The Most Important Understudy on Broadway

Jon Rua on the rise of Hamilton and his role behind Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda has his men with him, including Jon Rua.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has his men with him, including Jon Rua. Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images

With the face of Hamilton removing himself from the narrative, the spell that’s taken hold of the internet and all of pop culture over the last year and a half might begin to break, or at least begin to shimmer around the edges. Hamilton’s success has been in tandem with the supernova emergence of Lin-Manuel Miranda. With his youthful exuberance and genuine-seeming gratitude at every incredible place his career has brought him, it’s pride, not jealousy, that Miranda inspires: whether spitting rhymes at the White House, cracking wise on a late night talk show, accepting a MacArthur “genius” grant, Grammy or Pulitzer, or even—as is now the case—making the move out to Hollywood.

So who’s left to carry on his legacy? Though they will never be the biggest name on the marquee, the understudies are the quiet lifeblood of Broadway, the living embodiment of the phrase, “The show must go on!” They are thrust, unpracticed and under-rehearsed, onto a stage before of already skeptical theatergoers. As of now, only three men know what it’s like to actually be Hamilton: Miranda, Javier Munoz (Miranda’s alternate who performs every Sunday) and Jon Rua, the understudy who becomes the $10-bill founding father when both Miranda and Munoz are out of commission.

On normal days, Rua is in the cast as a member of the ensemble who dips into the role Charles Lee (he’s a general, weeeeee!) among others. But on December 20, 2015, Rua became The A-L, E-X, A-N-D, E-R (we are / meant to be) for the first time.

“It was thrilling,” Rua told the Observer in January. “It was nerve-wracking. I found out 11 o’clock that day. At that point, I had only had one full understudy run through, I hadn’t had my costumes or wigs, I never went through the staging or scenes with any of the actors.”

Getting a white slip in your Playbill informing you an understudy will be playing the lead role of a Broadway play can invite a groan under any circumstances, but the reaction is surely magnified for a production like Hamilton, where tickets can sell for thousands of dollars and when one considers the way Miranda’s persona is inexorably linked to the show. 

Hamilton frames itself as a populist musical; one that invites even at-home listeners who aren’t in the room where it happens (and, with ticket prices as high as they are, that’s what most of us have to be) into its secret club with no judgment or reservation.

“I don’t think anyone will ever understand what it is [to be an understudy] until they do it,” Rua said. “My experience as Hamilton was rehearsing the entire thing by myself. I mean, sure, they taught me the material, and they showed me the staging. In-action rehearsing, I had maybe two or three where I got to play with some of the other understudies. But to go on stage with lights and all that? That didn’t happen until day of.”

With a show that’s been as loved and obsessed over as Hamilton, every casting detail opens the floodgates for fan art, deconstruction and hashtags. It’s been widely accepted that Sunday’s Hamilton (#Javiton) plays a sexier, slick and ambitious founding father, most certainly reliably with the ladies.

As for the performance of Rua (#Hamiljon), the youngest of the three? “I suppose there’s more of a kinetic energy, a sort of restlessness, and at the same time romance that comes with mine,” Rua said. 

Rua first met Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2007, after auditioning for In The Heights, Miranda’s first Broadway show. The two continued to work together on Bring It On, for which Miranda wrote the songs. Now, Rua is among the handful of people who can say they’ve been there for every step of the Hamilton phenomenon. “I’ve been involved with [Hamilton] since the beginning. I did readings, I’ve workshopped some of his material during American Songbook at the Lincoln Center, and when it came to be The Public, I was offered a position.”

“[Hamilton] was always beautiful, it was always transcending, and it was always something I connected to.”

Those of us who have listened to the original cast recording on endless repeat can testify to its magnetic staying power, but even after performing eight shows a week for over a year, Rua is still charmed by Hamilton.

Hamilton to me is still what it was then,” said Rua, who will be on hand with the rest of the cast at the Tony Awards this Sunday. “I mean, I didn’t realize it was going to blow up popular culture the way it did, but it was always as beautiful then as it is now. It’s not any different to me than it was when I first sang it and first moved to it; it was always beautiful, it was always transcending, and it was always something I connected to.”

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Even with Miranda yielding his power and stepping away, it’s difficult to imagine the musical’s popularity will falter. Beyond the book and score of Hamilton, Miranda’s gift was a musical that invited fans into its world in every conceivable way: public daily #Ham4Ham performances for the unlucky masses trying to get tickets, an intimate annotated book, an active Twitter presence. He’s leaving the show, but leaving it strong enough for it not to matter that he’s left, ensuring it’ll outlive him when he’s gone.

Hamilton frames itself as a populist musical; one that invites even at-home listeners who aren’t in the room where it happens (and, with ticket prices as high as they are, that’s what most of us have to be) into its secret club with no judgment or reservation. 

In doing so, Hamilton managed to pull off a magical feat of marketing: a big, blockbuster Broadway musical that trumpets itself as the underdog, even as it pulls in $1.9 million in a single week. But if its fans feel like they’re a part of Hamilton, it’s only those on stage who know what it’s truly like to be in the eye of the hurricane. “I don’t think people realize how much the ensemble does,” Rua said. “Maybe after they [see] this interview they’ll watch. Don’t look at the spotlight. Look at what is happening around it, the circus that’s uplifting the story.”

The Most Important Understudy on Broadway