Nerding Out With Hamilton Musical Director, Alex Lacamoire

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Photo-Illustration: Photo by Sara Krulwich/ The New York Times/Redux
Hamilton Week

January 11 is Alexander Hamilton’s birthday. In lieu of a 261-candled cake, we’re celebrating with a weeklong package that explores the production and significance of the Founding Father’s eponymous Broadway musical.

How does a Berklee hotshot halfway to an EGOT end up playing keyboards on a tribute to a melting pot, spend half a decade working to eliminate its weak spots, and find himself sitting at the right hand of a juggernaut?

That's the path traced by musical director Alex Lacamoire during his time collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda: After winning a Grammy and a Tony for his work on In the Heights, Lacamoire was one of the first people in the world to experience the wonder of Hamilton, working with his friend to arrange and orchestrate the show and then shepherding the production of its record-breaking cast recording. Now he plays keyboards and leads the ten-piece band, giving him a front-row seat to the hottest ticket on Broadway. Talking to Vulture from his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theater, Lacamoire broke down the complex architecture of Hamilton's musical themes.

You were working with Lin on Heights when he had the idea for Hamilton. What was your reaction when he came to you and was like, "Hey, I've got a musical about the Founding Father?"
He basically had a lyric sheet, and he showed me the chord progression underneath the rap. That’s usually how we used to do things. At first it was interesting because I just couldn’t tell, Is this supposed to be funny? And he was like, "No, it’s dead serious." Once I heard it and realized how dense it was, how he was able to talk about 19 years of life in a four-minute song, I was like, "Man, this shit is amazing!" About a year after that he played me "My Shot" and I started to see how heavy, how uplifting the music was. What’s crazy was that gig we did at the White House was a few months after him playing the song for me. It wasn’t even a musical. It was just an idea for a mixtape at the time.

Now, on a typical night, you're playing the keyboards, and you're also in charge of the band. What runs through your head?
You know what's funny? As many times as I've played the show, I still don't have it memorized. It's so dense. But that keeps me engaged in the act of actually performing. It’s a high-stakes situation: The keyboard part is not technically demanding, but it's super delicate at times, and super exposed. A song like "Dear Theodosia" — one slip and I ruin the moment. Same with "It's Quiet Uptown." That’s the last real ramp-up of story, leading up to the duel. It's the last little mountain-climb.

Like a lot of Hamilton fans, I haven't seen the show yet; I've just been blasting the cast recording. I know you asked for more time and money than a traditional OCR so you could really finesse it. What were those conversations like?
Atlantic was so supportive, and I’m so thankful about it. I wanted to take the kind of care that this record, and show, warranted. The lightbulb moment for me was realizing that each musician and actor has to be paid to be on the record, but it doesn't matter whether you bring them all in on one day or spread them out over two weeks, as long as you adhere to the rules, which is that you have to bring the actors in for only one day. The musicians can be spread out over six months, it doesn’t matter. So I’m like, the only difference is the amount of studio time that you’re paying for, and that's negligible.

And then you got the Roots to produce.
When we were putting together ideas of producers that we dug, the Roots came up because they’re so eclectic, they do the live-hip-hop thing so well. Once we got them onboard, it was great. They were super helpful because they were so objective about it. Lin and myself, we’re so in the music it’s hard to get that bird's-eye view. Quest and Tariq were instrumental in pushing us to go further with what I call "ear candy." Like, "Turn up the drums because that’s where the hip-hop is. Those record-scratchers there? Turn them up. That voice moment right there? Add some distortion. The drums? Make it sound more like trap."

You're presently working on the sheet music. How is that different from putting it together for the show?
Preparing sheet music for publication is about trying to make it playable by people all over the world, and I want it to represent how the song sounds as much as possible. When Lin composes the songs, he sings them into his computer and he goes off feel. Slowly but surely, little inconsistencies happen — an actor will put their own spin on a phrase, and Lin will be like, "Okay, make it that." So I'm going back and editing the music so it reflects what the show has become. There are piano parts that have been used for six years; it’s my job to go back and say, "Is this book still accurate?" It's a clean-up process.

In that six years of work, which song gave you the most trouble?
"Schuyler Sisters." That one had a big makeover. Off Broadway, it had a throwback feel, much more like Daft Punk and Pharrell. Then [director] Tommy Kail said, "Listen. This is the one song that doesn't sound like you." It was like we were trying to imitate something. In between Off Broadway and Broadway, we said, "How can we boost this number up?"

Then we realized the three sisters had done all these Vines and videos of them harmonizing on random Destiny’s Child songs, and a lot of reviews were saying, "The Schuyler Sisters are like the Destiny’s Child of the show." I didn’t feel like the music sounded enough like Destiny’s Child, so I went back and listened to "Bootylicious" and "Bills, Bills, Bills." I made the arrangement a little more modern. Then I realized there’s nothing in the song as cool as the harmonies the girls do when they’re fucking around, so we added those little turns, just let them riff, capitalize on the fact that we've got three badass singers.

Okay, now we're going to go into the weeds a bit. I know "You'll Be Back" is full of Beatles references — Lin has mentioned the "Getting Better" guitar on the outro. What are the others?
There's a "Penny Lane" reference in the vibe. In the first chorus, the vibes go, [hums "Penny Lane" chords]. There's a "Mr. Kite" reference: At "You say your love is draining and you can't go on," the synth goes, bah dunna-nah, dunna-nah, dunna-nah. The bass line is a total Paul-ism. At "My sweet submissive subject," the bass does da-dunnoo-dunnoo, the high triplet fill, and the bass is muted so it sounds like a Hofner. The drums — a-ts-ts-ts-ts, ta-ts-ts — are a fill I know I stole from Ringo. And the way [Jonathan] Groff intones, "Everybody!" at the end is a little like Lennon in "All You Need Is Love." That idea came up in the studio last minute.

And then "Helpless" is total Beyoncé.
The Beyoncé reference is “Stressin'! Blessin'!” sounds like “Houston rocket!” [in "Countdown"]. We asked the girls to deliver it like that.

Musical-theater Tumblr is going nuts over the backing vocals in "Alexander Hamilton." What's the story there?
Lin and I did those harmonies together. He had said to me, "I want the backups to sing, '
Alex, you gotta fend for yourself.'" I was the one who found what notes they were going to be doing, then Lin and I together came up with “Standing! ... Planning!” The line I came up with, ooh-whoo-ooh-ohh, it’s that piano figure that goes over at “A hurricane came and devastation reigned.” So they answer it: ooh-whoo-ooh-ooh. That line came from Lin’s original demo.

There used to be a door-squeak; it was a sound effect that went reeeeeeeee. Lin said, "Let’s transcribe the squeak." It became that piano. Those were the opening notes, and I took that ball and ran with it. The next time the chord happens, it’s in the same shape, down two notes. Then it moves lower and lower into the scale so it repeats itself. And that door-squeak is still there in "Your Obedient Servant," if you listen to the very beginning. 

For the end, we knew we wanted the whole company to sing, "Alexander Hamilton!" When they all sing in unison, you have that gap with nothing happening between "Alexander Hamilton" and "waiting in the wings for you." So the backing vocals there were my idea to fill the space. I thought, What can we do that would be thematic?

I love when Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan harmonize. They sing really well together, and you wouldn’t expect it because Daveed has such a unique voice. How did you work those out?
You try to cater to the guys' voices. For example, in "Washington on Your Side," when Leslie, Daveed, and Oak harmonize together, Leslie's voice is much lighter; Daveed's voice is much more brash, so you want him to be the melody, so that’s the focus; and then you’ve got Oak, who’s got that dark, rich baritone. When they harmonize on "It must be nice, it must be ni-ice," you’ve got Oak at the bottom, Daveed at the middle, and Leslie providing the overtones. If they had different registers, it might be a different harmony.

What vibe were you going for with the beats on the rap battles?
Lin had a great idea about Jefferson, who had been off in Paris. It was: Here's someone who’s removed from what’s happening in the country and is a little older, so therefore he listens to older music. That’s why his style is rockabilly, Gil Scott-Heron: oldies compared to the hip-hop the other guys are doing. That first rap battle, it's more old-school. He even does that Grandmaster Flash reference: "a-ha-ha-ha-ha." Whereas the second one just has the cool Neptunes, Pharrell vibe to it. The bass is very round, it doesn't have a lot of bite to it, and the drums are super Neptunes-y, like, boom-kat, boom-ta-tic-cacko!

And how did you get "The Reynolds Pamphlet" to sound like a strip club?
That’s not what I was going for, but if that’s what you got, that’s totally cool. [Laughs.]
On Lin's original demo, that song sounded so greasy: It had that cool trap, double-time hi-hat, it had that sinister-ass bass line, it was on a synth, Lin found those bicka-ba-bicka-ba-bip sounds. That one came out of the box just killing. It was a composition you don’t want to fuck with. You just want to find out how to get the band to play it and make it sound good. 

I've heard you mention that each main character has an instrument that sort of represents them.
I use the cello for two characters: Burr and Angelica. That shows how versatile it is. The cello can be really snaky and sinister when you want it to, like on "Say No to This." On "Wait for It," the cello gives this little hint of the melody. It matches Leslie's voice, which is really silky. Angelica also has a lot of cello moments, and the harp. When we get to the finale, Eliza starts talking about Angelica, I’m like, all right, we need to do something to echo her themes, so you hear that line from "Satisfied" again on the harp. It's about finding a way to evoke her when her name is called.

The violin represents Eliza. In "That Would Be Enough," there’s a high violin that echoes her part. Same thing in the finale: When she talks about the orphanage, there’s a tender violin line. Hamilton is so kinetic and percussive and propulsive, and Eliza’s very organic and not electric. A lot of her moments don’t have any synth instruments. “That Would Be Enough” is totally chamber, acoustic instruments. Same thing with "Burn," it's very chamber-y.

Hamilton's instrument is the drums?
I think it is, whether it's synth drums or acoustic drums. George Washington has the Wurlitzer. It’s an electric piano; Ray Charles used it a lot. It has a vintage feel to it, an older feel, which is Washington — that earthy, organic stature. It’s a robust instrument that just evokes Chris Jackson so well.

Let's talk about the two showstoppers: "Wait for It" and "The Room Where It Happens."
"Wait for It" is my favorite track on the record. I love that the beginning is so contained, and then all of a sudden the bridge just goes BWAAAH! and it’s got that epic feel. In that moment, Burr feels like a lion hiding in the bushes. What I love about it on the record is that we took big chances in terms of how it’s panned. Especially at the end, there’s a lot of left and right happening — the guys on the left, the girls on the right: "Wait for it!" "Wait for it!" It oscillates between your ears, almost like the voices in Burr’s head, every angle singing to him what his mantra is.

Lin knew that he wanted "Room Where It Happens" to be a love letter to Kander and Ebb [the songwriting duo behind Cabaret and Chicago]. When it came time to orchestrate it, it came down to, what can the guitar do in the song? I realized, Wait a second, the guitar could fucking play banjo! Either it was the coolest idea ever or the lamest idea ever. I got my guitar player Robin to come over, he borrowed a banjo, he played it on top of my demo, and I was hooked — it sounded super quirky, but also true to the style of the song we were evoking. That is my favorite choice of instrumentation in the show because it's not what you would expect.

We'll close out with a lightning round. I'll name an instrument, you tell me your favorite instance of it in the show. So: strings?
Probably "It’s Quiet Uptown," when there’s nothing else playing except those two guys. The lyric's "It's quiet uptown" — you're not getting quieter than two strings playing gently.

Piano?
"That Would Be Enough," at the part, "I relish being your wife." It’s very inspired by Adam Guettel, very Light in the Piazza. There’s also a part in “Burn” that is very Guettel, at "You have no right to my heart." It’s fun and tricky to play.

Backing vocals?
"Wait for It," all of it.

Bass line?
"The Room Where It Happens." I love the way it feels in there, very thumpy.

Beat?
Two of 'em. In "Ten Duel Commandments," I love those little finger cymbals: "Your lieutenant, when there's reckoning —" Ding! Ding!  I also love it in "The Reynolds Pamphlet," that double-time hi-hat at "I know my sister like I know my own mind." The percussion's just going off: Tickatickatickaticka-tsst-tsst. And that's live.

Lead vocal?
Anything Chris Jackson sings. Especially "One Last Time," because Chris just goes off. It’s different every night; it's what he feels. It’s a gift for him to be able to improvise that as beautifully as he does every time. It’s a knockout.