The Influence

Hamilton’s Cuban–American musical director, Alex Lacamoire, has drawn inspiration from Frédéric Chopin since he was a child. By Neha Kale.

Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire

Henryk Siemiradzki’s painting Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill’s Salon (1887), and Alex Lacamoire (below).
Henryk Siemiradzki’s painting Chopin Playing the Piano in Prince Radziwill’s Salon (1887), and Alex Lacamoire (below).
Credit: Heritage Images / Getty Images (above), supplied (below)

Alex Lacamoire is a Cuban–American musical director, conductor and orchestrator. He’s won a string of Grammy and Tony awards for his work on hit musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman, as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and In the Heights.

Lacamoire, who was born in Los Angeles and diagnosed with hearing loss as a child, could pick out records before he could read. He started playing piano when he was four, went on to study at the Berklee College of Music and first worked on Broadway as a rehearsal pianist on The Lion King.

All his life, he has loved the music of Frédéric Chopin, whose Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, Op-66-No. 4 speaks to Lacamoire’s ambitions as an artist. The piece was composed in 1834 and published in 1855 after the virtuoso’s death. For Lacamoire, it reflects all the possibilities of music itself.

 

I read that when you have time to relax, you play Chopin, a Polish-born pianist who I think is synonymous with the power of the piano. When was the first time you heard him?

I was probably nine or 10 or 11. What drew me to Chopin was a particular set of works that he wrote called the Nocturnes. From there you get to learn about his other work – his Études, his piano concertos – how he was able to make that piano sing in ways that are unique to the instrument.

He only played 30 concerts in his life!

Isn’t it interesting? You have a composer like Franz Liszt, who was known as a concert pianist. And here you have the opposite – someone who didn’t perform all that much but is considered a master of performing for the piano.

It’s fascinating how music can find so many routes to people. The piece you’ve chosen to speak about is Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, Op-66-No. 4. Why does it resonate with you?

There is such a beautiful contrast between the A and B sections. It’s as if that middle section is the calm centre of a hurricane with a storm raging on either side of it. You would not necessarily know from this dazzling frenzy of notes that awaits in the middle that there is this serenity and one of the most achingly beautiful melodies ever. I’ve always been drawn to that. And I don’t know why, to me, the ending of that song, even thinking about it I almost want to cry. It is the most peaceful, gorgeous ending of any piece of music I’ve ever heard in my life.

It’s the way the right hand does this pedal tone and it just repeats and repeats in this trance-like figure. And his left hand plays a melody in the lower register before [you play] the melody in the higher register. It has this resonance and is so grounding. The way this melody is juxtaposed against this trance. The harmony that you hear just breaks my heart every time.

I was struck by how it rises and falls and expresses so many moods and tempos – there seems to be great sorrow, a sense of peace, acceptance. How does it inspire your own work?

There is a figure in music called the arpeggio, where there are four notes that you can play at one time. With Chopin, his left hand is moving at all times and playing different harmonies. But the individual lines are moving in a way that you can trace a distinct melody through all of them.

There is something about that I just love. There is order in that, purpose in that and economy in that. That is what I strive to do when I write. I try to have order in it. I try not to do anything superfluous. I try to be economical with my choices and try to have all my choices be melodic.

My aim was to make each individual string line of Hamilton its own singable melody. Even if you can’t pick out an individual’s part within the group context, the goal is for there to be a harmony made out of multiple melodies going at once – both in a musical sense and in a spiritual sense.

In Fantaisie-Impromptu, it feels like when the melody is going to end, it doesn’t. When I [speak] to actors I talk about that. The line needs to keep going. You need to move through space and time so that the last thought begets the next thought. In life, we [use] run-on sentences and don’t realise. We go onto the next thing and don’t realise. There’s this continuation of life just cycling on.

In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel’s language is contemporary – but there is something timeless about the music. Chopin composed his work in the 19th century but it still speaks to us more than 100 years later. What, to you, makes a piece of music endure?

I think the power of a good melody is timeless, the power of a good hook is timeless. I think nothing beats something that is solidly constructed – light and dark, tension and release, an expectation being set, an expectation being met.

I think that is something that Lin-Manuel possesses when he writes and something that Chopin possesses. There’s an on-ramp for you to get on board and follow someone where they lead you. There are times when music actually has barricades in front of it, when you can’t get in and you can’t understand. How does this person want to make me feel? Do they want me to join them or am I watching them behind a pane of glass?

To me, Hamilton is really about how you rise above adversity. Chopin suffered respiratory problems and he died young – at 39. How do you think his life informed the power of his music? I don’t want to romanticise his suffering  but his music is so deeply felt.

I think people can choose to express their pain in different ways. Isn’t it amazing that someone who was in pain could still find the beauty in music? Someone else could experience the same but their DNA could be wired in such a way that they felt that life mistreated them and the manifestation in the music would be really thorny and not expressive at all. That is probably a testament to who he was as a person.

Chopin was also an immigrant – he moved from Poland to Paris, he took Polish folk songs and worked them into his music. Your roots are Cuban–American. The new animated Netflix film Vivo – where you’re again collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda – sees you return to your Cuban–American roots, musically speaking. What has that meant for you as an artist?

I had the opportunity to work with Gloria Estefan – what bigger Cuban–American artist is there? And Juan de Marcos [González] from the Buena Vista Social Club. I was extremely proud that I could celebrate that.

It is a similar to the way Chopin worked Polish folk songs into his mazurkas. There is something about where you are from. That is what you keep coming back to, it’s what your earliest memories might be. That’s what Vivo did for me. My mum would hear a song from Vivo that would remind her of a song from her childhood and she would just start sobbing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Alex Lacamoire".

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Neha Kale is a Sydney-based writer and former editor of VAULT magazine.

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