107: Alex Lacamoire – What It Takes To Direct The Music For Hamilton

Creativity, Full Time Hustler, Mindset, Podcast, Seasoned Professional, Weekend Warrior

“Without a doubt music is what I’ve always wanted to do, music is what I feel like I was born to do, it’s what I feel like I do best, it fills me, fulfills me, it fuels me.”
Alex Lacamoire

It’s no secret that Hamilton is taking over the world right now. I’ve seen it twice, and I’m definitely on the epic Hamilton journey right along with the rest of the world. If you haven’t heard of Hamilton yet, it’s time to get out of the hole and check it out, because it really is an incredible piece of art.

And that’s thanks in no small part to my guest today. I met Alex Lacamoire — the Tony award-winning music director for both of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musicals, Hamilton and In the Heights. Alex has a unique job description — he basically puts everything together. When Lin-Manuel comes to him with an idea, Alex writes the music, builds the orchestra, puts together a team of brilliant creatives, and trains everyone musically to create these gorgeous theater pieces.

And today, he’s right here on ONKEN RADIO (Formerly NIONradio) to tell us how he does it all. Alex and I talk about the influence of music throughout his life — particularly throughout his childhood struggle with hearing loss — and how art truly rescued him during some difficult times. We also talk about the importance of having a positive attitude — which is one of the things I admire most about Alex. And finally, we talk about Alex’s creative process and how an unconventional path to creative entrepreneurship can help you build a life you love.

“Without a doubt, music is what I’ve always wanted to do. Music is what I feel like I was born to do. It’s what I feel like I do best. It’s what fulfills me, what fuels me, all that.”
Alex Lacamoire

This interview is incredible. Alex is doing great work, and I’m grateful to him for showing up and sharing his story so that we can all be inspired. So without any further ado, let’s get started.

Who Is Alex Lacamoire?

Alex Lacamoire, as I mentioned earlier, is the Tony award-winning musical director for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton. He’s an amazingly talented musician, orchestrator, and writer. Alex’s story technically starts in LA, but he moved to Miami at the age of nine and considers that his hometown. Growing up, Alex always had a love for music. He took piano lessons starting at the age of four, and by the time he was in high school could play such a wide range of music — from classical piano to pop songs to Broadway hits — that he was often hired to play cocktail parties. He also played in the orchestra for a school production of Bye Bye Birdie, which is how he discovered a love of theater and theater people.

After studying music at Berkeley, Alex moved to New York City to pursue his dream of being a working artist. There, mutual connections set him up with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the rest is history. The two collaborated on Lin-Manuel’s first musical, In the Heights, which won him a Grammy award for Best Musical Theater Album and a Tony award for Best Orchestration. Then they did Hamilton, which has been awarded 11 Tonys, including Best Orchestration for Alex. And currently, Alex is working on the soon-to-be hottest new thing on Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen, based on songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Alex is making huge waves in the New York City theater world. He’s one of the most highly-sought orchestrators and musicians out there, and I’m so grateful to him for coming on the show today. And he has a ton of great wisdom to share, so let’s dive in.

Childhood Passion: What Fuels You?

Earlier I brought up a quote from our interview where Alex said that music is “what fuels [him].” So I want to pose the question: What fuels you? Think back to when you were a little kid. What did you love? What were you naturally good at? What lit you up like nothing else could?

I mentioned that Alex started taking piano lessons when he was four years old, but his love and affinity for music reaches even further back than that.

“I’ve been told that even when I was two years old, I would be sitting in front of the stereo speaker, staring into the speakers while music was playing, just transfixed, wondering where the music was coming from. … I had a toy piano that my parents brought me, and I would play along … [with] the songs that were on the radio. And I don’t know how accurate I was to the songs I was hearing, but clearly, I displayed some kind of love for the instrument. … I’ve always just had a fascination with how music is put together … ”
Alex Lacamoire

That fascination stayed with Alex through his cross-country move from LA to Miami, and it rescued him during a tough time. As the new kid, Alex often struggled to fit in. He didn’t have a particularly supportive teacher that year, and the fact that he had to field prying questions from the other kids about the hearing aids he wore only made things worse. Alex found himself crying at home, and his mother made a call to the principal. Then, something amazing happened:

“The principal kind of comes up to me in the middle of me eating [lunch in the cafeteria] and she said, ‘Alex,’— Rosemary Brady was her name — she was like, ‘Alex, so you play piano, huh?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do.’ She’s like, ‘There’s a piano over there. You want to play?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ So in the middle of lunch, I sit down at this piano, I start playing some sonata or something I’m learning in my music classes, and the whole cafeteria hall just shushed and just listened to me play.”
Alex Lacamoire

From that point on, the other kids had a point of connection with Alex. He was the kid who could play the piano really well, and the other kids liked and respected that about him. They started including him in theater productions, as I mentioned before, and suddenly Alex didn’t feel so totally alone in the world.

I was so inspired by that story. Alex even got emotional talking about it — clearly, music truly did save him that day, and it’s been saving him ever since.

What artistic endeavor has shaped your life? What did you love doing more than anything in the world when you were a kid? I want to encourage you to take a minute to think about that. Once you’ve identified your core passion, you have the ability to alchemize your skills and love for that art into a career that’s truly something magnificent.

Positive Attitude: How to Make It Work as a Freelancer

Alex Lacamoire is a talented artist, but he’s also just a great person to be around. He has a relentlessly positive attitude, even despite the hard times and challenges he’s had to overcome. And while that’s a quality about him that’s easily admirable, Alex says it’s essential to get jobs and make money as a freelance artist.

“So the way we behave [and] the quality of work we output — that all determines how we move forward. … I care so much about the music that I am representing that I want it to be the best that it can be. And if something’s not to the level that I’d like it to be at, it’s not about berating something and being angry at someone for not accomplishing. It’s about, ‘Okay, how can we make this better?’ … So I do believe that the way you treat people and the way you just behave yourself absolutely determines how often you work.”
Alex Lacamoire

It’s a simple fact: People want to work with people who make the collaboration experience happy and fun. If you go into a job or a project with a smile and a “can-do” attitude, you are much more likely to get more jobs in the future. And people are happy to connect you with potential future clients and collaborators if you consistently bring a positive attitude to the table.

Sometimes, having a positive attitude can be as easy as picking your battles, especially when you’re working with a lot of other people. On Hamilton, an enormous part of Alex’s job was to teach the cast the music and help them learn to sing the parts he’d written. But while Alex understands the importance of getting each note right, he also understands that it’s important to keep the performers feeling encouraged and able to bring the emotion on stage:

“So it’s about trying to figure out when is the right time when they’re ready to receive [constructive criticism]. And … if there [are] three critiques that you need to give them and you can tell after you give them the second one that they’re just like crumbling down and getting hard on themselves about it, you know what? I’m not going to give them that third critique. I’m going to find another day. … You don’t want to make them feel less-than. … It’s about making choices.”
Alex Lacamoire

In any setting where you’re working with other people, it’s essential that you step up, be the leader, and make sure your team feels encouraged and capable. It comes down to having a positive attitude, trusting in your team, and knowing when they’re ready to receive your notes. I guarantee you’ll find it much easier to continue getting jobs if you build a reputation for being easy and fun to work with.

The Creative Process: It’s Okay to Take an Unconventional Path

I had the Alex Lacamoire on my podcast — so of course I had to ask him about his creative process. The cool thing about Alex is that his job really just consists of doing whatever needs to be done. It can change from day-to-day. Sometimes he’s the spotlight of a project, sometimes he’s working in the background, and he has to simply go with the flow.

The process starts when Lin-Manuel — or whoever else he’s working with — brings him a song. Lin-Manual typically records demo versions of tracks he makes himself, which he sends to Alex to make tweaks and begin the process of creating a full orchestration.

Alex spends a lot of time notating the music for the different parts, and during that process, he makes countless decisions. He chooses which parts to give to the women in the ensemble and which to give to the men. He chooses which instruments will play which notes. He creates chords and melodies and harmonies to ensure each song works and sounds the way he and Lin-Manuel want them to. Then, he can teach the music to the performers, get feedback from Lin-Manuel, and keep working. Sometimes it’s tedious, but Alex loves every minute of it.

“Sometimes it’s harder than others. … And I admit, I obsess over things musically related. I will sit there and work on two bars of music for one hour if I need to just to get it right. … I will pour over it, and I will look at it from every other angle, and I would examine it and be like, ‘What is the best possible way to express this?’”
Alex Lacamoire

Not many people have jobs that allow them to have that level of dedicated focus on such small things, but Alex treasures that aspect of his work. He’s created a job and a life where he gets to does a little bit of everything he loves. While it may seem unconventional, it’s the perfect career for Alex.

Sometimes — especially in the freelance art world — the unconventional path is truly the best. So don’t be afraid to experiment and play. Incorporate different aspects of your craft and your skills into every project and job, and create the life and career you want.

Be a Creative Alchemist with Alex Lacamoire

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

With that being said, I define Creative Alchemy as using the process of creativity to create a lens of which to perform alchemy. These principles not only apply to artists and creatives in their own creative processes but to anyone who wants to create an extraordinary life in color for themselves. I’ve found that 80% of creating is alchemizing the thoughts, emotions, and other inner blocks that keep you from putting the pen to the paper. Navigating to the act of creation takes alchemical processes.

Alex Lacamoire is a true creative alchemist. He’s a master of synthesizing his skills, talents, passions, and connections to create beautiful and culture-shaking works of art. He’s definitely an inspiration to me personally, and I want to acknowledge him for sharing his gifts with the world and with me here on ONKEN RADIO.

I asked Alex for his definition of “live inspiration,” and his answer was incredible:

“It means doing what you love. It means believing in something and sticking to it, having pride in what it is that you do, being inspired by others, and, in turn, trying to inspire others around you. It’s a cycle — it’s an in and out. It’s a give and take.”
Alex Lacamoire

What do you love? What did you love when you were little? Don’t be afraid to pursue it. If you bring together your passion with a good attitude and a willingness to follow an unconventional path, you’ll alchemize the success and abundance you desire.

Thanks so much for joining me today, guys! If you loved this episode as much as I did, please share it on Instagram and tag me, @nickonken. And if you can spare an extra minute, I’d love it if you’d leave me a five-star review over on Apple Podcasts. Your review could help someone find this episode!

And by the way, don’t forget to follow Alex on Twitter, @LacketyLac!

Until next time — keep creating your life by creating every moment. I’ll talk to you guys later.

Nick Onken

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • When Alex got involved in music [4:40]
  • How he got involved in musical theater [6:25]
  • The influence of his mom [8:00]
  • How music helped Alex grow up [12:25]
  • What happened when Alex started losing his hearing [16:20]
  • Where his positive outlook came from [23:25]
  • How his attitude affects his career [26:40]
  • How he uses psychology in his work with actors [28:35]
  • Why Alex’s art is in service of others [36:40]
  • How he met Lin-Manuel Miranda [41:10]
  • What it felt like winning awards [42:40]
  • How his creative process works with Lin [44:40]
  • How to get out of a cycle of self doubt [51:55]
  • Why he doesn’t thrive on a routine [55:05]
  • Where Alex gets his inspiration [56:15]

Links mentioned:

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