On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with award-winning music director, orchestrator, and composer Alex Lacamoire about his role in musicals like Hamilton, In the Heights, and Dear Evan Hansen. They discussed what it takes to arrange music, how different elements work together to enhance a song, and how he approaches creating a cohesive score. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: What were the Hamilton demos like?
Alex Lacamoire: They were varied. They could be as complete as “Wait for It” was, or they could be as unpolished as “You’ll Be Back,” where Lin-Manuel Miranda gave me a lyric sheet and sat down with me at the piano once and explained the vibe. I could tell, “Oh, it’s Britpop. It’s Beatles. I got you.” Then I sat down at the piano and improvised the song for a recording that he was making for Stephen Sondheim, because he wanted Sondheim to weigh in on the demo. That was me and Lin in a room just making shit up. That allows me to have a lot of freedom, to give input to what the baseline could be, to how many Beatles references I want to throw in.
How many did you wind up throwing in?
I never counted, but you’ve got the guitar from “Getting Better,” you’ve got the vibraphone from “Penny Lane”—it runs the gamut. If you’re a Beatles fan, I think you’ll sense the love in that arrangement.
There are tons of references to other songwriters within the show. There are lyrics that reference other lyrics. Of course there’s “Ten Duel Commandments,” which references “Ten Crack Commandments” by the Notorious B.I.G. When you’re arranging the songs, are you trying to hit each of those references? Do you feel like that’s a starting point to inspire you for building the arrangement around the demo?
It can be, but sometimes it’s a hat on a hat. Sometimes it goes too far, and it just draws attention to itself. There was a time when, for “Ten Duel Commandments,” I did try to replicate some of the sounds of that “Ten Crack Commandments” track. And Lin said, “I want it to be a little further apart in that respect.” It depends on the taste of the composer, and sometimes whether you’re jumping the shark and making something a little too on the nose.
One of the things in a musical, as opposed to an album, is the songs are advancing theme, they’re advancing character, they’re connecting to a larger narrative. They’re pieces of a larger whole. Aaron Burr has to get to a certain point before he can sing “Wait for It” in his journey. Are you thinking about that as you’re arranging, what instrument, what harmonies go with this character?
The good news is that I work with composers that are very attuned to the thing you’re describing and are able to come at it from the perspective of the character singing or speaking or communicating. They’re making those kinds of decisions ahead of time for me, which is very, very helpful. A lot of times I just have to play into the moment. I just have to listen to what is happening in the story and try to telegraph that in the music. I’ll give you a great example. We were doing Dear Evan Hansen, and there’s a beautiful song called “Requiem.” We were doing workshops, and the introduction to that song used to be guitar fingerpicking arpeggios. It was very beautiful—kind of a rolling figure.
Then at some point, I really paid attention to what the script was telegraphing. In the lines of dialogue leading up to that song, you could sense how pissed off this character was before she sang, that everybody was making her villainous brother out to be some saint. All of a sudden, I realized, Wait, this really pretty rolling guitar figure is not going to cut it. That’s not how the character is feeling right now. It’s actually the opposite. Then we wound up changing the introduction, and I decided, “Hey, guys, what if we had the guitar strumming right away?” We need to have a different kind of motion. We need to have a little bit more drive coming from the instruments. That changed the way the song began and therefore changed the whole trajectory of the song. That was a moment in which the content and the feeling of the story directly dictated what the music arrangement and orchestration were.
One of the things that I love about Hamilton is the musical motifs that recur throughout the show. Sometimes it will be a melody that recurs, but it’s just the rhythm of the melody or little snippets of it, so it really feels like everything is connected and referencing each other. How did you develop where those motifs would go?
It’s great that Lin-Manuel thinks like an arranger in those instances. One of his superhuman strengths is being able to repurpose themes—both lyric themes and musical themes and motifs—and be able to call them back in a way that’s very unexpected and very beautiful. And in a way, that makes the greater score feel like a score. It’s very easy for people to just write song after song, and there’s your musical. Maybe there’s a reprise here and there. But Lin has this ability to come up with a chord pattern—let’s say, I’m going to make up this of four-bar chord structure and then take that four-bar chord structure and play it again six songs later, and you don’t even realize that the chord structure is being used. It’s a brand-new song, and it’s a brand-new take.