Click. Click. Click.
The sound comes from deep inside Michael Luwoye’s mouth, near the back of his tongue. It’s not intentional. The “Hamilton” star clicks when he’s trying to order his thoughts, place objects spatially or respond to somebody who says something profound.
“It’s like a period or some sort of punctuation mark,” he explains, adding a click at the end of the sentence for emphasis. “I don’t know what it is. It just happens.”
He’s sitting poolside in a shaded cabana on the roof of his Hollywood home, a 22-story luxury apartment building with a sweeping view of the city, including the iconic needle at the top of Capitol Records and, if you look in just the right direction, the long yellow banners advertising “Hamilton” on the sides of the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
As the title character in one of the biggest musical tours of all time — the guy who a spokeswoman confirmed Thursday will be the next Alexander Hamilton on Broadway come January — Luwoye could be forgiven for running to the side of the building and yelling, “I’m the king of the world!” with true James Cameron flair. But he's not that guy.
“I’m an introverted man,” Luwoye, 26, says seriously, his voice a rich baritone, his posture impeccable. “I always felt like I was on the outside in the theater world.”
Now, as he prepares to wrap the L.A. leg of the show’s tour on Dec. 30, he’s the insider. When he was cast as the alternate for the role of Alexander Hamilton on Broadway in 2016, he was the first black actor to take on the role. (Miranda and his original alternate were of Puerto Rican descent.) That fall he became the first actor to portray both of the musical’s leading male roles in the same day when he performed as Hamilton at a matinee and as Aaron Burr at night.
He got to drop “alternate” from his title when the national tour kicked off in San Francisco in March. The Alabama native had never been to the Bay Area before, or Los Angeles. Also new: all the attention, the hype, the love and the adoration, the sense of responsibility as a black man in the spotlight. These are not things Luwoye expected in his life.
And now that he’s been given the opportunity to play the role full-time on Broadway, he’s even more amazed by his fortuitous trajectory.
“I haven’t given myself enough space to actually process it,” he says. “I feel like I could cry about it.”
Luwoye wasn’t even sure he wanted a career in theater until he was at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
“I was not the stereotypical theater person,” Luwoye says. “I didn’t grow up listening to original soundtracks or have posters hanging up in my room.”
The youngest of four children born to Nigerian immigrants who “somehow landed in Alabama” in the 1980s, Luwoye dabbled in the arts. He liked to draw. He tried his hand at journaling. He flirted with the piano and the violin before settling for the guitar. His mother, an engineer, had a “sneaky fascination” with “The Sound of Music,” and the epic musical often played in his home on Saturday afternoons.
“My mom always wanted us to be like the Von Trapps,” Luwoye says, explaining that music figured prominently in the household despite his personal ambivalence.
Ice cream was the other constant in Luwoye’s life. Luwoye’s father owns a small business called Goody Cream, and in addition to being an ice cream distributor, he sold ice cream off a truck when Luwoye was a kid. If Dad had a new flavor and needed a child’s perspective, Luwoye was more than happy to offer his services. (Ice cream, he says, is “no longer my mainstay if I’m going for dessert.” Too much of a good thing.)
In high school he began to zero in on music theory and composition, particularly the idea of scoring “The Legend of Zelda.” It’s his all-time favorite video game, he says, opening his shirt collar just a bit to reveal a “Legend of Zelda” necklace.
Luwoye admits to being quirky. He’s extremely comfortable with that part of himself. But he wasn’t always. For a long time he would hide his quirks in rehearsal and audition rooms. He didn’t come to embrace them until after he graduated from college and landed a role in “Marley,” about the life and music of Bob Marley, at Baltimore’s Center Stage in 2015. Something about that show freed him, and he started being himself in front of fellow actors.
“Let’s see what happens if I click and gesticulate and move my fingers and map and place things in a certain order in rehearsal?” he recalls thinking. Nobody said anything negative, and it helped him to learn. He continued doing it. “I felt confidence in my weirdness and my oddities and my insecurities.”
That’s when the world of theater cracked open for him, and he caught his stride. He was receiving positive attention for his role in “Invisible Thread” at Second Stage Theater in New York when he began thinking about “Hamilton.”
His first audition for the Broadway incarnation of the show was the worst. It was the day after “Hamilton” won a Grammy for musical theater album, and Luwoye was going for the roles of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison. He had auditioned off-Broadway, and not wanting to stress himself out, he steered clear of the material in the days leading to the audition, figuring he already knew it.
Turns out the script had changed in the leap to Broadway.
“I remembered one of the raps, but everything else was a train wreck. It was all new material with different melodies and completely new verses,” he recalls, shaking his head. “I left with my tail between my legs.”
It felt like a miracle when he got called back numerous times. He went to one audition — the one that ultimately put him on Broadway as the Hamilton alternate — in the clothes he was wearing for his catering job. By the time he was buttoning his tuxedo to start work that night, his agent called him with the news.
“What in the world is this experience?” he remembers thinking, barely comprehending what had happened.
Seventeen months later, he still hasn’t quite wrapped his mind around his journey.
“I see what’s happening, I see how people are responding to it. Yes, it’s an out-of-body experience, but I don’t know what body I’m going to land in,” he says.
The body he’s in now, however, is black. And he feels a profound responsibility to put his best foot forward for all the children of color looking up to him, realizing — maybe for the first time — that they too can accomplish great things.
“We have to treat this with such care — treat them with such care,” he says of those kids, and of the attitude that his fellow actors of color carry. “It’s not something we're taking for granted or tossing away as just a job. Because you know people have their eyes on you.”