In May 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed an early version of the song Alexander Hamilton at an evening of poetry, music and spoken word hosted by US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. Accompanying him on piano was Alex Lacamoire, who had recently won a Tony Award for his orchestrations of Miranda’s musical In the Heights, and a Grammy for producing the original cast recording.
It was the first time that any music from Hamilton had been performed in public. Introducing the number, Miranda explained that it was from a concept hip-hop album he was working on about the life of “someone I think embodies hip-hop – treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton”.
The audience chuckled. “You laugh, but it’s true!” said Miranda. “He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right-hand man, became treasury secretary, caught beef with every other founding father, and all on the strength of his writing. I think he embodies words’ ability to make a difference.”
Alex Lacamoire. Photograph supplied
You can watch a YouTube video of the performance. Miranda’s nervous energy is palpable, while Lacamoire sits at the piano with a fixed grin on his face. The audience are not sure initially if the song is meant to be funny or serious, but they quickly respond to it and give it a standing ovation at the end, led by President Obama. Little did anyone know then that Hamilton would become one of the most groundbreaking, influential musicals of the last decade.
Chatting to Limelight on the phone from the US, Lacamoire says that seeing President Obama and the rest of the audience on their feet was “really amazing. That truly was phenomenal. At the time, we were so nervous, it was all happening in a blur so when we looked back to see how much they were enjoying it and to see that he did stand up…. We couldn’t believe it, we were just watching it with our mouths on the floor when we saw the video a few months later.”
Lacamoire would go on to become Hamilton’s Musical Director, orchestrating and arranging the music, and playing the keys and conducting the Broadway production for around a year and a half. He would also produce the original Broadway cast recording, and work with Disney on a recording of the show, now streaming on Disney+.
Born in 1975 in Los Angeles, where his parents met after fleeing Cuba, Lacamoire grew up in Miami. Despite a hearing impediment, which his family noticed when he was still a young child, he was always keenly attuned to music. After graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, he moved to New York City and quickly landed a job playing the piano in rehearsals for The Lion King.
His first show as Musical Director was the cult rock musical Bat Boy: the Musical, which opened off-Broadway in 2001. From there, Lacamoire moved to the Broadway production of Wicked, initially as an associate conductor, before taking over as Musical Director in 2005. He has since won three Tony Awards and three Grammys for his work on the musicals In the Heights, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. He won his fourth Grammy for producing the soundtrack for the film The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman. He is also working on the film of In the Heights, which is scheduled to hit cinema screens in 2021 after the coronavirus pandemic delayed its release this year.
Alex Lacamoire. Photograph supplied
Lacamoire and Miranda met on the recommendation of producer Kevin McCollum, who had got to know Lacamoire on Bat Boy. “He had told me that he was working with a young composer who he felt should be paired with someone who could help flesh out his arrangements,” says Lacamoire.
“I was told that the composer was brilliant, and a genius, but not necessarily a trained pianist, and needed someone to help his songs be executed. So we were paired, and Lin-Manuel and I hit it off straight away. I think it helped that we are both of Latin descent, and I think it helped that we both loved musical theatre, and we were counterparts of a certain age and of certain interests. It was chemistry, really, because at the end of the day you have to get along, right, you have to have a good rapport and we were just lucky that we have always had that. So I was very fortunate.”
He has strong memories of listening to a cassette tape of an early performance of In The Heights. “Right from the beginning of that cassette I heard Lin’s voice and I heard someone rapping in a way that had very clever rhyme schemes to it. It was very fluent in the hip-hop feel and vocabulary, and I loved that they were rapping in Spanish at times, and they were rapping using very popular Latin phrases. There was something about it that was very different to what I was hearing at the theatre and that very much excited me. It felt like something I could sink my teeth into as a musician,” he says
He admits that he hadn’t been particularly interested in rap or hip-hop prior to that. “I’m not an aficionado and I admit I gained much more respect for the music by seeing it through Lin’s eyes, but at the time that hip-hop was taking over the world I was listening more to alternative rock and classic rock and jazz and stuff of that nature, so I missed the boat in that kind of way. But I was glad I was able to do a little bit of a catch up through Lin-Manuel and through the music he was writing. I was a big fan of Beastie Boys and Black Sheep but I didn’t have an encyclopedic view of rap music the way Lin did.”
Working with Miranda on In the Heights came pretty easily though. “I’ll say that with Lin’s music I feel that I clearly hear where he wants it to go, and there’s a way that he writes that, for me, I hear it all, usually straight away,” says Lacamoire. “I go, ‘oh yeah, I hear the big picture’ and it then becomes the task of actually notating it and writing it down and finessing it. But there’s something about the way that he speaks that I feel like I get the language… Even if it’s a very spare rendition that I might be getting from him I can hear, sometimes, the full product in my head, and that’s a special relationship.”
Director Thomas Kail and Alex Lacamoire at Hamilton rehearsals at New 42nd Street Studios. Photograph © Joan Marcus
When Miranda was approached about performing at the White House, he was asked to perform something from In the Heights, for which he was known.
“But he figured this would be a great venue to world premiere this piece that he was writing about Alexander Hamilton,” says Lacamoire. “And I admit it takes a lot of courage to just go out there and perform something that’s never been test-driven before, but I’ve got to say that at certain things like that Lin-Manuel has a confidence that is inspiring. I often think to myself how lucky I am to be his co-pilot in instances like that. The ability to play with him is something I’ll always cherish.”
Despite the nerves, Lacamoire says that the experience at the White House was thrilling. “I had never been to the White House before, Lin hadn’t either. You have to remember that at that time Barack Obama had just been inaugurated, it was in the first six months of his presidency. There was a lot of optimism and a lot of excitement and joy to have this person in the office. There seemed to be a lot of possibilities, he’s so magnetic.”
“I just remember there being a lot of excitement, you just felt it, it felt electric. And we were paired with some excellent performers who were also doing spoken word poetry. Esperanza Spalding was there singing and playing bass and that was amazing; just to be in that historic room and performing for the President and the First Lady and a bunch of friends, it was really spectacular. It’s not something that happens every day.”
Asked what he thought when Miranda first told him about his ideas for Hamilton, Lacamoire says: “I admired the verbal dexterity of it, I could tell that there’s a lot of information being packed into it in a very seasoned and eloquent way, but at the time I couldn’t tell if he was being tongue in cheek or if it was satire because it does seem crazy to compare American history with hip-hop. When I would describe the show to people they would squint their eyes and simply go, ‘okaaaaaaay’ as if they couldn’t quite see it. And some people outright thought it was a terrible idea. It wasn’t until people actually got to see the show, and see how serious Lin-Manuel was about it, and how deep the material could be, and how incredible this person’s life was … how all these figures in American history were humanised in a way that made me personally relate to them. You see them as individuals who had dreams and hopes and were fighting [a revolutionary war]. It just made it real and it made me relate to it in a way that I hadn’t related to history prior.”
Alex Lacamoire at Hamilton rehearsals at New 42nd Street Studios. Photograph © Joan Marcus
Hamilton premiered on Broadway in August 2015 and took home 11 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album. It quickly became the most sought-after show on Broadway, with tickets disappearing the minute they went on sale despite a soaring top price.
When COVID-19 hit, the show was playing to sell-out crowds on Broadway, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, on a US tour, and in London’s West End, while a production was scheduled to open in Hamburg this year. The Australian production, produced by Michael Cassel (with Jeffrey Seller and Miranda), is scheduled to open at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre in March 2021, with tickets now on sale.
“I’m very excited about the talent that we’ve been finding,” say Lacamoire when asked about the Australian auditions.
In July this year, Disney released a recording of the production, on Disney+. Filmed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in June 2016, Disney had planned to release it in cinemas in 2021, but with the coronavirus pandemic shuttering cinemas, they decided to stream it online instead – to the great excitement of musical theatre fans around the world.
Asked why he thinks Hamilton is so phenomenally popular, Lacamoire says: “I think there’s a lot to unpack, and everyone is going to have their own thing as to why they love it so much. Speaking as a musician, I think the composition is so well-crafted in terms of its variation, in terms of its thematic development, in terms of its rhymes, in terms of the amount of information it gets across in the lyrics, and the way the characters speak to each other and relate to each other. It’s really an opera in a way because it’s completely sung through. Just that by itself makes it a compelling piece of music but add to that the fact that it’s got amazing choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and amazing lighting by Harold Binkley, it goes on and on. I think the craft and execution of it is really stellar, and then there’s the amazing casts that perform it.”
“And beyond that, there are multiple stories within it – a story about an immigrant coming to an unknown land and making a name for himself on the strength of his smarts and his writing, there are stories about flawed characters doing the best they can and the mistakes they make along the way, it’s the story of people who dream about something and are willing to risk their lives for social change, the list goes on.”
Anthony Ramos, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Okieriete Onaodown and Daveed Diggs at Hamilton rehearsals at New 42nd Street Studios. Photograph © Joan Marcus
Lacamoire decided to use to use a 10-piece band for the show: a pop rhythm section and a string quartet. “The rhythm section brings you the modern, it brings you the electric sound, it brings you the contemporary. And the strings represent the older world, they were the instruments that were around in the 1700s. They are the wood, they are the acoustic, they are the warmth, so there is something about those two elements that really complement each other, and you get a wide palette of potential sounds and feels. I found that gave me a lot to play with and it gave me the right sound for the show – especially as Lin-Manuel had said to me early on that he wanted the strings to be to Hamilton what the horns were to In The Heights.”
One of the striking elements of Hamilton is the fact that it uses an ethnically diverse cast, all of them people of colour except for the actor playing George III.
“Speaking for myself, I know that seeing yourself represented in art does something to you, and I’m speaking as a Cuban-American. I’m speaking as somebody who, as I mentioned, saw the themes and the values and the language with In the Heights and just felt so proud. I know I am very moved when people see Hamilton and feel ‘seen’ in that way, and that’s something that I carry with me in a way that is very touching and moving. And I would hope that by doing what we are doing, it inspires other people and makes them think about how they cast their shows.”
“I would never be one to say that we cracked the code and everything is perfect. There’s always work to do and there is no perfect rendition of what that could be, but my hope is that with time and with conversations and with awareness, there could be more diversity in the arts and more representation and more equity. That’s something that I believe is being talked about right now in a way that I’ve not seen up till now and I’m hoping that it brings about change.”
Hamilton will have its Australian premiere at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in March 2021