I love Hamilton. As a musician, history buff, and former theatre kid who grew up listening to 80’s and 90’s hip-hop and R&B alongside Sondheim and Gershwin, it’s almost like I was constructed in a lab to be a Hamilton superfan. It’s captured my imagination and my heart in a way that’s hard to describe or explain. If you’ve seen the Broadway show or heard the cast album, you probably feel the same way. If you haven’t, I can only do what any self-respecting Hamilton fan would do and urge you to check it out.
Other than seeing some clips on awards shows and YouTube, I’ve experienced Hamilton entirely through the original cast recording. The music and lyrics are extraordinary, the performances are outstanding across the board, and the tracks and arrangements are absolutely killer. It is so well-produced and so complete that it has allowed millions of people to fall in love with the show without catching even a glimpse of it on the live stage (yet). And that brings us to Alex Lacamoire, whom Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has called his “right hand man.”
By now, most people have heard of Miranda, Hamilton‘s composer, lyricist, and originator of the title role. He’s a phenomenally talented, dynamic, big-hearted person who deserves every accolade he’s received. But it in no way diminishes his achievement to say that Hamilton has been a collaborative effort. And, aside from director Tommy Kail, perhaps no one has done more to help Miranda bring it to creative life than Alex Lacamoire.
Alex Lacamoire is Hamilton‘s music director, co-arranger (with Miranda), orchestrator, and keyboardist. He also produced the platinum-selling cast album. He’s responsible for taking the composer’s melodies, chords, and demo recordings and turning them into the final form that the actors and band perform. Every note on the page, every assignment of those notes to specific instruments, even the choice of which instruments to use at all… Lacamoire is on the hook to make those thousands of decisions and then execute them as the orchestrator and bandleader. It’s a painstaking process and a sometimes thankless role. But it’s a great gig and Lacamoire has been recognized with Grammy and Tony awards for his work on Hamilton alone. So, why single him out here?
First, Alex Lacamoire’s work is simply exceptional. He has contributed arrangements and orchestrations for productions like Wicked, In the Heights, Bring It On, and High Fidelity. His versatility is breathtaking. In Hamilton, he takes a 10-piece orchestra and runs them through styles ranging from hip-hop to Britpop to jazz to R&B to more traditional showtunes. How many people could do that, and do it credibly and cohesively? Then, he overlays exquisite vocal arrangements for the Hamilton ensemble. They appear throughout the show as supporting characters and as a kind of Greek chorus that comments on the story and even pleads with the characters at times. And he somehow brings together these voices and instruments in a way that leaves enough space for the audience to hear every one of the more than 20,500 words that appear in Hamilton‘s 2.5 hour runtime.
(A quick note on arranging and orchestrating, in case you’re not familiar with those terms. Here’s the short version. Think of a simple song, like “White Christmas.” At its core, it’s made up of a melody, lyrics, and a basic chord structure. Now, think of all the different recordings you’ve heard over the years… from Bing’s 1942 original to the Drifters’ doo-wop version to the Beach Boys’ cover. It’s been recorded in different styles by everyone from Bob Marley to Ella Fitzgerald to Taylor Swift. Those are different arrangements of the same song. Arranging music means taking the original song and changing the style, or the tempo, or the underlying chords, or some combination of those elements. Then, orchestration involves taking a composition or arrangement and deciding what every single instrument should be playing throughout the piece. Most film composers, for example, will create a detailed outline of their music and then rely on an orchestrator to flesh it out and derive the parts for all the orchestral instruments.)
Alex Lacamoire has created incredible arrangements and orchestrated them masterfully. Some of the most emotionally engaging moments in Hamilton would not be quite as effective without his touch. As he says, “I apply the colors.” In one notable flash of inspiration, he decided to add a banjo over the thumping beat of Aaron Burr’s showstopper, “The Room Where It Happens.” The idea is just about as crazy as a musical about Alexander Hamilton with rap battles in Washington’s cabinet, but it freaking works. And, like the best arranging and orchestration decisions, it sounds perfect and even crucial after the fact.
To get an idea of how rich and moving the vocal arrangements are, check out this YouTube 360° video clip. It features Leslie Odom, Jr. and the Hamilton cast performing “Wait For It” – another of Burr’s big numbers. Keep in mind that this isn’t a special a cappella arrangement. These are the regular solo and choral parts, which are normally accompanied by the full band. (By the way, if you spin the video around, you can see Alex Lacamoire conducting.)
That is some stunning work. The song would have been terrific without the ensemble at all, or with simpler choral parts. But this is a great example of how an arrangement can help tell the story even more powerfully.
The composer, Eric Whitacre, renowned for his intricate harmonies and tone clusters, recently tweeted this about Lacamoire’s “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” ending:
I wish I had written the chord at the end of “The World Turned Upside Down.” Chills for days.
There’s another reason to celebrate Alex Lacamoire. As much as I enjoy his work, I’m even more blown away by his attitude and enthusiasm. To me, that’s what really sets him apart in a world filled with talented and successful musicians. The man simply glows. I don’t know how else to describe it. In every interview, he exudes excitement for his projects, gratitude for his opportunities, and loyalty to his creative team and players. He constantly gives credit to others and points out their contributions. That’s rare and refreshing to see in someone who has achieved so much success.
I’m excited to see where he goes after Hamilton. He’s already got interesting projects lined up, from the upcoming musical Dear Evan Hansen to Carmencita Jones, a Cuban adaptation of Carmen Jones. I encourage you to check out some of his interviews below, especially the AOL Build video where he plays live and explains how he works. It’s a joy to watch.
Also, I challenge you to find a photo where he’s not smiling.
Alex Lacamoire is a mighty fine person.