Hamilton is an addiction best enjoyed with a co-dependent.
Without a fellow junkie to share its clever lyrics, bombastic declarations and rapid-fire conversations, the Broadway musical gets dangerously stuck in one’s head. At least twice a week, I wake up in the middle of the night hopelessly repeating lines from songs like “Right Hand Man,” dream-rapping George Washington’s plan for asymmetrical warfare against the British.
“Provoke outrage. Outright (that’s right),” he says. “Don’t engage, strike by night. Remain relentless until their troops take flight. Make it impossible to justify the cost of the fight.”
Thankfully, I’ve gotten my wife Kristen hooked as well. We go on long binges listening to the album, discussing its themes of fatherhood and compromise, the unadulterated beauty of victory and the occasional inevitability of self-destruction. I constantly tell Kristen that Hamilton is the smartest thing I have ever listened to. That may sound a bit hyperbolic, but consider First Lady Michelle Obama’s own praise, who called Hamilton “the best art I have ever seen in my life.” Not bad for a title character, who’s famously introduced to the audience… wait for it, wait for it… as a loveable bastard, orphan and the son of a whore.
That man turns out to be Alexander Hamilton, the title character of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant Broadway musical. Miranda is in the midst of the greatest victory lap of all-time. How does one top winning the Pulitzer prize, a Grammy and a promise by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill?
By being nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, of course. Hamilton is expected to win big at the June 12 ceremony and while Miranda will be the toast of night, standing at his side will be his own right-hand man, musical director and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire. The Cuban-American virtuoso and long-time Miranda collaborator was instrumental in workshopping the score, arranging and orchestrating the show and producing much of the Grammy-winning album. Each night he directs Hamilton’s ten-piece band and plays keyboard, guiding the ensemble through the musical’s complexly woven architecture. Amplify caught up with Lacamoire to discuss some of his favorite songs and untangle the tour-de-force that is Hamilton.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Lin-Manuel comes to you and says he wants to do a hip-hop musical about the creator of America’s banking system. Did the idea seem risky to you?
Absolutely. I remember very clearly a month or two before we opened off Broadway, before we ever really performed in the theater, I said to Tommy Kail, our director, “Listen Tommy, I know that this is the coolest music I have ever played and I know Lin’s writing is at an exceptionally high level.” I then said, “Tommy, are people really going to come see the show? Are people going to pay to see a hip-hop show with actors dressed like the founding fathers?” I wasn’t sure. Tommy just looked at me and said, “Yeah, we’ll be fine, don’t worry about it.” He had faith. When you work on a show like this, you do your best work and hope that it catches on and people respond to it. You can never really control or picture how people react.
While Act 1 begins with a strong hip-hop sensibility, it quickly diverges into a different sound with the tracks “Farmer Refuted” and “You’ll Be Back.” It’s one of the main musical themes that returns throughout the play, but it’s a major departure from the songs with Lin-Manuel. What was it like creating those tracks?
The ideas always stem from Lin-Manuel, who knew he wanted a song for King George. He wanted to hear Britain’s side and for the song to feel like Brit Pop. In terms of the arrangement, I snuck in a lot of Beatles references. You can hear the guitar from “Getting Better.” You can hear the vibraphone from “Penny Lane.” You can hear the synth from “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” I tried to pay homage to the style that Lin was covering.
Hip hop is very monologue-driven, yet most of Hamilton is based on conversations. Was it challenging working with rap that doubled as dialogue?
No, not at all. What I’ve always loved about Lin-Manuel’s writing is that his lyrics are written similar to how a dramatic scene is written. He raps like a playwright. There are very few songs by Lin that work with just one person. There’s always some sort of back and forth happening. You need a crew of people to accurately execute his songs.
The Tony Awards are about a month away. Hamilton goes into the show with a record number of nominations. What are you doing to get ready for the big night?
You know, it’s funny, man. As Lin often says, it’s not like we created a movie and we did one very special performance and that’s the performance people get to see all the time. We’re putting on a show every day. We’re like chefs who need to keep making the same meal every night for people who are expecting something. Really, all we can do is get to the theater and for three hours a night, do our job. For me, that’s conducting and playing the shows the best I can. For Lin, that’s playing the role of Hamilton as best he can. Anything outside of that is the stuff we can’t control.
Sure, but this is going to be a Tony Awards week like no other.
Yes. I kind of like this whole time leading up to the Tonys because we get to celebrate Broadway. We get to celebrate our craft and we get to mingle with the other shows and high five each other and be thankful that we get to do this for a living. This is a very cool job to have. To be making music or to be on a stage acting is very, very special. Yes, it can be stressful in its own way, but the way to combat that is just to focus on the task at hand, which is buckling up and do our jobs.
You won a Grammy, hung out with the Obamas and helped keep Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill. What has been the greatest moment for you so far?
There’s a bunch. One particular favorite for me was when we went to the White House in March. There was this moment when we were sound-checking the opening number. While that was happening, I just thought to myself, “Man, I was in this very room, seven years ago, and back then we had just one song.” Back then in 2009, it was Lin-Manuel and Me, and nothing else. Here we are back seven years later with an entire orchestra in tow. Twenty-five singers. It’s just this thing that has blossomed and grown into this huge project that all began six years ago at a poetry jam. It was a full circle moment that made me very proud, realizing how much Hamilton had grown. It takes time for something like that to be nurtured and cared for. It was a really beautiful moment. Hearing President Obama say my name out loud was a very cool thing too.
As an observer, the live performance at the Grammy’s was the moment when Hamilton went from an art form to a cultural movement.
That was very special. Being on stage while Lin rapped his acceptance speech was great. There’s tons of highlights and what I keep saying to people is that I keeping thinking that Hamilton can’t top anything else. I’m so honored that we keep getting the recognition and kind words. Last month, Lin won the Pulitzer Prize and I thought to myself, “Wow, what could be cooler than that?” In that same week, he made the cover of Time Magazine, his book “Hamilton: The Revolution” was number one on the New York Time’s Best Seller list, he appeared on John Oliver and got Hamilton to stay on the ten dollar bill. Every time any one of those things happened I thought to myself, “What could be better? What could be cooler than that?” Then we get 16 Tony nominations. I’m just floored that Hamilton keeps surprising me to what highs it can achieve.
My favorite songs on the first album are the battle songs, the huge-sounding tracks like “My Shot,” “Right Hand Man,” “Stay Alive” and, of course, “Yorktown,” which is so bombastic and mood-changing. Are these big grand songs more technically challenging to perform than ballads like “Dear Theodosia”?
That’s a very good question. In a way, the ballads like “Dear Theodosia” and “It’s Quiet Uptown” are actually a little more high pressure because it’s more focused and if you make one wrong note on the piano, you notice it. You hear it in the audience. So those are actually a little bit more exposed, which makes it a little harder. The big songs like “Yorktown” are fun to play because they’re big and bombastic and huge.
You’ve said before that the show isn’t technically demanding, but demands intense focus. What’s it like being the conductor on this massive train each night?
I play the piano while I conduct the show, so I’m actually on a keyboard the entire time. The show itself is not technically demanding. It doesn’t demand a lot of crazy classical musician technique but it does demand a lot of focus, good rhythm and attention. It’s two-and-a-half hours straight of music and you have to steer that ship and be on all the time. Once Act I begins, I ain’t going to the bathroom until intermission. There’s only a couple of spots in each act where I actually have enough time to get a drink of water.
The last song on Act 1 is “Non-Stop.” When you first listen to the beginning of the song, you wonder how it fits with the first half to the album. But as it plays out, the song laces all the musical themes of the first half together. What’s that song like for you and what do you think about when you hear it?
I think about exactly what you just mentioned. Very near the end of Act 1 we end with the Revolutionary War and that feels like a big victory. You feel like the show could end there. It’s like “Hey, we’ve won the war and now everything that we’ve been fighting for has been realized.” Then “Non-Stop” comes along and Hamilton is talking about what happens next. The big essential question is “Where do we go? What is Hamilton now fighting for?” In most of the first act he fought the British. Then through Act II he fights with himself. He fights his colleagues. He fights rumors. He fights his own inner demons. What’s cool about “Non-Stop” is that it asks the question “What’s next?” It’s a great, exciting way to end act one. I love when that number ends and you can feel that release from the audience because here they are at a point where they feel like they can finally applaud and take a break after being on this roller coaster for an hour and fifteen minutes
What are your favorite songs from Hamilton?
My favorite song on the record is “Non-stop.” I love that line “wait for it, wait for it.” I just love the way it’s recorded, I love the way it’s mixed, I’m really proud of the orchestration and vocal arrangement. So that one’s a personal favorite. Then in Act II it’s probably “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Just because I feel it’s an achingly beautiful song. It’s a beautiful moment and I think it’s probably one of Lin-Manuel’s most perfect songs. Up until he had written it, we knew that the son died and I remember thinking, “How the hell do we get out of this?” What’s the next musical step? It turns out we convey the tragedy with this beautiful song about not having the words to express something so painful. The way the hook is used in the song is brilliant. It is a perfect song.
That might be the best explanation of a song I’ve heard. Talking about Hamilton is difficult because the best part of the musical is the feeling you get listening to the album. The first act is very different from the second act — it goes from an idealistic feeling about overcoming a common enemy, to the second act where Hamilton is constantly besieged.
Yes. You do that through the vocabulary and the musical palette for the show. Through the moments each character experiences. Look at Eliza, when she sings her songs, it’s almost always accompanied by acoustic instruments like on the track “That Would Be Enough.” There are no electronic instruments in that song at all. It’s strings, and piano, and harp; not a lot of drums. Same thing with “Burn.” There are drums in it but it’s acoustic guitar and strings kind of leading the charge. Then you have a song like “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” which is chaos. It’s grinding. It’s dirty. That is really a testament to Lin-Manuel’s sense of pacing; his sense of color. Again, the songs came out the box that way. He knew what kind of feel he was going for and he spaced them out in the best possible way. They all had a wonderful sequence to them and that’s why it’s such a well-crafted album, almost like a mix-tape. You make it peak at the right spot. You work your way out of stuff in the right way. To answer your question more precisely, I as an orchestrator, try to match the songs and match the moments the way they were composed and the way they were presented to me. The expectations were clear because Lin-Manuel had given us such a clear blueprint of what it was he was going for.
Tell us more about your creative process and arranging the songs. How does he share his ideas and deliver his notes to you?
Lin-Manuel doesn’t write anything down, musically speaking. He composes everything into his computer. He plays keyboard into his computer and finds drumbeats and makes drumbeats and finds cool bass sounds and keyboard sounds. He records his voice on top of it. Then it becomes my job to get it transferred into musical notation so things can be taught to the cast; so that the band can learn how to play the song. Along the way, I put my stamp on it and add my ideas for rhythmic breaks, vocal harmonies to spice things up and maybe different ways to end the song. I offer suggestions on things that kind of catch my ear that I think will kind of magnify and amplify what Lin has already laid out. Lin is extremely collaborative. He’s extremely open to new ideas and he is really good at saying, “Hey that works,” or, “No that doesn’t work for me.” It’s my job to serve him. He’s the composer; I’m the music director so I’m always trying to fulfill his vision of what he was looking to try to say; what kind of moment he was trying to evoke. I just try to make him happy. I try to do something that I think is cool but more something he thinks is cool as well.
The opening line of Hamilton has been famously repeated by just about everyone and is burned into our brains. How do you feel when you hear it today?
I get excited. Man, I remember when Lin first presented that song to me. I was there the first time the public heard that song, playing piano for Lin at the White House. I am there every night when I get to conduct the show and hear that line. It, to me, symbolizes the beginning of the show, the start of something that’s going to finish two and a half hours later. It symbolizes something I take a lot of great pride in. I am very, very proud and honored that I got to be a part of this thing from its inception and that we’ve been carrying it along this far and that it resonated with people the way that it has. I’m all about it. Bring it on.