Why Hamilton's Most Compelling Cast Member Is Its Understudy

Jill Summerville

  • OnStaage Ohio Columnist

This is a column about Hamilton. Before you take a moment to roll your eyes, we should come to an understanding. This isn't a gleeful justifying of the show's sixteen Tony nominations for 2016, or an extended marveling over how an original musical can be appealing enough to Broadway enthusiasts to garner ticket costs of $139 to $549 according to the show's official website and still have a soundtrack hip enough to top the Billboard rap charts in 2015. This isn't even a column about Hamilton. It's a column about a Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Sunday standby , Javier Muñoz.

In March of 2016, Muñoz announced he had been undergoing a treatment for cancer since October. He missed two months of Sunday matinees, during which either Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical and originated the role of Alexander Hamilton, or fellow cast mate John Rua (Charles Lee) performed in his stead. Significantly, the show's director, Thomas Kalí, says “There was no thought at all about [replacing Muñoz]” (“'Hamilton' Star's Secret Cancer Struggle”). Not only was Muñoz retained as a member of the cast, his fellow cast mates took care of him. Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr) organized a food drive, and the cast collectively paid for all of his meals throughout his chemo and radiation treatment (“'Hamilton' Star's Secret Cancer Struggle”). Their decision may lead to Hamilton's most startling legacy: redefining what it means to be successful on Broadway.

The Broadway theatre culture has always been designed to put profit first. Regional theatres mostly rely on grants to sustain their seasons, but Broadway shows have been tied to the purse strings of individual investors since 1811, when shop owners invested in shows they hoped would bring theatre patrons into downtown New York City (and into their businesses). (“Broadway and Theatre History”). Broadway theatres and the shows that come out of them aren't bound by a common aesthetic or mission statement. They are bound by the same thing that binds different models of the iPhone; they are expected to make steady, continuous profits, and they'll be quickly retired if they don't. The Broadway seasons, then, are usually determined by what audiences want to see, as opposed to what will challenge them. For example, Paul Robeson was famously forbidden to kiss Uta Hagen in a 1930 production of Othello because Robeson was black. Lin-Manuel Miranda is earning much attention by demonstrating that a cast comprised of people of color playing white historical figures is something millennial audiences want to see. The casting choice re-presents truths about contemporary American culture. The cast's choice to support Muñoz while he received medical treatment is a riposte to Broadway culture, the culture of profit.

Javier Munoz and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Javier Munoz and Lin-Manuel Miranda

According to the show's Broadway website Hamilton didn't take a financial loss when accommodations were made for Muñoz. Granted, the decision may have had different consequences for the cast of a less successful Broadway musical. However, we should ask ourselves: Is not the accommodation of the needs of individual cast members a natural action given the collaborative nature of the theatre? 

Perhaps so, but it isn't a common practice. In 2015, Ali Stroker became the first disabled person ever to perform on Broadway when  she was cast in a production of Spring Awakening. Though it in no way lessens her triumph, it's worth noting that her co-performers were members of the theatre troupe, Deaf West. Though Stroker wasn't performing with people whose disabilities were similar to her own, she was still in a production which was largely designed to accommodate the presence of people with disabilities. What is remarkable about Muñoz's accommodation is that, while it wasn't originally built into the production concept, it certainly wasn't detrimental to the show. His story is proof of how gracefully a truly collaborative cast can handle a cast member's physical challenges, as well as how much individuals' valuing of each other can enrich a show. Muñoz's experience proves that accommodating an ill or disabled cast member isn't only possible, it's worth doing. This is the one feat the Hamilton cast definitely won't win an award for on Tony night, but we'll be watching shows inspired by the possibilities Javier Muñoz has created for many nights afterwards.