Profile: Alumnus over Broadway
You might expect that you'd have to be larger than life to win a Tony Award. Think of Broadway legends Nathan Lane, Ethel Merman, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But Berklee's first-ever Tony-winner, Alex Lacamoire '95, hit his high note with the hit musical In the Heights by being a man for all seasons.
Though he played his first musical at age 11—keyboard bass for a summer production of Bye Bye Birdie—and "always had an affinity with theater music," he had much more at his fingertips.
Given his experience with jazz at Berklee, rock bands in high school, Latin music from his hometown of Miami, and classical piano starting at age 4, Lacamoire had more versatility and zing than your average musical theater pianist.
"I wasn't, like, a show guy. . . they tend to be a little stiff," he said. "It's few and far between to find guys who can really throw down."
He became "the go-to audition pianist for rock/pop shows" and started subbing with the pit orchestra at the long-running Lion King, a low-profile but high-stress job.
"You have to nail it perfectly on the first try," he said. "It's huge pressure. No rehearsal."
Fortunately, Lacamoire had put in plenty of rehearsal time at Berklee, where he majored in professional music. "I'm proud of having gone to Berklee and I know that what I learned there is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing," he said.
Though the college didn't have much musical theater activity at the time—now there's a student club, a popular American Songbook concert, and the opportunity to take classes in Boston Conservatory's musical theater department—it gave him the skills he needed to succeed on Broadway. He learned how to arrange, orchestrate, conduct, and perform across genres. "I didn't want to box myself in," he said.
Ken Zambello, professor of ensembles, remembered Lacamoire well. "I just had the sense that he was a great musician... very well-rounded," Zambello said. "He always played with a smile on his face." But, the professor pointed out, "everything that happens after [Berklee] is up to them."
Lacamoire pressed forward, becoming first the associate conductor then the music director of the hit musical Wicked, created by his idol Stephen Schwartz. Through that experience, he met the team creating In the Heights, including creator/star/songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.
In musicals, Lacamoire explained, the composer is often an ideas guy. The work trickles down from there, becoming less abstract at each level. "An arranger will just come up with a basic song structure," he said. "Orchestration is the details. Actually writing the trumpet line."
For In the Heights, that meant making Miranda's hip-hop inventions work for an orchestra with co-orchestrator Bill Sherman. Set in Washington Heights, the show is, Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times, a "scrappy little musical about chasing your dreams and finding your true home."
Being of Cuban descent, Lacamoire said, "I'm very proud to be able to do a show that promotes Latin culture."
He also directed the orchestra, which, Isherwood wrote, "plays with a sense of excitement almost never heard emanating from a Broadway pit."
The excitement only increased in the days leading up to the Tonys. Lacamoire had trouble sleeping. At the rehearsal in Radio City Music Hall, he saw a cardboard cutout with his face propped up in what would be his seat during the telecast.
But with his family praying for him-his father dreamed he'd won-Lacamoire felt calm when the presenters opened that envelope for Best Orchestration and read his and Sherman's names. (Maybe the family's prayers spilled over: the show won three other awards, including Best Musical.)
"Working on this show has been the ride of my life," he said in his acceptance speech.
Lacamoire may have more turns on the roller coaster coming up, though. Along with conducting In the Heights for all eight shows per week, he's writing arrangements for the dance numbers of a stage version of the Dolly Parton film 9 to 5. Schwartz has asked him to work on a revival of Working if it comes to New York.
"He claims that I intrinsically know what he wants. . . I can sit down at a piano and just play what he wants," Lacamoire said. "I'm very proud of that."
It shows that for Lacamoire, flexibility and artistry fit together as well as a salsa beat and a rock guitar.