Lin-Manuel Miranda and Miguel Cervantes have never performed together, but they have the palpable chemistry of two people who share something sacred. Specifically, playing the most talked-about role in theater since Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Miranda, of course, wrote Hamilton—which won 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for drama—and originated the titular role, Cervantes, 39, a relatively unknown performer, will star in the Chicago version, which opens September 27 at the PrivateBank Theatre. Though the Dallas native has had small parts in the Green Day musical American Idiot and the touring production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the role of Alexander Hamilton will be his first lead. In August, just one month after Miranda, 36, stepped down from the role on Broadway (and immediately chopped his hair and shaved his goatee), the two men sat down to discuss what it means to star in the box-office behemoth that has single-handedly revitalized musical theater and the Founding Fathers’ sex factor.
Chicago: Lin, what was the first piece of advice you gave Miguel after he was cast to star in the Chicago production of Hamilton?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: It’s a marathon. Hamilton is, to put it delicately, a motherfucker of a role. It’s a 14-course meal. The joy of it is you get to do everything. You get to grow up, you get to fall in love, you get to fight in a war, you get to have an affair, you get to have duels. The role is your id unchecked. Any modesty that you may have naturally, you kind of have to shed at the door. Once the show starts, you’re on the ride.
One thing we talked about was bathroom breaks. There are a precious few if you’re Hamilton in Hamilton. Miguel, I’m sure American Idiot must have prepared you for that, in a sense, because that thing never stops.
Miguel Cervantes: I wasn’t one of the guys in front in American Idiot, but once the ensemble started, that was it, you just go. There was no place for stopping and wondering and thinking. When I did my first Hamilton show in New York [on July 13], I was nervous and anxious, and then I thought, We’re going to start, and we’re going to go. There’s no—
Miranda: Second-guessing. There’s no time to think about the next line. You just have to stand on top of the wave as it crashes.
Cervantes: I have said more words in this show than I’ve ever said in my entire theatrical career. I think having that American Idiot work and a drive to move with a nonstop attitude is very helpful.
Chicago: Lin, how did you know Miguel was your Chicago Hamilton?
Miranda: He just crushed it [in the audition]. 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.
Hamilton is also a real ensemble show. I like writing ensemble shows. In the Heights was a big ensemble show, and so was Bring It On. I knew Miguel had the chops to do it because I remember seeing American Idiot and being like, “How the fuck do you survive that eight times a week?” He knows what it’s like to be a part of a company. When you are Hamilton in the company of Hamilton, you have to lead. To have a collaborative spirit like Miguel at the helm makes for good juju and good life for the health of the Chicago company.
Chicago: Miguel, how have you been preparing for such a huge part?
Cervantes: It’s a long journey and a crazy thing to bite into. I started by just learning the words. There are a lot of words to say, so I started listening to them over and over again. It’s really just words until you get up in front of people and put them into action. When you do that, you start to see the story that you’re telling.
Miranda: I had an advantage when learning the lines because by the time I had decided what Hamilton was going to say, I’d kicked the tires on every syllable so much that it was firmly embedded. My challenge is not saying everyone else’s lines. But what you’re saying, Miguel, is true. There’s so much story there. You could write five more musicals about Hamilton’s life and tell equally compelling stories.
The fun of playing Hamilton—and you’re going to find this—is that at first it’s, Can I survive the roller coaster? Then you start to key in on different moments, and you get to explore. Certain things will hit you differently, depending on the day and depending on what’s going on with the world and what’s going on in your life. You know what else is going to happen? You’re going to mess up. I don’t think I did two shows in a row where I didn’t mess up one of my lines. You also learn the virtue of getting back on the horse.
Chicago: Miguel, taking on a role like Hamilton is like replacing an icon such as Yul Brynner in The King and I. How do you make a role like this your own?
Cervantes: I don’t think I understand what the phenomenon of it is yet.
Miranda: This is a glimmer of it.
Cervantes: I’ve obviously thought about what Lin does and what he has accomplished. He has this presence onstage. I will never have that because I didn’t write the show. But Lin also wrote a story that works. The pieces of the puzzle will always come together in Hamilton, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not Lin at the helm. That’s the genius of Hamilton. I just have to make sure that I tell the story of this guy with all the heart and honesty that I can. The rest is done—Lin did it already.
Miranda: That’s fucking great.
Chicago: Lin, with Javier Muñoz taking over as Hamilton on Broadway and Miguel opening the show in Chicago, do you find yourself coaching each new Hamilton differently?
Miranda: I don’t coach anyone. For me, it’s more of a sorority/fraternity situation. When you’ve all experienced the same part, you experience similar things. I tell the other Hamiltons things like “You’re going to need to take a breath here” or “This section is going to eat your lunch” or “If you don’t go to the bathroom during King George[’s song “You’ll Be Back”], you’re not going to get to again for the rest of act 1.” The song “Yorktown” is one to watch out for, too. There’s actually no place for a gulp in the first two minutes of the song. That’s a tough little section. It’s my own stupid fucking fault. I wrote the thing.
Playing Hamilton is an experience you can’t talk to a lot of people about. There are only a few who can have a conversation about what happens during “It’s Quiet Uptown” when you’ve had a long day, and you’re on your 200th show, and you’re just not there. The things that I share with the Hamiltons are the little things—the shortcuts and the life hacks that will get you through the show.
Cervantes: I do remember one piece of advice Lin gave me in the audition. I had gone through the song “Hurricane” once, and he told me to do it again. He started talking really fast about Hamilton and explaining why he wrote this section the way he did. I just ate it up. I don’t know if all the Hamiltons from now on will get to sit in a room with Lin, but I am really lucky that I get to do that. Those little nuggets of his process and decision making are so cool. I don’t get to ask Rodgers and Hammerstein why they wrote something the way they did, but I can ask Lin and I’ll get an answer.
Chicago: Lin, do you have any last piece of advice for Miguel before he takes the stage in Chicago?
Miranda: If you can survive “My Shot,” you’ve got the show. It doesn’t matter what kind of day you’ve had, or if your stomach doesn’t agree with you, or if you’re not feeling well. If you can get through “My Shot,” you can get through the rest.
Opens September 27, $65 to $500. PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. broadwayinchicago.com
Meet the rest of the Chicago cast
Role: Aaron Burr
Big Break: The Canadian-born actor was nominated for a Tony for his performance in The Scottsboro Boys.
Role: Angelica Schuyler
Big Break: In 2009, she nabbed her first Tony for her performance as Anita in West Side Story.
Role: Eliza Hamilton
Big Break: American Idol, season 8
Role: King George III
Big Break: The Broadway vet earned raves in Assassins and Violet.
Role: Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson
Big Break: This is it!
Role: George Washington Big Break: NBC’s Shades of Blue
Samantha Marie Ware
Roles: Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds
Big Break: Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon on Broadway