Alex Lacamoire, music director of Broadway's Hamilton, on the show's beginnings and diversifying theatre
Hip-hop musical about a founding father seemed far-fetched, but 'I believed in the piece,' said Lacamoire
Alex Lacamoire wasn't convinced that anyone would rush to theatres for Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical history lesson Hamilton.
After all, a hip-hop musical about one of the United States' founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, might be a hard sell on paper.
"I didn't know if people were going to be able to keep up with the pace of the storytelling and with the fact that the show was as massive and as epic and as long as it was. So I just didn't know," said Lacamoire, the show's musical director who helped craft its unique orchestrations and arrangements.
"But I believed in the piece. I loved the music so much."
As it turns out, so do audiences.
Since Hamilton premiered off-Broadway in January 2015, the show has sold out theatres in New York City, internationally and on tour. It's been Broadway's top-grossing musical annually since 2016, including 2020 despite the pandemic forcing theatres across the Great White Way to close last March.
It swept the 2016 Tony Awards, winning Best Musical, Best Original Score — and giving Lacamoire his second statue for Best Orchestrations.
Last summer, a recorded version of the stage production landed on Disney+ to much acclaim.
"I knew that the show demanded that I give it everything I had in terms of my music direction and my arrangements and my focus, my heart, my passion, everything. So I just went headlong, not knowing what the result was going to be, but knowing that I just had to do it," Lacamoire said.
'You can't quite picture it until you actually see it'
Hamilton wasn't Lacamoire's first time working with Miranda. The pair first collaborated on the critically-acclaimed, Tony-winning musical In The Heights.
Miranda first shared his vision for Hamilton with Lacamoire in 2009, playing him the show's opening number.
"I couldn't tell if Lin-Manuel was being tongue in cheek. I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be funny," he told Bambury.
"It just seems so audacious to take a life story of a founding father and put it to hip hop and just tell this long, beautiful narrative."
That song, Alexander Hamilton, sets the scene of what's to come, introducing the audience to the oft-forgotten American politician through a mix of spoken word, rap and singing. The voices overlap, harmonize and, in parts, call and respond.
"That's the amazing thing about Hamilton. You can't quite picture it until you actually see it," he said.
Taking inspiration from The Beatles
Lacamoire's inspiration as an arranger and orchestrator goes back decades to a very different musical phenomenon: The Beatles.
It was the work of George Martin, the famed record producer who is sometimes called the "fifth Beatle" for his work with the band, that got him into the work.
"When you listen to those old songs and you think to yourself, 'Oh, wow, it was someone's idea to suggest bringing in French horns and making an arrangement for Sgt. Pepper's [Lonely Hearts Club Band]' … I always thought that was the coolest thing, and I always enjoyed that," Lacamoire said.
"I was always interested in taking music apart and trying to figure out what made the songs.... It's kind of like people who like to pull apart clocks and put them back together just to see how they work. That was my brain with music."
When Lacamoire takes music apart now, he puts it together keeping in mind three "tenets."
First, the arrangement must have a beginning, middle and end. The song should build. And, lastly, it has to suit the moment.
"It's a big, important thing for me to try to make sure that all my arrangements serve the story being told," he said.
Making Broadway more diverse
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the entertainment industry hard. According to numbers released by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the unemployment rate for actors reached 52 per cent, and 27 per cent for musicians, in September. That compares to an overall U.S. unemployment rate of 8.5 per cent at the time.
As the closure of Broadway theatres stretches into its eleventh month, with no expectation of reopening until at least the fall, Lacamoire says he's eager to see people return to the stage — whenever that might happen.
"I miss that feeling of congregating in a shared space, and seeing people perform in front of your very eyes and the way the air moves in the room because of that," he said.
"The way you see them doing something in front of you in a way that feels superhuman."
"There have been so many shows and productions that I've worked on where you will look around the room and you realize, 'Oh, my gosh, there aren't enough people of colour here on this team,'" he told Bambury.
The issue of racial inequity in theatre is on the mind of many, Lacamoire says, following a tumultuous year that saw the high-profile police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Black Lives Matter protests in their wake.
"It has shone this light on this piece of our industry that I don't think was working as well as it could. And what Muse is now doing is really taking this hiatus from live performance to really try to build a big database, a big well of people that might not have been granted access before," he said.
"I truly hope that we can make some change so that when we get back to work, it's not the same as it was before — that it will look different, that it will feel different."
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Annie Bender and Pedro Sanchez.