Interview with Award-Winning Music Director, Arranger, and Composer Alex Lacamoire

lacamoire interview

Alex Lacamoire is an award-winning music director, arranger, and composer. He is best known for his work on Broadway’s critically-acclaimed shows Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and In The Heights. Altogether, he has won three Tonys for Best Orchestrations, three Grammys for Best Musical Theater Album, an additional Grammy for producing The Greatest Showman soundtrack, and most recently, an Emmy for Outstanding Music Direction for his work in FX’s mini-series Fosse/Verdon. He was also the recipient of a first-of-its-kind Kennedy Center Honors for his contribution to Hamilton. Lacamoire and the Hamilton creative team were honored as the “trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category” — a distinction never before awarded by the arts institution. 

Lacamoire recently served as the Executive Music Producer for Warner Brothers’ film In The Heights. He is also the Music Supervisor on Sting and Kate Prince’s world premiering show Message In A Bottle and is the Music Supervisor and Orchestrator on Ross Golan’s new musical The Wrong Man. He is currently working as the Executive Music Producer on the upcoming Netflix film tick, tick…Boom! 

We sat down with Alex for the first time since 2016 to discuss his recent work, creative process, and upcoming productions.

It is often said that “Luck favors the prepared.” What were you doing at the time that led to being recommended to Lin-Manuel? What helped you be successful when first meeting him?

The friends that recommended me to Lin were friends that I had in Miami growing up. They were my Cuban friends who were into theater, friends who were talented, but they weren’t even at my high school. They were at another high school that I would moonlight at to play gigs. It was a production of Godspell. They knew me as a pianist, as someone who dabbled in guitar and drums and bass, and as someone who enjoyed to arrange and to create music for theater. 

In terms of what I was doing at the time that I met Lin, I was in New York working off- Broadway, and I think I had done Bat Boy off-Broadway. I was just starting to work on the show Wicked. So I was starting to really kind of get fluent in the scene in terms of my projects to work on and things to do. But I think what prepared me for meeting Lin was just basically everything up until the moment I met him. 

I often say every experience you have is what makes you the person that you are when you meet that moment when something changes. So every piano lesson I’ve ever had, every friend I’ve ever met, every musician I’ve jammed with, every class I’ve ever taken, whether it was a music class, or, a science class, whatever, it all shaped me in some way or form. I think the fact that I loved music, the fact that I had Cuban DNA (which counts for something, being able to intrinsically understand Latin music, even if I’m not an expert in it), and just being able to commune with Lin and being able to break into Spanish phrases, talking to my buddy, there was just a piece of myself, that was more than just being a musician. 

Also being a Cuban American, I think it would have been one thing if I had all the chops and all the training in the world, but if I didn’t get along with Lin, and with Tommy [Kail], and with Bill Sherman, all that stuff, it might have been a different story. So I think everything just kind of like builds you to be the person that you are until that opportunity comes knocking.

How did you get drawn into orchestration and arranging?

For me, it started just by this obsession with music and recreating music that I loved. At Berklee, I had a Korg 01/WFD that you could sequence on and build tracks. You could lay down a piano track on your keyboard, then pull up a drum patch and play drums along to the piano, then call up a guitar patch and play guitars along to the drums along to the piano that you just played, and so on and so forth. So I was obsessed with building tracks. I would try to recreate a Weather Report song on my keyboard, or for fun I would try to orchestrate “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George, in my free time, just out of sheer interest. Whether that was me transcribing a work that I liked, or whether that was me just kind of improvising and riffing on an instrument until finding something that I thought “worked.” 

I’m always listening to the drums in a song, even if I’m not really paying attention to them, they’re subconsciously sending signals to my brain, and they’re picking it up. I wanted to know because I felt like I needed to know how it all happened. It’s probably the same hobbyism as people who take apart watches and put them back together, or take apart cars and put them back together. They just love to know how they run, what makes them them. So that if you change the engine, it gives this kind of thing. It’s like me saying, “Well, if you use a Fender instead of a Gibson, what does that sound like?” Those kinds of sounds and intricacies all come from time and practice. But I think it truly just comes from the need to know how something is created.

We last spoke to you five years ago. Since then you’ve been prolific, including Vivo and In The Heights just this summer. In The Heights was the first project you worked on with Lin-Manuel before going on to work on Hamilton. Coming back to In The Heights years later, is there anything you wanted to radically change, cut, or update?

It’s very rare that you get to revisit a work that you have been a part of. Revivals happen often and it’s not always the same orchestrator that works the second time around on that project. But I felt really fortunate that with [In The] Heights the movie, that we got a chance to revisit these charts and revisit these songs. And I know that going into it, Bill Sherman, who was my co-executive music producer on the film, and I went in with some grand schemes about getting a different person to arrange all these horn charts, and doing this, doing that, thinking that it needed to be something different. 

But what we learned along the way is that our horn charts actually worked for this story, and that other professional horn arrangers thought our horn charts were great. We went in with a lot of self doubt, thinking “Hey, we were young, we weren’t really quite versed enough in Latin music, we were kind of figuring out as we go.” I think there was something about the feeling of us looking back then that we weren’t quite up to the level back then, or we weren’t legitimate enough.

But by the encouragement of a lot of people who knew the music and loved the music and thought that what we did back then still worked, we wound up kind of keeping a lot of our original horn lines, but instead just magnified them. If it was six horns on Broadway, it’s nine in the movie. If a passage was played on pads in the pit, we’re going to orchestrate that for a symphonic section for a Hollywood string section. It was a great chance for us to expand upon the basic ideas that we set forth in 2008. 

We could get more specific about certain things. If we needed to bring in a guitarist who specializes in bachata to play these eight bars, we got that guitarist. Instead of finding one person who could play all these styles, we found a person who’s an expert in a style and had them be beyond excellent. So it was just our way of really fine tuning and going that extra mile. 

My cohort Bill Sherman’s big phrase was “How do we make this sound like Heights 2.0?” And that’s really what it was. So we got a great producer, Mike Elizondo, to help us with the beats, and we got an amazing mixer, Greg Wells, to help us form these ideas. We wanted to go there and get the best players and get the best sounds.

In The Heights is an incredibly diverse mix of Hip-Hop, Salsa, Merengue, Soul and more. In the past, you’ve credited Rush and Billy Joel as influences for you, and you’ve mentioned some Stevie Wonder. How did these play into In The Heights? What other artists, particularly on the Salsa and Merengue-side influenced the arrangements and orchestrations?

All of your influences make you who you are. So when I think about Rush, I think about the way they make three pieces sound like a huge orchestra. The way three musicians focus that way, with a bass doing something different from the guitar doing something different from the drums. The way they communicate with each other is something I’m always thinking about when I’m orchestrating for a rhythm section. 

With Billy Joel it’s about the storytelling in a song. It’s about the feeling of a song. It’s about piano passages and the way to treat the piano, like an orchestral instrument. I learned that very much from him. 

From Stevie Wonder, it’s about all the soul and R&B flavors that go into songs. If I want to bring in a Wurlitzer, if I want to bring in some Rhodes, if I want to bring in these kinds of voicings and these kinds of fills, bass fills, drum fills, whatever, that all just goes into the hopper and what comes out is kind of what ever I’ve listened to without me even thinking about it. 

I’m not going to sit down and say, “Okay, I want this to sound like a Stevie Wonder thing, so therefore, what can it be?” It’s more like, “Oh, this reminds me of something. This feels right, this feels organic.” And then I’ll realize after the fact, “Oh, that’s probably because of this Stevie Wonder song out there, this Rush song.” So that all just comes out the way it comes out. 

When I’m orchestrating in a particular style, I’ll go and listen to as much of that music as possible to try to really understand how those records are made and produced. So when I’m working on Bring It On and I need to listen to pop music, I’ll do a steady diet of Katy Perry and Britney Spears and get that happening. And if it’s for In The Heights, I’m going to listen to Juan Rivera, I’m going to listen to Grupo Niche. I’ll listen to the styles just to kind of get in the mood, to remind myself “This is how this all can sound and function.”

You’ve mentioned to never be shy of iteration;”Draft and draft and draft.” How do you know when an idea is ready? 

I think it’s just a feeling. There’s no other way to describe it, other than something just clicks and something feels right, and you think to yourself, “I can’t do any better.” And you might say that in 2008, and then in 2012, you revisit it again, and you feel like you can do better. And another idea comes, and that’s fine. But I think there’s a certain feeling that you have where, if I’m doing an arrangement and I get to a certain passage, I’ll think, “That just doesn’t feel right.” It doesn’t either feel natural or it doesn’t feel organic, or I just don’t love it. And then I try to keep working until I absolutely love it. If nothing pulls my ear, if nothing bumps me, then I know it’s about as right as I can make it at that moment. 

There’s a saying “Done is better than perfect.” I try not to ascribe to that. I try to make it perfect if I can, because for me, done is not enough. I want to love it. I want to feel like I’ve done everything possible. I want to feel like I’ve moved mountains to uncover something at the surface. Something that feels like this is the truest expression or the firmest expression. Sometimes that’s an obsession, sometimes it’s in this futile search for perfectionism, but all I can say is that I know when I feel like I’m done with an idea, and that is different for every other person.

It’s great when you find partners in that. It’s nice when you have a collaborator who will say “Yeah, you’re right, that’s not quite done.” And you agree. Because it’s much harder when you say, “Hey, this is perfect.” And they say “I’m not feeling it.” That’s harder. I contend that that’s the challenge. Then it becomes, “Okay, then what can I come up with that I love, and that they will also dig or love as well”, and you keep searching and keep finding something, and then you’ll find the truth in there somewhere.

Moving over to Vivo, I know this is a project that is pretty personal, and the story and music are fantastic. What was it like to step into a composition role?

It was scary, challenging, and ultimately, really gratifying. I admit, I’m intimidated by the blank canvas a little bit. Because when you can go anywhere, where do you start? And it’s sometimes hard to just come up with an idea out of nothing. Arranging feels different, because that is taking someone else’s composition and working from that. But as a composer, it gets to be a little scary. 

When they make drafts of the movie, they will often use temporary music called temp music that can be from other movies or from libraries. Sometimes the temp music is so darn good, that you’re like, “Oh, my God, how am I gonna top this?” Sometimes the most beautiful piece of music is used and it’s akin to saying, “We used Beethoven’s Ninth through this thing. So you just write Beethoven’s Ninth.” Like are you kidding me? It’s not that easy. So sometimes I get a little daunted by it. But I find that as long as you try to serve the story, try to serve the movie, and try to stay out of the way as much as you can, musically-speaking, to let the visuals really take center stage, the more you try to just tap into the emotion of the story, then you’ll find the music out of that. 

It just helps when you have people around you that are on the same page as you. For Vivo, I was very lucky that the director and I just saw eye-to-eye musically-speaking. I would turn in my demos, and they would get approved on the first round, which is rare because I’ve been on projects where you turn in round after round after round, and it doesn’t quite hit the bull’s eye for what the director has in mind. So it just helped that what I was putting out, they were feeling. And that made it much easier for me for sure.

You mentioned a little bit about the blank canvas. How do you get past that? Do you have any techniques to sort of break that block or get past a blank canvas?

I think it’s good to take breaks if you can. To just step away from the computer, take a walk. I find a lot of ideas for me just kind of happen if I’m just walking down the street, or if I’m singing to myself in the shower. When you kind of get out of your way and just let things come to the surface that helps. For other people, it’s the opposite. You just continue to work and you log your ideas. And maybe you try twenty-five ideas that you don’t like, but maybe you go back and revisit idea number thirteen, and you say, “Oh, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.” Or “Maybe it could go further this way.” I think you’ve got to just go. You just have to write and produce and just kind of make something. Then with that comes the practice, you strengthen the muscle, and then it becomes easier to generate and to create. But for me, I just throw my hands up and hope that the universe will provide an idea, hope that something will come. You kind of gotta just go for it.

And the last thing that helped is the feedback. Even composing four measures of something and having someone tell you right away, “I’m feeling this” or “I’m not,” then you can keep going and write the other thirty-two measures or abandon ship right away. Sometimes you get in your own head. You’ll spend four hours working on something where in the first five minutes, if you had someone tell you “This is the right direction,” or no, or “Hey, I like that, keep going,” then that’s all the fuel you need. Getting real-time feedback, particularly if you’re trying to compose for situations, that’s always helpful. 

Like a movie, let’s say for example, you have a big action sequence, and it’s two and a half minutes long. If you’re not sure that you’re going on the right path, compose thirty seconds and show it to the director. And if he says, “This is great,” then you’ve got all the insurance and assurance you need to keep going and not feel like you’re wasting your time or banging your head against the wall.

If you can nail it down, do you have an experience that you can think of what you’ve learned the most from?

I tell this story often, so if anyone has heard me say this before, forgive me. When I was working on the show Wicked, we had a dance arranger working on the show named Jim Abbott. There was a piece of music that he brought in that he had been working on the night prior, printed it out, worked on it. It was a complex, complicated piece of music, and the composer of Wicked, Stephen Schwartz, heard the arrangement, and he didn’t think it was the right direction to go in. And I remember thinking to myself, “Oh man, Jim has spent hours properly crafting this thing, he made a whole chart for it, he did this thing.” And I know that I was projecting how I would have felt if I had heard this news. I would have felt like it was some kind of insult, or feel like, “Oh my God, am I a bad composer, am I a bad arranger?” But instead of getting any kind of drama whatsoever, Jim basically shrugged his shoulders and said, “Okay, what else can we try?” There was no ego. He wasn’t precious about what he created. He didn’t say, “Oh man,” there was none of that whatsoever. He just said, “Alright, cool, what else can we try, let’s just try something else.” And he was so game to try something else, and did not care about this thing that he worked on. It was an idea that he was proud of, but it wasn’t right for the moment. That doesn’t mean it was a bad piece of music. It didn’t mean that he was a bad arranger or a bad creator, it just meant what he was feeling at that time was not what Schwartz wanted it to be. 

So what I learned from that was that you have to be cool to step aside when you’re an arranger, because you’re really serving a bigger thing, a bigger story, and you’re trying to fulfill the vision for someone else. At times, it can be about you, but a lot of the time, it’s not about you. So being able to make that space and to try not to be clever for clever’s sake. Sometimes the simplest idea is the right one, even if you don’t see it at the time. You have to leave yourself open for that kind of criticism and that kind of feedback. 

There are many times when a director or a composer will say, “That doesn’t quite do it for me.” And a composer and arranger will say, “Well, you have to hear orchestrated, this demo is me singing. You have to picture what I’m picturing.” Sometimes that is true, for sure. But a lot of times, they know what they’re listening to, they know what they’re responding to, and they can hear through the demo, or they can hear that what’s there is not quite it. You have to know when to really push your idea because you feel it’s right, versus you’re pushing it to be in idea because your ego is telling you that you have to be right about something.

You’ve mentioned that music direction is about trust. What’s the biggest risk you’ve had to take with a creative decision?

In music direction, I don’t know that deciding to cut off on “three” versus the “and of three” is like a big risk. That doesn’t feel like a lot is at stake. But I find that in music direction and in leadership, the big risks are personnel. Who you hire, who you have around you, and what to do if you brought someone along and it’s not quite working out. Because you take a risk by sometimes taking a chance on someone that you haven’t worked with before or maybe there’s somebody you have worked with before, and something goes awry, and it’s not quite a match. 

Sometimes you have to make that hard decision to move on. That’s a hard place to be in because a lot of that can go south. It could derail the production, it could damage your relationship, it could make you look like not a good person. You can get riddled with self-doubt thinking, “Oh, why did I do this? Is there a way it can be better?” I feel like those are the times when I know my job feels the hardest. When it’s about relationships, when it’s about people, when it’s about human beings and their feelings and their emotions and your relationships with them. That’s where it gets kind of scary. 

I would say musically speaking I don’t know that it feels risky to all of a sudden put a banjo in a hip hop song. That just happens, and people either dig it or they don’t.

There’s a lot of  young composers and writers and arrangers reading this. What would you say to these young folks that are interested in writing should work on every day?

The practice of writing, the practice of playing, and the practice of becoming familiar with your instrument and the harmony. The practice of listening so that you can get influenced takes work. It doesn’t really come out of the sky. You may be a completely gifted individual with photographic memory, who could sit at the piano and play everything in all 12 keys. That is amazing. But I still think it takes a little bit of work. I still think it takes some kind of drive to excel, and to push yourself to work really hard to achieve something. 

You know the saying “Luck is where opportunity and preparation meet.” I think it just takes a lot of work and a lot of love and a lot of drive and perseverance. This business of music is for the people who really truly love it. You make a pact with this intangible invisible force, that this is what I’m going to follow, this is what I’m going to search. You can’t grab it out of the air, it’s not tangible. When you put an idea down on paper it may be, but what comes back off the paper is again, intangible, and you can’t touch it. It’s an ephemeral, magical, mystical thing that we work in, so you have to really love it, to dedicate yourself to it. Love it, love it hard.

If you only have 10 minutes to practice, what do you do? 

I rarely sit at the piano to unwind. If I’m wanting to unwind, I’ll pick up a guitar or pick up a bass and play something. If I have a short amount of time, I try to play music that I love, music that I enjoy, music that makes me happy, something that I like to hear. I’m not at this place in my life where in those 10 minutes, I’ll spend trying to toil through something because I need to work something out. That was at a different time in my life when I played much more. Now that I’m writing much more, supervising much more, and producing much more, I’m a lot more behind the scenes. So it’s not as imperative that I keep my chops up, which is why they’re kind of dwindling as time goes on. I’m at the point now where whatever I need to improve is not gonna happen in 10 minutes. So I kind of take the path of least resistance, and just try to do something that makes me happy.

What do you wish you knew, if there was something, when you were first starting out?

People always say “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” And yet, it’s the small stuff that is what we do as arrangers, writers, and orchestrators. We’re all about the details. “Just keep going” is probably what I would tell my younger self. Like, “Hey, this is what you’re meant to do. Just keep going at it.” I don’t know if I ever felt like, “Oh, man, I’m not sure if this music thing is what’s right for me.” I knew I wanted to be a musician since I was four, maybe even two when I was listening to music as a young child. It was always what was for me. 

I don’t know that I knew that theater and film or any of this stuff was what I was going to be doing. I think I probably started off thinking I was going to be a performer and play keyboards for Billy Joel or Peter Gabriel or whomever. I learned along the way that there was something else that was out there in the universe. I would just have said, “Keep going.” It’s not a very deep answer only because I feel like I’ve had the greatest mentors. I’ve had the greatest parents to bring me up, I’ve had the greatest friends, the greatest teachers, and everything happened exactly right to kind of put me where I am today. And I don’t know that I would’ve changed any of it.

Is there anything you’d like to tell us about any future projects you have coming up anything you’d like people to be aware of?

This year I’ve been fortunate enough to have four movies come out.  In The Heights, Dear Evan Hansen movie (coming out soon), tick, tick… Boom (coming out soon), and Vivo. This has been a fun avenue to explore and to work in, and I’m grateful for these new opportunities that come along my way and new things to learn from and new experiences to have. I’m grateful for it all. 

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