Meet The Secret Weapon Behind Hamilton's Epic Sound

Special Features   Meet Alex Lacamoire: The Secret Weapon Behind Hamilton's Epic Sound Alex Lacamoire is Lin-Manuel Miranda's right hand man in creating Hamilton's authentic hip hop sound. Here, he talks creating the score, plus an exclusive breakdown of how he and Miranda wrote “What‘d I Miss?”
Alex Lacamoire and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Alex Lacamoire and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Alex Lacamoire is Hamilton’s orchestrator, arranger, musical director, conductor and keyboard player. Think that’s a lot of hats to wear? He also produced the show’s Billboard chart-topping and Grammy-winning cast album.

Lacamoire, 40, got his start in New York theatre as a rehearsal/audition pianist and keyboard sub on The Lion King before becoming the musical director and orchestrator of the Off-Broadway cult musical Bat Boy in 2001. Within a few years, he leapt to Broadway, working as a music copyist on Avenue Q and opening Wicked as its associate conductor, co-arranger and pianist/synthesizer player—later taking over as musical director and conductor.

But before that, Lacamoire met Lin-Manuel Miranda, who would soon become his close friend and frequent collaborator. When Miranda was years from getting his first hit, In The Heights, to Broadway, several cast members in a workshop of the show recommended that he and director Tommy Kail meet an orchestrator they’d never heard of named Alex Lacamoire. The workshop actors, who grew up doing theatre with Lacamoire in Miami, thought that the group would hit it off creatively—and they did. But Lacamoire couldn’t work with Miranda and Kail right away—he was going out of town with a new musical called Wicked. “Sure, well how long can that run?” Kail said at the time, a memory the team now laughs about. Soon after, Lacamoire got his future creative partner, Miranda tickets to come see him conduct Wicked on Broadway.

“Alex Lacamoire and I wrote a lot of In The Heights backstage at the Gershwin, listening to Wicked and [its] orchestrations,” Miranda said in 2013 for The Untold Stories of Broadway. “My second date ever with my now-wife Vanessa was to Wicked. I used the one fancy hook-up I had at the time—Alex—to get us tickets.”

Alex Lacamoire, Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbeuhler
Alex Lacamoire, Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbeuhler

In 2008, In The Heights opened on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Lacamoire, who is Cuban-American, says the show, which ran for three years, was successful because the material was created organically. “We had a Latin-American artist writing Latin-American music, as opposed to someone else trying to write in that style and pay homage to it when it [wasn’t] really in their DNA.”

Eight years later, at the same theatre, Lacamoire and Miranda reunite on the show with the largest advance in Broadway history. Hamilton’s advance was $57 million according to an official report—and that was months ago. Lacamoire also credits authenticity for making Hamilton work. He feels Miranda was the perfect person to combine Broadway, rap, hip hop and other popular genres in writing a musical because he grew up with love and respect for all of them. But the fact is: Lacamoire is also the perfect person to fuse these sounds.

When asked about his inspirations for Hamilton’s tone, Lacamoire points to current bands who create hip hop sounds live. From Beyoncé to The Roots (who executive produced Hamilton’s album), the ability to make music sound alive—as though it’s being created by humans in the moment—at the same time as they capture the precision of hip hop with pre-programmed beats inspires Lacamoire.

“There are certain [hip hop] elements that cannot be done by human beings,” Lacamoire explains. He demonstrates the way that a fast beat on a drum kit’s high hat cymbal might sound in a hip hop song. To achieve the sound desired for a particular tune, that moment needs to be programmed digitally. “But the live theatrical experience [means that a] human band [needs to] play along with the computers. That’s where the realness lies.”

Lacamoire developed the ability to determine where tracks should play and where live music should lead while working on Bring It On (also with Miranda, as well as Tom Kitt and Amanda Green). To create any kind of hip hop sound live in the theatre, Lacamoire learned the necessity of balance.

A scene from <i>Bring It On	</i>
A scene from Bring It On Michael Lamont

“I found through Bring It On that if you over-saturate your sonic palette with too many fun, clever colors, you wind up obscuring the band, lyrics and story. In Hamilton, the lyrics reign supreme and you have to clear the space for them. In a song like “My Shot” for example, the piano is playing one note for most of the verses.” He demonstrates where the guitar, bass and drums live within the music for the song, “[That] leaves a huge space in the middle for the vocals.” He went on to further describe how he used his orchestration to highlight the story going on, and to ensure the audience didn’t miss any information delivered in the lyrics.

“I’ve always been curious about how music [is] put together,” he says. ”[When I was growing up] I would try to play songs on the piano, and I would notice that the sheet music didn’t have all of the cool things I heard [on the recording]. It was missing the guitar solo, and I wanted to know how that fit in.” In high school, Lacamoire began to pick up every instrument he could find and tried to teach himself about he constructions of orchestrations.

Hamilton has encouraged curiosity from fans about his process. He holds social media partially accountable for this, as well as the #Ham4Ham lottery shows that thrust him into the public eye. “People are so curious about how the show [is] put together, because [they] can’t stop listening to the album. It’s humbling and wonderful that it has that kind of impact.”

This is due, in part, to the unconventional depth of Lacamoire’s involvement in the show’s development. Typically an orchestrator might begin collaborating with a writer when the timeline for a production is set, creating orchestrations for existing songs. But Lacamoire traveled with Miranda to the White House to premiere a song—now the show’s opening number—before the full script existed. With Barack and Michelle Obama beaming from the audience, Miranda sang the show’s opening number, accompanied solely by Lacamoire on keys. Lacamoire credits that 2009 White House appearance with launching Hamilton into the collective consciousness.

In terms of their process in creating a new song, it’s teamwork, but Lacamoire emphasizes that Lin leads. “Lin is the architect. He builds the house. This is the foundation, this is the chord, these are the lyrics, [this is the] melody,” he says. “I add the colors. It’s the back and forth. [Lin] leaves [me] spaces to contribute, and I’m thankful that becomes part of the song.”

Typically Miranda sends Lacamoire a first draft recording made on Logic software, and Lacamoire constructs sheet music from there. Lacamoire dives into the back-and-forth of creating “What’d I Miss,” the Act Two opener introducing Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson, in order to articulate how collaboration on a particular song functions.

Moving to the keyboard in his dressing room (where Miranda sits eating sushi just a few feet away), Lacamoire begins to play “What’d I Miss.”

“The way it started, Lin’s demo had it all there,” he says. “It started with this figure and this cool organ that he had, and it was his idea to have this line up [high in the vocals] to have the piano quote those 'whoas,' which are from “My Shot.”

“This whole ‘Thomas Jefferson’s comin’ ho-oo-ooome’ [melody] was all him,” he continues. “Lin’s original demo just had a main line ‘Thomas Jefferson’s comin’ ho-oo-ooome.’ So I suggested to Lin, ‘Well listen, we have this space [on the extended ‘o’ vowel] that we can fill,’ so I came up with a counterline.” That counterline splits the ensemble in two vocally, some on Miranda’s original melody and some on Lacamoire’s staccato interjection sung on the held vowel. “I literally said to Lin, ‘Hey do you like that line, that’s just me improvising,’ and he’s like, ‘Yeah, great, keep it, cool.’”

Lacamoire continues: “Then [when the main melody ‘Thomas Jefferson’s comin’ ho-oo-ooome’ repeats] I was like, ‘Ok Lin, this is the second time we have the phrase. Let’s try to amp it up,’ so I suggested putting in harmony [and] the same thing for my counterline,” he says of the layered harmony audiences now hear when listening to the song. “That’s where the back and forth happens.”

Lacamoire’s suggestions also help tie the score together as a whole. At a later part in this song, “Lin’s demo had this chord progression ‘for so long…[clap] ahh ahh oooh.’ We have these chords happening and then in my mind I knew, ‘Ok, there are no real vocals happening other than the ‘ah ooh’ so there’s no real focal point happening.’” That gap led Lacamoire to suggest the addition of a melody this time. “What I suggested is, ‘Ok well, it’s Jefferson’s entrance’ and we [said to each other], ‘Well what’s Jefferson’s song?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh “Washington On your Side.’” That’s why Lacamoire injected the main line of “Washington On Your Side,” Jefferson’s song from later in the show—to keep the music thematic.

“The little colors and s*** that I add, that’s just me screwing around on the piano,” says Lacamoire. “I put that there because that’s just what I would do on piano. A lot of these things are just me improvising and seeing what feels right. Other times, believe me, I sit there and pore over stuff for a half hour until it becomes just right. When I [found] something that works, I sang that to myself, I played it on the piano, and I [thought], ‘I like it, I like what it does, and it feels exciting.’”

“The score deserves repeated listenings,” he says. “There’s always something new to pick up. Lin composed in such a dense manner, that is packed with so much love and detail that it’s staggering.” When I point out the density he describes in the work is a trait shared by both Sondheim musicals and rap music, Lacamoire smiles.

“They’re going to be writing books about Lin the way that they write books about Sondheim now. He’s going to have that kind of impact on the world. It’s amazing being so close to it, watching it happen.”

Generous to his collaborators and down-to-earth, Lacamoire is also an extreme perfectionist. His goal as producer for Hamilton’s cast album was to take an expanded amount of time to record it—in order to give the attention deserved to every element. In discussing both the album and the live show, the words that come up most often are ‘precision’ and ‘focus.’

In thinking about how Hamilton will affect the future of musical theatre, Lacamoire references all of the young people being influenced by the show, who will soon be creating work of their own. “Some child being born now is going to start assimilating [all that’s going on now] into their being, and they’re going to come up with a new musical, some new thing we could [never] expect now.”

There will be many legacies from Hamilton’s innovations. It’s clear that the different genres of music, the diverse casting and so much that’s groundbreaking about the artistry of the show will affect generations to come. But Lacamoire also identifies a slightly less obvious legacy. “Lin respects musical theatre so much. It seems like [some of the shows that came before] were written thinking that there’s this inherent cheese factor in musical theatre that they didn’t want to embrace. [Lin] only has love and admiration for musical theatre, and because of that, he is making musical theatre hip again.”

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