History with Hamilton

As the musical director for "Hamilton," Alex Lacamoire '95 plays a pivotal role in a history-making Broadway show.
By 

Jimmy Katz

Awards are piling up for Alex Lacamoire ’95, the orchestrator, arranger, and music director of the smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton. On June 12, Lacamoire and others involved in the show were lauded for their work with an impressive 11 Tony Awards. Hamilton was recognized for—among other things—being the best musical and for having the best book and original score (both by Lin-Manuel Miranda). Among the plethora of awards was a Tony for Lacamoire for best orchestrations. Lacamoire’s awards cache for Hamilton also includes an Obie (Off-Broadway Theater Award), and a Grammy for coproducing the cast album. Also on his shelf are a 2008 Grammy and a Tony Award for his work on the show In the Heights (with music also penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Hamilton has conquered Broadway and taken the public at large by storm, drawing accolades from all quarters for its unprecedented approach to chronicling early American history. A multi-ethnic cast portraying the Founding Fathers and key women characters (as well as female Red Coats), tells the story of the nation’s birth primarily through rap. The show includes ballads, pop, R&B, reggae, and rock numbers as well. Critics credit Hamilton for bringing hip-hop to Broadway in much the same way Hair introduced rock to Broadway in 1968. Impressed with how integral rap is to the show, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots was heard asking the rhetorical question, “Is this the most revolutionary thing to happen to Broadway, or the most revolutionary thing to happen to hip-hop?”

Miranda, the show’s author, composer, and original leading man (for a time, he portrayed Alexander Hamilton, America’s first secretary of the treasury), is arguably the most talked-about man on Broadway today. Lacamoire was recommended to Miranda around 2002 during the early workshop days of In the Heights. Lacamoire coarranged the show’s salsa- and hip-hop-flavored score and served as its music director during the show’s extended run on Broadway. Lacamoire and Miranda share a Latin heritage (Miranda is of Puerto Rican descent, Lacamoire has Cuban parentage). The two quickly found common ground with the music of In the Heights and with Hamilton in its emphasis on the contributions to America by immigrants. These days Miranda considers Lacamoire his right-hand man.

Interestingly, Lacamoire didn’t set out for a career in musical theater after earning his professional music degree at Berklee in 1995. After a few years in Boston, he headed to New York hoping to work as a jazz pianist. After reassessing, he followed up the work he’d done during his Boston years playing for musical theater productions at the Boston Conservatory and the Huntington Theatre Company. While he was working as an audition pianist in New York, his playing impressed famed Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who asked him to be the associate music director for a New Haven, Conn., production of his musical Working. Schwartz facilitated other connections for Lacamoire, including a collaboration with Stephen Oremus ’92, who was the music director for Wicked, a future Schwartz blockbuster, then in its workshop phase.

Oremus and Lacamoire worked together on arrangements for Wicked. Ultimately, Lacamoire became Wicked’s conductor when Oremus left to supervise other companies of the show. The “dynamic duo,” as Oremus and Lacamoire called themselves, also worked together with Dolly Parton on her musical theater version of 9 to 5.

Every experience Lacamoire had since his youth as a classic-rock fan growing up in Miami as well as his work on musicals such as Bat Boy, Bring It On, High Fidelity, and Legally Blonde, among others, prepared him for Hamilton. His knowledge of many pop music styles and his musical theater sensibilities enabled him to assist Miranda in developing the kind of show that only comes around once in a lifetime. Since it opened off Broadway, crowds have flocked to it, including countless celebrities. Paul McCartney stopped by the green room after a performance and praised the vocal harmonies to Lacamoire and Miranda. The Hamilton cast recording also topped the Billboard rap chart—yes, the rap chart. It also had the highest overall chart debut for a cast album in 50 years.

A line that Hamilton’s character sings, “I am not throwing away my shot,” appears like a leitmotif throughout the show. It could also be a fitting mantra for Lacamoire. While we will never know conclusively if Alexander Hamilton aimed for the trees in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, it’s clear that Lacamoire was solidly on target with his shot at the musical arrangements for Hamilton.

When you began working on Hamilton, did you sense that it could become such a cultural phenomenon?

Not at all. We had done some workshops and people were moved and impressed by the show. Before we opened off Broadway, I said to [the show’s director] Tommy Kail that it was the best show I’d ever worked on and that the music was the best that Lin had written, but I wasn’t sure if people were going to come see a show about American history set to hip-hop. Would they really get it? He laughed and said, “Yes Alex, they’re going to get it.” You can’t set out to write a hit and try to please a certain theater-going crowd. All you can do is make art, be proud of what you do, and the rest will get figured out.

As the arranger and orchestrator, was it your job to bring the show’s music to life through the instrumental and vocal arrangements?

Yes. Lin composes in Logic on his computer. He finds the hooks and sounds that he likes—let’s say a cool bass sound or a loop that has the right feel. He’ll find a drum patch and program the beat and compose the song. When he presents it to us, the composition has the chords, hooks, [lead] vocals, and where he wants the [vocal] harmonies to go. It becomes my job to translate that to paper, whether I transcribe it or someone else does. Then I refine the arrangement: fleshing out the piano part, adding ideas for vocal harmonies, and deciding where there will be rhythmic hits or where the band will drop out, or alternate ideas for how a song might end. Lin is very collaborative, and it’s nice to have his trust in me. That’s a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly.

As for the instrumentation we chose, I always imagined it as it is now: a pop rhythm section and a string quartet. Lin gave me a clue by saying that he wanted the strings to be to Hamilton what the horns were to In the Heights. That was a great blueprint to work from. The rhythm section gives the groove and the muscle; you get the contemporary digital element from electric instruments, synths, and drum pads. Then the stringed instruments are wood, acoustic, and of [Hamilton’s] era. All of this made a really cool mix of sounds.

You also had to do a bit of style research to arrange the music authentically in various styles.

I did. I refer to the song “A Winter’s Ball” as the “Hip-Hop Gavotte.” It appears at the ball where Eliza and Alexander meet for the first time. I researched what kinds of dances colonial Americans did back then, and the gavotte was one of them. It starts with a pickup to the downbeat, so I used that and also made the arrangement string heavy and added a hammered dulcimer—a popular instrument in the 1770s. I took a cue from the sounds of that era.

You also explored more recent sub-styles of the hip-hop genre, and arranged some songs to sound like flat-out rockers, 60’s pop tunes, and calypso and reggae-flavored numbers.

I did a lot of listening. I’ve always had a curious mind as an arranger and I’ve always been obsessed with figuring out how songs were put together and how to recreate them myself. In high school, I was so obsessed with Rush that I had to learn how to play the guitar, bass, and drum parts. I hadn’t listened to a huge amount of hip-hop, so I had to check out how those songs were put together. The lyrics and the drums drive those songs forward. I keyed in on the mechanics of the styles of music Lin is influenced by. He loves 90's hip-hop. I listened a lot to that music and thought about how it could work in a theatrical context.

The rap for “Meet Me Inside” in 7/8 time is very unusual. Was that Lin’s idea?

Yes, he said he wanted to rap in seven. The song’s drum loop and sinister bass sound were things Lin came up with. His demo was so on the money that I didn’t have to do much. The challenge was taking the demos that were made with loops and digital sounds and figuring out what to give the drummer, the percussionist, and the synth player and what would be triggered by Abelton Live. I had to find a way to distribute everything so that it still felt organic but sounded studio-ready.

Because of the emphasis on hip-hop, was there a discussion of doing most of the score digitally and just having a few live players?

You could do that, but I find that doing so loses the element of heart from the music. You can usually tell when the music is canned. I think it’s great when I see live bands perform in a way that sounds like they are in a studio, like when I hear Beyoncé’s band or hip-hop acts playing on Saturday Night Live. You see them playing and hear everything so clean and tight and can’t believe it’s live. I wanted to take the kind of music that is mostly done by computers and recreate it with live players.

I read that you all brought Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter from the Roots in as consultants when you produced the cast album.

They are the people you’d want involved with this record. I don’t know who else we could have gotten on the producing end who would understand live hip-hop and all its different feels and styles the way the Roots do. I have been a fan of Ahmir’s playing and writing for years. His tastes and ears resonate with mine, so to have him in our corner was a gift. Those guys were able to push us in a direction we might not have gone. We played mixes for them and they made suggestions like turning up the drums and record scratches, putting the hi-hat through distortion, or a voice through delay. These were things we could do in the studio but hadn’t thought of because we were thinking about presenting the show in the cleaner way that we were used to hearing it onstage. They encouraged us to not be afraid to try things.

For that album, the use of studio effects, the sound of the drums, and the overall mix gives it more of a pop music sound rather than that of a Broadway cast album. It all paid off when the album topped the Billboard charts.

The album has been number one on the rap charts twice. It is unbelievable for a Broadway cast album to be on the rap charts. I have to give credit to our mixer, Tim Latham [’89] who is a Berklee alum. He was the secret weapon behind the sound of the Hamilton record. He also mixed In the Heights. Tim was there when the Native Tongue movement was blooming and worked with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Erykah Badu, and D’Angelo. If there is anyone you want to mix your [rap] record, it’s Tim. He understands the style, yet he also knows how to mix a theater record. He walked a fine line to make a record that would appeal to both audiences.

Your vocal arrangements really shine. Was it a collaborative process to figure out the placement of the backing vocals and what types of harmonies should be used?

Lin sings some of his ideas for the background vocals on his demos. He can’t sing all of the harmonies in the octave where a woman would, so he allows me to take his harmonies and arrange them for the ensemble we have. I will invert harmonies, add my own counter lines, and either thicken or simplify the chords. But since Lin has such a keen sense of how he wants things to be, I take a lot of my cues from him. Other times I will do my own thing and present it to him after the fact. “Wait for it” was a song where his demo didn’t have a lot of harmonies, but he used a lot of delay effects on the melody. I have the live voices [echoing lines] to create the effect of a delay. On the album, the only voice on that song that has [digital] delay on it is that of Aaron Burr. The rest of the ensemble basically sings hockets, repeating words and phrases and doing crescendos in a way to simulate the sound of a delay.

Is there any song that you wait for every night when you are conducting?

Yes: “It’s Quiet Uptown.” We had done a workshop of act two, and at that time, Lin had only written the show up to the point where Hamilton’s son dies. That’s where we had to end the workshop and thank everyone for coming! I remember thinking, “What song could Lin possibly write after this gut-wrenching moment?” Then he brought in a demo of this song he’d written in a day, and to me, it’s as perfect a song as he’s ever written. When I heard it, I was amazed at how he captured the feeling of loss with a beautiful piano figure and an aching melody. He indicated where he wanted string passages. From there I found my way into the chart.

There is one spot where Hamilton is trying to break through to Eliza who is very grief-stricken. I wanted the piano to be pulsing and insistent, like someone knocking on a door and hoping for an answer. I wanted the piano voicings to have a real yearning to them, so I used some clusters. I added an upward piano flourish to break up the quarter-note chordal accompaniment and reused it to emphasize the word forgiveness. I was so inspired by what Lin had written that the arrangement wrote itself relatively quickly.

I figured the last song of the show would be a big production number. Instead, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is sung a cappella by the ensemble with everyone ending on a unison for the last syllable of the word “story.” It’s very affecting.

I’m so glad you that you caught that. I am very proud of that. The song initially ended with a very heavy minor chord that felt morose, very sad. It wasn’t the way we wanted to end the show. When we started the show off Broadway, Lin got the idea to end the show a cappella. He sang to me the lines he wanted sung. I went home and figured out how to arrange the voices so that you can still hear the descant above the harmonies without clashes or clutter. For the last measure, I thought about how much harmony we’d had, and going to unison felt like the right way to end. It relates to the unity of the performers and the one woman [Hamilton’s widow, Eliza] that we celebrate at the end. The moment felt sublime. Inspiration came to me right when I needed it.

I understand that when you were young, you were most interested in classic rock and, later, jazz.

That’s exactly right. My musical influences are all over the map. I studied classical music as a kid, but I was always focused on radio songs and learning them by ear and with sheet music. I was the kid trying to play “Cult of Personality” or “Panama” on piano. In junior high school, I started getting into theater music and, later, jazz. I am drawn to rhythm, melody, and feeling in music. I love all music: it’s all art to me and has value.

Why did you choose Berklee for college?

I went to Berklee because I didn’t want to just study jazz or rock. An eye-opener for me was seeing a 10-minute MTV news story on Berklee while I was still in high school. It seemed so contemporary and modern, and was what I wanted. I didn’t apply to any other schools. I didn’t know of any other place where I could have taken a class on progressive rock in the morning, a class on Stravinsky, and a jazz piano lesson in the afternoon, and then play a Caf show tribute to Naked City at night. Berklee was where I needed to be musically and in a city that was the perfect transition between Miami and New York.

Were there any friends or faculty members at Berklee that were influential for you?

Yes. Ken Zambello was really influential. Through him I got to play for Singers Showcase and commencement concerts. Laszlo Gardony and Joanne Brackeen were my piano teachers. I took a Mingus class with Ken Pullig, music history with Dennis Leclaire, and arranging with Bill Scism. I also played gigs outside of school with Ken Zambello, Mirek Kocandrle, Anthony Vitti, and Bill D’Agostino.

There are Berklee alumni working in the pit band with you. Did you know them when you were students?

Richard Hammond [’96], who plays bass for Hamilton, is someone that I’d played with at Berklee, but neither of us can remember what the situation was exactly. We met up again for the show. Richard recommended guitarist Robin Macatangay [’90] to me, and I’m glad he did. This music is very demanding, there is a specific feel and style that’s needed to make it speak as it’s supposed to. We handpicked every musician and put together the best band I’ve ever played with. You’re in this bunker [the pit] with the band members for hours on end, so you have to get along.

You and Lin are on this continuing adventure together. Do partnerships form between Broadway composers and music directors as with Hollywood movie producers and film composers?

I would love to be considered to Lin what [orchestrator] Jonathan Tunick or [music director] Paul Gemignani are to Sondheim. I think there will be books written about Lin as there are books written about Sondheim; he’s that important to the Broadway canon. Lin calls me his right-hand man, and I’m proud of that, it’s a huge honor. He could call anyone he wants at this point. I know his tastes now and know what he wants and I make musical choices based on that. The longer I am with him, the more I understand his writing. It’s a special connection.

With plans for Hamilton to open in other cities around the country, will your role change?

As the music supervisor, it will be my job to set up all the other companies worldwide. I will help put together the bands, help with the hiring of the actors, and deal with the show’s managers. I will travel to check in on the different companies to make sure the quality of the show is being upheld to the required standard. It will be a new phase in my life because this will be my first time doing this on such a global scale. Stephen Oremus has done this for three shows, so I will definitely be calling him for advice. We worked together on Wicked as a team. He was the music director and I was the associate music director. There is so much about music direction that has little to do with sitting at a piano and playing. It takes managerial and psychology skills. It’s about staying in your lane when you need to and being courteous to others.

I won’t be able to conduct a show eight times a week and do all the travel that will be needed to supervise the other companies, so I’m leaving the podium soon. In the meantime, I love being here and playing the show. I hadn’t conducted a Broadway show in a while. The last show I conducted was In the Heights, which I left in 2009. Between then and now, I’ve been supervising, sitting at the back of the room taking notes and seeing the global picture as opposed to being at the podium. I knew for Hamilton that I wanted to be in the driver’s seat because the music is so amazing. To be able to be back here with Lin at the Richard Rodgers Theatre where we did In the Heights seemed right. I’m glad I’ve gotten to be at the piano and conducting because I missed it.

Do you think this show could run for a decade on Broadway?

The hope is that it will run for longer than that. This was the first show I’d ever worked on where the entire team—all of the different departments—was so harmonious. Every department knocked it out of the park. The music goes with the choreography, which goes with the lights, sets, and costumes. Everything creates this whole. All the department heads had the same feeling; we all knew that what Lin was giving us was pure gold. We knew we had to bring in our A game to match the level of the work that was given to us. It took me eight months to orchestrate the show. I made demos for every song to check that I’d made the right decisions before the music went to the band. I knew this was the most important show I’d ever work on, so I gave it 1,000 percent to honor what Lin had written. I wanted my work to be as good as his.

After giving so many performances, is it still a charge for you to see the audience reaction?

That never gets old. When the show ends, I look at the people in the front row and see the level of emotion they are feeling. I love to see the diversity of the audience: the different ages and races. That’s something very special about this show. It’s drawing people to this theater who might not normally go to see a Broadway show.

Do you have special ambitions for the future?

It’s funny. I don’t know what my exact goals are. I’ve never been someone to plan too far into the future, I take it one step at a time. I’ve been very fortunate that the right opportunities presented themselves to me at the right time. I’ve never had to force anything. But there are some things I’ve never done that I’d like to do. I’ve never conducted a big symphony orchestra or conducted for a film. I’d like some day to play at Carnegie Hall or the Hollywood Bowl. There are bands and artists that I’d like to work with—maybe write a string arrangement for someone’s pop album. Hamilton is putting my name out there in a way that could make it possible for me to work in areas outside of musical theater. I look forward to whatever that new chapter will be.

To read about other Berklee alumni involved in the production of the Broadway musical Hamilton visit berklee.edu/berklee-today/fall-2016/berklee-beat/hamiltons-helpers