Before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical phenomenon “Hamilton” gained massive popularity, his musical “In the Heights,” changed how CSUF alumnus Rubén Carbajal saw his potential as an actor.
“I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I can see myself on that stage,’ and it was because I saw people that looked like me. I heard people speak the way I speak, the way my family members speak,” Carbajal said.
Carbajal now sees himself onstage eight shows a week at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre playing John Laurens and Phillip Hamilton in Miranda’s “Hamilton.” He visited the Titan Theater last Monday to speak to CSUF students and alumni about his professional journey during an intimate event.
CSUF professor Jeremy Lewis hosted the “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-type event presented by CSUF’s Office of Alumni Engagement, followed by an exclusive meet and greet.
The day Carbajal first met Miranda at the stage door after an “In the Heights” performance years ago was among the stories he told the captivated audience.
“I was very lucky to see (Miranda) perform. I remember it was super quick but it felt like I was meeting someone that I knew was going to change my life. I shook his hand and I remember saying, ‘Hey man, you’re my idol. I really appreciate everything you’re doing for us, Latinos,’” Carbajal said. “Little did I know, I would be in one of his shows.”
Before graduating in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree of fine arts in musical theatre, Carbajal starred in campus productions such as “Legally Blonde,” “Spring Awakening” and “Kiss Me, Kate.” Right out of college, he was able to star in an “In the Heights” production along with a few others based in Orange County.
In October 2016 he was offered the role in “Hamilton,” but not before many rejections in Los Angeles and a jabbing initial rejection from his first call back for the Chicago run of “Hamilton” for which he flew out to New York.
“There were some (auditions) I felt great about. I was like ‘That was the best I could have done. I left everything in that room,’ and then I wouldn’t hear from them. I just wouldn’t hear anything. So I kind of learned to take everything with a grain of salt and to go into an audition, do my best but then move on to the next one,” Carbajal said.
A Los Angeles native, Carbajal began his career as an actor when he was five, excited to hang out with his mom as they attended acting classes and commercial auditions together.
Carbajal’s parents, Sonia and Tino, sat proudly in the front row of the audience as their son spoke about their continued support. His father is an immigrant from Mexico who owns a successful business called Superior Coatings, distributing wood-finishing products, and his mother is a full-time caretaker to his siblings. Although Carbajal initially felt like he was following a path his parents didn’t understand, they started to show complete and unwavering support once they noticed his passion.
CSUF President Mildred Garcia attended the event, introducing Carbajal to the audience before it began. Garcia declared herself a huge fan of the Broadway hit, which may have been the inspiration for the recent “Hamilton” parody performed during her Convocation Address.
“We are in a time in history when art like ‘Hamilton,’ art that Ruben is bringing to life, is not only appreciated. It is necessary for the evolvement of who we are as a nation. ‘Hamilton’ is all of us and it’s underlying message of hope in the face of adversity and the power of diverse people from all walks of life collaboratively creating a new world is the very definition of what Cal State Fullerton is,” Garcia said.
So far, Carbajal feels he has learned the importance of staying healthy through his intense schedule. He finds his motivation and energy with the third number, “My Shot” as well as strength in John Laurens’s fight against slavery and Philip Hamilton’s love for his father.
Carbajal stood on stage for the first time on March 14 at the West Coast premiere of “Hamilton” in San Francisco in the SHN Orpheum Theatre with one of the first lines of the show.
“I messed up the words so bad on opening night because I was just so nervous. I saw the lights and all the people and I was like ‘What?’ I know the hardcore fans noticed but I still made everything rhyme,” Carbajal said. “That show was unlike anything I’ve ever done. It was in front of 2,200 people that were just energized and so excited for the show to be there.”
Carbajal was pleasantly surprised to get to meet many “Hamilton” fans at the meet and greet, many of whom had already seen him perform on tour in the Broadway production.
Coming back to CSUF reminded him that the next generation needs people to inspire them like Miranda inspired him.