Most Broadway understudies get rushed onstage when the star is sick or off shooting a movie; if they get a rehearsal with the director and most of the cast present, they’re the lucky ones.
Very few, though, have the good fortune of Javier Muñoz, who last week took over the lead role of Usnavi in the Tony-winning musical senation In the Heights
from the show’s dynamic co-author/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Muñoz has been involved with the long-gestating show since its first reading some four years, and as such has been privy to a unique tutorial before assuming the role.
“Like so many things in this business, luck really does play a big part in this thing,” Muñoz admits. “I was so fortunate to have joined the family of this show when I did. I don’t know any other actor who has had four years to immerse themselves in the role they’re understudying. It gave me a deeper insight into the character; I wasn’t just learning the show.”
Even so, his taking over the top spot wasn’t necessarily inevitable. Auditions were held and a casting search announced for both the Broadway and for planned tours.
“There was a chance that I was not going to be moved up,” Muñoz says. Now that he has, though, Muñoz considers himself “a kind of bridge between the immensity of what Lin brought to the part and what it will be down the road. Others will step into this role, and I like to think of what I’m doing as a synthesis of everything that I’ve learned from Lin as a mentor and teacher, and everything I bring to it myself. It’s a marriage of the two, which I think is a good transition.”
Among the many things Muñoz brings to the role of Usnavi, whose faith in the value of staying in Washington Heights is tested but not broken by the play’s events, is a deep sense of local loyalty.
“I was born and raised in Brooklyn in a neighborhood called East New York,” Muñoz recalls. “And I didn’t really leave New York very much. I’ve traveled and seen much of the country, but New York is in my blood. Every time I go somewhere else, I’m more than happy to come back.”
And though East New York can be a rough neighborhood, Muñoz is particularly happy to note that In the Heights is a mostly positive portrayal of a working-class community of color like the one he remembers.
“I had my own agent since I was 17, and everything I was sent out for at first were drug dealers, gang members—some negative aspect of the Latino experience,” Muñoz says. “And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t even fit into this.’ As rough as some of those neighborhoods are, what I remember is my family being very tight knit and hard-working. And there were definitely elders in the neighborhood who, if they were carrying too many groceries, you stopped and helped them out.
“So I’m very grateful that In the Heights
paints the other side of those neighborhoods, and grateful that young minorities get to come and see themselves represented in positive ways.”
Though Muñoz trained to be a triple threat actor/singer/dancer, he’s had some challenges en route to his Broadway debut.
“There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity on Broadway for Latinos,” Muñoz says. “And a lot of times, even when I was clearly appropriate for the role, I wouldn’t get cast because of my name. I can pass for Italian, even Israeli, but my name meant, especially in film and TV, more ‘gang member #5.’ ”
His musical theatre training didn’t prepare him, though, for one of In the Heights’
“In college, there was no hip-hop class—I would have loved it if there were!” Muñoz says. “But I grew up with that music. One of my brothers was a DJ, another was a breakdancer. So when they were babysitting me, that’s all I heard. So for this show, that’s what I called upon—it had nothing to do with my musical theatre training.”
Thus oriented, Muñoz then had years to study Miranda’s uniquely fresh and funny flow.
“I got to basically live in his brain for four years,” Muñoz says. “He put me through what we called ‘rap school.’ He would burn these CDs of his favorite rap music, and he’d type up the lyrics and the history, the reasons why each track inspired him. I’ve seen him with Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv hip-hop group. I’d just go sit there and watch him, soak it in. It was like Method acting in a way.”
Like Usnavi’s lottery-winning abeula, Muñoz can’t believe his luck.
“It’s just one of those really fortunate things—being the second guy to play Usnavi, I got all this rich information. So now I’m here to give the show new legs, and longer legs, so that people can look at it and say, ‘This isn’t Lin but I get it—it still works.’ ”