film and permeating everywhere. These were real, real, real human beings that happen to be Latino. And I thought it would be the greatest mistake of my life if I didn't say yes to this opportunity." He sang George Michael's Praying for Time at his audition. He got the job, and the rest is early American history.
In some ways, though, things aren't so different from how they were back in Canarsie. He knows when he's walking down the street holding a man's hand that there are people who aren't okay with it. He knows what people say about the HIV positive. He knows how uncomfortable people feel around people who have, or have had, cancer.
But he also thinks that's coming to an end. There are people who benefit from segregation and divisiveness, he thinks, "and that's who has the hardest time I think coming to terms with integration and with diversity and with acceptance. And I understand that if you've been a recipient of so much privilege, it is scary to look at having to expand, right? That's a scary thing. And that's okay. It's fine that that's scary. But we're all human beings and we are literally in this together."
This is a thing he works on, cultivating compassion, figuring out how to reflect love back in the face of hatred. His parents are okay now, thank God. Meanwhile, this crazy thing happened: Three years after they separated, they got back together, and they were fine—they still are. "The idea," he says, "is that this is forever. Right? And the fact that it took three years for them to heal whatever they needed to heal to come back together was such a great example to me of what a healthy relationship can be"—that it can be imperfect, that you can need time apart, that things can become healthy again even if they've been sick for a while.
On July 2, 2002, after a routine quarterly blood test, Javier learned he was HIV positive. He'd been living on the West Coast after college, before his parents got sick, hoping to find the growth he'd seen from his friends who'd left New York for somewhere else. Like a good New Yorker, he hated it out there. He missed that "grungy, rusty thing about New York that like makes sense to my soul." But he met a man there, and they were in a long-term, monogamous relationship—I'll let him tell it.
"We were in a relationship," he says. "And it was an adult choice to not be safe because I was with my partner." The man knew he was HIV positive, according to Javier, but didn't say anything. That's why Javier is so public about his HIV status; if it weren't a terrible stigma to have HIV, the man might have told him instead of withholding it from him.
Javier spent three days in deep depression after he learned his diagnosis. But then he realized he had to take care of himself. He got up, he sought help, he found support groups, but also: He went home.
In New York he told his parents and let them support him emotionally. He found a doctor who gave him an aggressive course of medication. He took pills that tasted like rust and made him break out in hives. He itched so badly he had to stand under the shower to get any relief. Within six months, HIV was undetectable in his blood. Now, he says, he's pretty sure his T-cells are better than anyone else's in the room. He's had long-term relationships since his diagnosis—not right now, no time for that now—but before the show, a lot of times when he'd tell a guy about his status, they'd beat it fast.
"There was such ignorance about what HIV even was," he says. "I mean the fact that someone could say, 'You have AIDS.' 'No. I have HIV. Do you know the difference? Right.' The fact that the behavior that was permeating at the time was men would ask each other their status and one of them could easily lie and just say I'm negative and they would have unprotected sex. But here I am coming at you saying I'm fully HIV-positive and I'm letting you know that and there are ways to be safe. But you're gonna shun me but then be unsafe with someone you've just met?"
"Say the damn thing out loud. Talk about the thing. We gotta talk about it. We gotta talk about it."
But listen to what happens next. Two years after his diagnosis, Javier confronts his old boyfriend. Flies across the country and tells him that he's HIV positive, that he's angry and wants an answer. But the guy just sits there and says nothing—he says nothing.
And right then, Javier took a breath and felt overcome by compassion. He didn't yell at him. "I realized how much pain he must be in." And so Javier forgave him, with his words and with his heart.
"I don't know where it came from," he says now. "I can't tell you where it came from."
We're done eating, and Javier asks if I'd like to see his garden. He keeps one on the roof of the marquis of the Richard Rodgers theater, so that he could be alone for a few minutes on performance days, and so that he could watch things grow. The rooftop garden sits on a balcony that faces 46th Street, and sometimes he walks to the edge and people scream that they love him, and he screams back that he loves them, too. But mostly he likes being alone, watering a big vat of soil and talking to his plants.
Late last year, just as Miranda won his Genius grant and began thinking about leaving the show, Javier found a lump on his body, and when he had it investigated, and learned he had cancer. After all that, cancer.
Just like the last time he got sick, he experienced all the things that come along with a thing that is plenty hard enough already, thank you very much, only this time he was a prominent figure. Organizations reached out to him, some really nice ones, but some with the obvious, unsubtle intent of binding his name to their PR emails. It happened so often that he has decided not to say publicly what kind of cancer he had, because he doesn't want to be the poster child for a particular cause—just a general one, one in which you don't keep secrets about your health because there's no real reason to. There are still the people, he learned, that think you shouldn't tell anyone if you have cancer. And there it was again, a stigma against the thing that is happening to so many people that literally no one benefits from keeping quiet about it. Patients don't feel better, and people don't know how to treat them. We don't know what to say when we finally learn what's going on. We don't know how to help. "Say the damn thing out loud," he says now. "Talk about the thing. We gotta talk about it. We gotta talk about it. It's not gonna change. They're not gonna learn. I'm not gonna learn. We're not gonna grow."
But Javier didn't do any of that at first. At first, he didn't say a word. He performed for six weeks, knowing he had cancer, not telling the cast yet, just trying to process it. He kept looking for the reasons—what had he eaten or exposed himself to? Was it where he lived? Was it his diet? He blamed himself for everything.
He took two months off from the show. He wanted to return, but what if he didn't recover? "I didn't know," he says. "I didn't know." He did his treatments, he meditated, he listened to his doctors. "I just focused my energies on it, and finally when I started seeing progress, I started to believe there was hope that I could be back."
By the time he took the stage again, he'd lost so much weight that the costumes hung loose on him. He doesn't doubt himself often, but that night he did. It was the rest of the cast, he says, who got him through the performance, who loved him and were lifting him somehow. He felt their hands on his back. "There was no one who didn't believe in me in that moment."
In the show's final scene, Hamilton, now dead at the hands of Burr, reaches out to help Liza over the threshold of her own death 50 years later. He takes her hand and walks her to the front of the stage. Javier cried through the whole scene. He looks straight ahead into the middle distance as he tells me this with his forearms on his thighs and his hands folded; it's the only time during our conversations that he doesn't look me in the eye. Finally, he snaps out of the memory, and he looks at me and says, "How do you describe the feeling that you're alive? That's what it was. I was still here and…wow."
You couldn't seem to die, I say to him. But he shakes his head and tells me I don't understand. No, he says, "I've died several times already." That's what it feels like to him. He is not the person he was when he went into that clinic to hear his routine HIV test results; the person he was died right there, in that chair, and he walked out someone different. He died again when the oncologist told him that, yes, the lump was something they had to talk about, and things were about to change once more. Another quick and irrefutable death. The human brain cannot keep on encountering and surmounting such things, and so each time, to survive, you become another person. And each night on stage you die again and you take a bow and you find out who you are again, because now you know what it is to live.
In his garden on the roof, there's a purple orchid, a gift from someone who attended the show, and he potted it among his other plants a few weeks ago, and when he brings the watering can near it, he notices something new: a tiny bit of green in the purple.
"Look," he says. "A sprout."
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a GQ correspondent.