Not Throwing Away His Shot: Miguel Cervantes ’99 Stars in Hamilton in Chicago
By Joanne Silver
This post was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Expression, the Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Emerson College. Photo: Joan Marcus, 2016.
“I’m not searching for fame and fortune,” Miguel Cervantes said over the phone in early October from Chicago, as he handed his four-year-old son something to drink. Several days later, publicity found the ‘99 Emerson graduate anyway. In its October 19 review of Hamilton, the Chicago Tribune wrote about Cervantes: “The superb actor in the title role…builds a profoundly complicated character.” Television station WGN hailed his “intense, touching, and multi-talented performance with a rapid fire delivery.”
After a varied post-college career that has included the lead in Bat Boy: The Musical at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, as well as a stint installing car and truck accessories in Dallas, Cervantes has landed what many would consider the part of the century: Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, winner of 11 Tony Awards, has become something much bigger than a smash hit. It is nothing short of a reinvention of the Broadway musical and of the roles of history and identity in American culture. Hamilton presents the emergence of a country in rhymes and rhythms as dynamic as the diverse immigrants who have settled here. Cervantes is the first person to assume the part of the legendary Founding Father in one of the planned productions of Hamilton outside New York. The 39-year-old from Garland, Texas, said, “In 1776, all these white guys wrote this Constitution for people like them. In 2016, it’s meant for all people. Why shouldn’t a black man play George Washington and a Latino play Hamilton?”
As a boy in Texas, Cervantes didn’t dream of Broadway. Although his father had played in a band, his family wasn’t particularly artsy. One of three brothers (all with “m” names) of Mary and Marcos Cervantes, Miguel wanted to play soccer and maybe become a teacher like his mother. “My parents couldn’t have been more supportive [of my interest in theater],” he said. They encouraged him from his first audition for a show at 11 through his successful career at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. While there, he tried everything: he acted, he sang, he danced. Michael Nash, then head of Emerson’s Performing Arts Department, visited the senior showcase at Cervantes’ magnet high school and told him, “We could use a guy like you.”
“It was such an amazing experience,” the actor recalls of being at Emerson. In college, he landed roles including Candide and performed at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre each of his four years. By the time he graduated, he was thinking, “Here I am. Where do I sign up, Broadway?”
He realized what was missing. “If I could talk to my 21-year-old self,” he mused, he would tell him how hard he should work. For a couple of years, Cervantes was living in New York, hoping for success. “Then September 11th happened and I got out of Dodge,” he said. “I called my mom and said, ‘I’m coming home.’”
The homecoming, and the automotive job, didn’t last long. Soon Cervantes was back in Boston, starring in Bat Boy—about a tabloid-reported half-boy, half-bat—and approaching his career with a whole new attitude. Looking back, he said, “I claim Bat Boy as my rebirth. All that journey has led me to this.”
“This”—Hamilton—is the result of a lot of work, good fortune, and timing, according to Cervantes. He had auditioned once before for the show, when it went from the Public Theater to Broadway. This time, “there seemed to be something happening,” especially when Cervantes was called back and Miranda was among those observing.
As someone now on the inside, he sounds as dazzled by Hamilton as the rest of the theater-going world, but for a number of less obvious reasons. “It is truly an ensemble. The machine works with many different faces, styles, colors, creeds, not because of a weight I carry on my shoulders,” he explained. “Here we are all together in this show. That’s the show that Lin wrote, that exists beyond him. I’m humbled and privileged.”
But he is not Miranda, and luckily no one wants him to be. “He’s taller. I have a different sounding voice. We’re not asked, nor does the show require of me, to be a carbon copy of the soundtrack,” he said. “I was able to create my own footsteps, not walk in Lin’s footsteps.”
When Cervantes first saw Hamilton, he couldn’t believe what Miranda had accomplished, even calling it “sort of mystical.” Now that he has had some time to live the part of Alexander Hamilton—including four performances on Broadway—how has Cervantes made the character his own? “I relate to the energetic scrappiness of the guy,” he offered. The actor can identify with the fire still in Hamilton when he is an older person in the second act.
As he approaches 40, Cervantes wants a life for his family and himself, and Hamilton is helping to make that possible. “It’s a very good job to raise a family—a double bonus. It’s not only good to be Hamilton, but it’s also good to be a father and husband,” he said. “Ideally, my voice and body hold up. I’d be happy to be Hamilton as long as they’d have me.”
Cervantes reflected on the path that has led him to where he is: “I like to think it’s because of the work I’ve done, the person I’ve been. What I want people to understand about success is it isn’t on a schedule—if I do x, y, and z, then x, y, and z is gonna happen. It’s something you may have to wait for, and you may wait for a very long time.” ♦