Picture this: You watch West Side Story and you decide you want to be our next Rita Moreno. You know it takes exceptional talent, education and a massive amount of work to get there. You tirelessly work on your goal, keeping your eyes on the awards. You’re finally called for an audition and you meet an even more inspiring creative entity: the Music Director. Yes, that one person that tells performing artists how to be musical.
In 2008, audiences around the world flooded Broadway in hopes to experience an innovative, modern, Latin-music infused show called In The Heights. Deservingly so, it went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. Latinos rejoiced, as we witnessed a historic moment: the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations went to the show’s Music Director, the first and only Latino ever to be nominated and win such a prestigious award in that category: Alex Lacamoire.
Latino Rebels’ Marlena Fitzpatrick had the chance to sit down and have a pleasant chat with Alex about his career, his Cuban roots and his new Broadway-bound musical, Hamilton.
Marlena Fitzpatrick (MF): Let’s go there sin tapujos. You studied at the Berklee College of Music, the sanctuary of jazz and contemporary music, and you’re Cuban. Anyone would inevitably assume you to become the next Latin jazz star. So, why not a residency in the “Blue Note” and become the next Eddie Palmieri or Michel Camilo? Why Broadway?
Alex Lacamoire (AL): [Laughter] Good question! I learned in Berklee that I wasn’t really cut out to be a jazz musician. What I learned was that in order to be a good jazz musician you have to LOVE the genre and really focus on it. I never listened to enough jazz, or practiced it enough, or concentrated on it enough. The best way to describe it is this: in college if I had the choice of listening to Led Zeppelin or Wes Montgomery, I would have rather listened to Led Zeppelin.
MF: Absolutely! So, you are a rocker at heart. I’m a rocker at heart too.
AL: Exactly! And the truth is that although I learned jazz, I didn’t have passion for it.
MF: It’s hard to believe you’re not “good at it.” Now, let me ask you this: how many instruments do you play?
AL: I play four. I play piano, and I can mess around on guitar, bass and drums.
MF: You sound like a one-man rock band.
AL: When I’m at home, yes.
MF: How was that path to Broadway? How did you finally “make it?”
AL: Broadway is something I was always interested in. I went to an arts school for junior and high school, and I would play in the theater department shows throughout the year. I also played for theater productions while I was going to college in Boston. When I was ready to move from Boston to New York in 1998, the casting directors from The Lion King came to Boston as part of a nationwide talent search, and I was the audition pianist. On the last day of auditions, the music director and assistant of the show flew to Boston for the callbacks, so they heard me play for all the auditioning actors. They felt that I was a good pianist, that I could play pop-oriented music, that I could transpose on sight and all that stuff. So the music director said to me on-the-spot: “If you’re moving to New York, we’d like you to work with us.” I was already moving to New York about a month later to, ironically, try to make it as a jazz pianist, planning to call all my friends and be like “hey, I’m in New York, give me a gig.” But the avenue that was in front of me was this other path of theater; the one that I was meant to be on. By the weekend I moved to New York, I had a foot in the door with the Lion King. I met the right people, learned the music for the show, played the piano at their auditions and rehearsals, and that’s how my New York career started. I owe a big thanks to Joe Church for that chance and for opening those doors.
MF: It sounds like it was a blessing meant for you!
AL: “Lo que está para ti nadie te lo quita,” as they say.
MF: You went from this somewhat serendipitous event that started it all to becoming an award winning musical director. You worked on Avenue Q, High Fidelity, Wicked and Legally Blonde, to name a few shows. Then, In The Heights happens. So, you’re sitting at Radio City Music Hall, your category is announced and you hear the words: “And the Tony goes to………..Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman.” Can you describe that exact moment for us?
AL: It was a very special day. The night before the Tonys we were having a drink and we ran into a friend who wanted to take a picture of Bill Sherman and me with their digital camera. The strangest thing happened. In the picture there was this anomalous orb of light on top of my image that I can only describe as a mix between a photographic mishap and a spiritual photobomb, like a ghostly mist. Our friend looked at the picture and us and said, “Wow, you guys are definitely going to win the Tony tomorrow.” At the Tonys, I was sitting all nervous and about 10 minutes before our category was announced. I became very calm and relaxed. All the nerves went away because I had a sense that we were going to win. Our names were called out, we did our speeches and my life changed.
MF: WOW! Congratulations! Hard work pays off. Now, to be able to thank everyone on an acceptance speech, what advice do you have for future musicians, artists and anyone that wants to make it on Broadway?
AL: Always strive to DO the best and to BE better at what you do. I don’t believe anyone is “perfect” at what they do. There’s always something to learn. Be inspired by others in your field. And that’s not just in music, but in any career that you choose. I’m constantly trying to learn because I believe the moment you stop learning, you’re dead; you’re done. Writers inspire me, as do music directors from other shows, so I try to learn from them. Also, we need to recognize when we’re not good at something. You can try harder to practice what you’re not good at, but you’re also allowed to focus on a completely different path. Like for me, I recognized that I wasn’t good at jazz, so I focused on other things like theater and writing. In terms of attitude, be nice to people, because they’ll remember that. With a bad attitude you won’t get a call back. Surround yourself with good, positive people. I’m lucky enough to be around the geniuses of the field, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Andy Blankenbuehler and Tommy Kail. I work because they call me and I give 150% of myself to our projects.
MF: Let’s talk expanding our musical inspiration, for a second. What music genre should Latinos try to conquer, that we haven’t conquered yet?
AL: WOW, that’s a really good question. For me Latinos can conquer anything we want to. Lin-Manuel didn’t set out to conquer Broadway. He just wrote a show that meant something to him. I think we should conquer whatever we want.
MF: Do you think we can conquer country music? Should we have a country star? I know I would buy that album.
AL: Sure! Why the hell not?! [Loud laughter.] that would be super interesting! That would be a little bit of an oxymoron, because country music is to the U.S., what plena is to Puerto Rico or son is to Cuba. Yet, in Japan there are salsa orchestras like Orquesta de la Luz and we love that.
MF: On that note, can you tell us about your Cuban family and the trip you took to “re-discover” those musical roots?
AL: I can draw from a personal experience on both ends. On the musical side, I worked on a show called Carmen Jones. I did a reading of this show last year in Cuba. I had the opportunity to work with brilliant Cuban musicians, who live and breathe Cuban styles. I felt el sabor. To me, it is one of the most rhythmic styles in the world and there’s nothing like it. To be up-close to that and hear that sound is a wonderful feeling. Not to say you can’t find musicians like that here in the US, but the musicians over there are basically untouchable. It was a life-changing experience. In fact, the rhythms are so complex that I once had to stop the groove that the percussion section was playing and ask about the incredibly complicated syncopated beat I had no idea where the “one” was—upbeat or downbeat. It was awesome to get my butt kicked like that. I was floored by the technical prowess and the knowledge that these musicians had.
On the personal side, my mom and dad are Cuban, but they met here in the United States. My mom is from a family of nine siblings, but she’s the only one living in the U.S. The rest stayed behind because they weren’t able to leave Cuba before the 1959 Revolution. In fact, the next sibling in line to leave Cuba after my mother was her brother who was ready to leave, passport and everything, and he couldn’t leave because of the Revolution. Some of my uncles did move to Chile and elsewhere, but most of them still live in Cuba. So it’s hard for me because I go to Cuba and see how substandard the living conditions are. There’s a lot of pride, however, and they live life to the fullest. And it’s very inspiring.
MF: Thank you for sharing that. Talking about inspiration, you performed at the White House for Obama in 2009 while being part of the Hamilton creative team. Who came up with the idea to write a Hip-Hop infused musical about Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton?
AL: It came from Lin-Manuel Miranda. He read Ron Chernow’s biography and was inspired because he saw similarities between hip hop artists’ upbringing and Hamilton’s upbringing. No one can write a musical like this and create it like he does. He is a genius.
MF: And no one can music-direct it like you do. That being said, for you, what is your definition of a Latino Rebelde?
AL: That’s a very good question. I think it starts with someone that remembers and honors his/her roots and has an affinity for their country and their culture. I consider myself Cuban-American. I grew up in this country, but in an environment that understands that there’s a lot of love, pride and openness in being Cuban. And the openness is about inclusion and generosity for others. There’s a lot of hospitality in Cuban culture. In Cuba, if you go to someone’s house and there’s only one chair, the guest sits in that chair. As soon as you walk into someone’s house, you will be offered café. That connection to people is something that I’ve learned in my upbringing. Being a rebel isn’t just about beating the system or being counter-something. “Rebel” sometimes has a negative connotation to it. To me, a Latino Rebelde is someone that is counter-negativity, that spreads love, that is generous and is proud of his/her Latinism and has a good sense of self.
MF: If you go to my mom’s house she will serve you 2 cups of café. It is a Puerto Rican trait too.
AL: You know what it is? Expression. In theater and art there’s a lot of expression. There’s a lot expression in communication and in our Latino culture. We laugh, gesticulate; we express ourselves. Art is expression, and art is generous.
MF: Art is a gift from within, definitely. We can’t wait for your next gift. What’s next for you?
AL: Hamilton, Hamilton and more Hamilton.
MF: And we can’t wait to watch! Thank you for your time and congratulations for being a true musical Rebelde.
Hamilton opened at the Public Theater February 17 to rave reviews. It will start previews at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway on July 13. It is already considered the frontrunner for the Tony Awards. The show is directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler.
Follow Alex Lacamoire on Twitter @LacketyLac.
Follow Marlena Fitzpatrick on Twitter @MarlenaFitz.