Chicago — The Chicago production of Hamilton: An American Musical, with book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, began previews on Sept. 27, 2016 at the PrivateBank Theatre in Chicago. And in the title role is a Dallas native, Miguel Cervantes.
Inspired by the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the show was first produced by The Public Theater in New York City in January 2015, following years of workshops as The Hamilton Mixtapes. It moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in August 2015. Of 16 Tony Award nominations, Hamilton won 11, including the coveted awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score.
The incredible success of the show has bolstered Miranda, whose previous musical In the Heights also won the Best Musical Tony, into something beyond actor, writer, rapper or composer. He’s become a pop culture phenom, the name behind the biggest game-changing musical in a very long time; one that has made musical theater accessible to wide swaths of new audiences and added considerably to the conversation about diversity in casting. Among his upcoming projects, this Saturday he’ll host SNL for the first time.
Earlier this summer the actor playing the lead role of Alexander Hamilton for the Chicago production was announced: Miguel Cervantes. The lead-in to his Playbill profile is “Dallas native, Emerson grad.” He grew up in Garland, performing with Garland Civic Theatre's Children on Stage (now called Next Generation Players). He graduated from Dallas' Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in 1995. After that, he took off for Boston’s Emerson College, and has been in several Broadway shows, including American Idiot, If/Then, and the first national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. His TV credits include The Blacklist and Madam Secretary.
In a recent interview in Chicago Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda said this about Cervantes' audition: “He just crushed it. It’s not an easy role. It’s not easy to do the soliloquies Hamilton has. They go all over. They really are these stream-of-consciousness things that you have to be able to ride, and he crushed that aspect of it. It was sort of a no-brainer.”
The Chicago production is in previews and officially opens Oct. 19. TheaterJones caught an early preview and sat down with Cervantes in the theater lobby a few hours before showtime.
TheaterJones: I bring to you best wishes from Dallasites who remember you well. You were a graduate of Booker T. Washington prior to attending college?
Miguel Cervantes: Yes. Emerson College in Boston. Thank you Booker T. Washington! Emerson was one of the colleges that sent a representative to our senior showcase. Were it not for those opportunities, I might never have left [Dallas]. I was young and didn’t know what I was doing. I was looking at all of the big schools, thinking I was going to NYU. But a couple of the smaller schools came through. It was such a great time to see Boston, and attending Emerson was a great decision. I’m so glad it happened that way.
Regarding this production of Hamilton, walk us through the process. How did you get this role?
I finished doing If/Then on Broadway two years ago. After that, I sort of felt what might be described as a comfortable life with my wife and two children. She was working and I had started a little company of my own, teaching music, some baseball. I was happy and content living a life where I could take care of my wife and two children. I had achieved a lot of cool things including a couple of Broadway shows. My thoughts were that this was not the worst ending to my career. Perhaps I could continue to do a little more TV and other commercial type of jobs. Things were good. The theater life is a hard life for a family, for a wife and kids because our schedules were completely different. So I was willing to step back a bit. I used to tell my friends “but unless Lin calls, because if Lin calls maybe I’ll go do Hamilton.” And then my agent called me and said “hey, Hamilton is coming around again.”
I had already done it once before they made the move to Broadway. They did the workshop then they did the Public [Theater]. When they were making the change, they brought me in to do a few numbers, Hamilton style. Nothing came of it. So my thoughts were that this time around, I would go in but without any expectations because I had been through this before. I remembered the songs so I felt comfortable.
I get into the room, perform, and prepare to leave after thanking them for seeing me again. They said “why don’t you come back and do some more.” So I went back and did some more, and they asked me to come back again, and then again, and I thought things were feeling a bit more plausible than before. The very last time they asked me to come back it was in front of 20 people, the producers, and that time, Lin was there. Later on that evening I got the phone call. I then called my wife said “so ahhh, we’re moving to Chicago.”
The audition process was about three weeks altogether. If you had talked to me four weeks before that day, I would have had no clue that any of this was going to happen. This was not any way near what I thought I was going to be doing for the foreseeable future. Here we are now and we’re on the cover of magazines, and I’m sitting next to Lin and we’re opening this show. The shifts couldn’t have been more out of nowhere. My wife quit her job, we picked up the family and here we are.
Now you are the guy following Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is not only the person who originated the role of Hamilton, but is also the guy that conceived the show and wrote it. How are you managing all of that?
It’s an interesting question. Lin has something no one will ever have. No one can ever do the role like him. Lin raps very well. I saw the show in September of last year. I couldn’t understand how one man’s brain could create such a complex and dense piece of work. With all the words, the structure, it is mystical. Watching him perform in this show goes far beyond a nice song or a good show. What he does is unattainable, so the pressure is off. I don’t have to do that.
They relieve us of a lot of that burden. Performance-wise and character-wise and all of the other things that I CAN do, Tommy [director Thomas Kail] and Alex [music supervisor and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire] and Lin have never asked me or said “this is what it sounds like, this is who he is, and this is what you need to be.” That is not even in the vocabulary. It’s always been “here are the words and here is the story, and you are Miguel so do it the way Miguel does it.” This means I get to interpret the words and the songs and feelings and do it the way I will do it.
Lin has created this show that exists beyond him. This show is not about Lin-Manuel in Hamilton. It is about Hamilton. The story, the characters and the songs, the work is already done. My job is to embody the work and give truth to the words. If I do that, then my version of Hamilton will sit up there with Javier’s [Javier Muñoz, who replaced Miranda as Hamilton in the current Broadway production] on Broadway and Lin’s. It will just become about this version of Hamilton. Their experience with the show in New York and now here in Chicago proves that it holds despite who is in the roles. It is not about the faces—it is about the words.
This show has a tremendous amount of historical significance. Not every show has that responsibility attached to it. Are you aware of just how much Hamilton matters, especially to young students?
There is no way to be a part of this and not understand that that is part of what we’re doing. The directors and everyone have created a very cool environment in which to do this show. They’ve said between these walls and up on that stage, it’s just a show. It’s a very good show, but it is still just a show. It is people looking at each other, singing and acting and telling a story.
But then we take a step outside of that to understand what the show is doing beyond the cool music and songs. It has created a cultural phenomenon where children of all colors, races and creed are spitting these words out. They are now saying “I didn’t know who Aaron Burr was” and “Alexander Hamilton? He was president, right? I didn’t know any of that stuff.” All of a sudden there is this history lesson. It becomes less about the ‘old white guys in wigs’ [as some of the kids say] and more about people doing these things that happen to be creating their country. There is this historical connection and relatability for all of us.
We can say this is a story not just about some old fellows in some old times, but about real people having real problems, living real lives. It’s being told in this young, fast, hip style. Hamilton has an infectious rhythm, an infectious beat so the songs get into your soul and the story helps to enhance the feeling of the passion of these people while it was going on. For that part of it, the historical part, to all of a sudden spark an interest, is enough. Then you layer on this busting down of the racial divide…the idea of “oh these were white people that did this.” It is as Lin says quite often: “Hamilton: An American Musical is the story of America then told by what looks like America now.” That couldn’t be more true.
A friend of mine has two kids, 6 and 8 years old. His wife said to me “It’s such an interesting thing to think that my son will think of George Washington as a mixture of an old white guy on the one-dollar bill and a big black man named Chris Jackson.” [Christopher Jackson plays George Washington in the NYC production.] That this is what Washington is now. It’s such a fascinating thing to just open up the idea that our country, while the Constitution was built for those white people, they did not realize it at the time but they wrote that for all of us—all of the other people of color that are here now. We cannot deny that this message is an important one to deliver now. We must remember that while it was written at a time when it wasn’t like that, It exists now at a time when it is. It has to be part of the message, part of the draw and the drive of the show to push that message out more. Especially by happenstance or divine intervention now that it’s at a time in our country when these things are most needed.
If you were able to talk to your younger self, or to students currently at Booker T. now, what might you say?
What I wish I could tell myself then is that regardless of your level of success, whether you are the tiptop of the class in high school or college, that does not relieve you of the necessity to continue to work. I fell into a little bit of a trap as a young person, thinking that I could slide into NYC and take the world by storm. I had some great successes in college and in high school. Little did I know that the work doesn’t stop. You have to continue to work once you get where you want to go to make sure you get to the next level and the next level.
That being said, sometimes the hard work doesn’t pay off right away. I had very little success when I first got there. My success as an actor has started later, after I was well into my late 20s and 30s. That is when I really began to do things that I consider arriving and achieving the things I thought about when I was a kid. Now that I’m almost a 40-year old person, this is where almost anyone in the business wants to be. So never stop working. Manage your expectations understanding that people succeed at different times and for different reasons. You put in the work, you put in the time and at some point be it now or be it later, good fortune can shine on you and you have to be ready for it at when it’s your time.