Alex Lacamoire is the decorated three-time Tony winning and four-time Grammy winning musical director, orchestrator, arranger, conductor, and multi-instrumentalist at the forefront of contemporary musical theater of the highest caliber. A perfectionist jack of all trades, Alex’s artistic vision is synonymous with Broadway excellence, having lent his talents to influential productions including Hamilton, In The Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, 9 to 5, Godspell, Bat Boy: The Musical, Legally Blonde, and Wicked. In recent years, Alex has turned his attention to projects for screen, contributing to Incredibles 2 and earning his fourth Grammy for his role as executive music producer of The Greatest Showman soundtrack, the best-selling album of 2018 in both America and the United Kingdom. Presently, Alex is nominated for an “Outstanding Music Direction” Emmy for his work on FX’s Fosse/Verdon and engaged in the film adaptation of In The Heights slated for release next summer. In our conversation, Alex expounds on his approach to honoring show biz trailblazers, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, and how he manifested fluidity in Fosse/Verdon’s lavish, cross-disciplinary musical storytelling.
In recent years, musical theater has enjoyed expanding popularity in the global mediascape, and you have continually served as a leader of this cultural movement. Having contributed in various capacities to critically acclaimed phenomenons including Hamilton, Wicked, In The Heights, The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen, 9 to 5, and now Fosse/Verdon, how do you think musical theater has evolved to suit the tastes and preferences of 21st-century audiences?
Wow, a good question. I think what’s interesting is that musical theater hasn’t always been the most hip art form. I’m just really excited that people are taking a liking to it as of late. Honestly, I can’t explain why that happens, or where it comes from, but I do know that when stories are told in a certain way, where people feel like they can connect, it works. The method that gets people engaged can vary. Perhaps, the subject matter is something that people are interested in. Maybe the type of music it uses is something modern and exciting, or something that people haven’t heard before, or it could be the vocabulary that’s used to tell the story — whatever it is that gets people hooked in if you will.
I think there’s something about theater that is really powerful. It’s an art form where you see people do something right in front of you. You’re gathered together to attend a singular event that will not be the same tomorrow. It was not the same as it was last night, and that person who’s sitting next to you would likely not have been there the night before. Meaning, it’s an event that only happens once, and you’re there feeding off the energy of that actor and the people in the room. What you had for breakfast that morning affects your day, what the temperature is outside affects your mood. All these different things factor in and make theater a fleeting moment, which I think is really exciting. So, anytime people find an in, or something makes them want to celebrate what it is, I’m all for it. I’m very happy that people want to explore what it is about that meeting that makes the art form flourish.
Tying this into Fosse/Verdon, we’re presenting this art form on a TV show, celebrating really grand figures in the style. [Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon] were trailblazers, and responsible for having a hand in classic musicals that we continue to talk about. Hopefully, we’ll be still talking about some of the popular shows of today 20 years from now or 50 years from now.
It’s a very different world now, in terms of how we get entertained, and how we consume music and experience dance, so it was nice to pay tribute to some of the last really great show people from that time. It was a very special thing to be able to tell the story of someone like Gwen Verdon. To be a name recognized for their performance ability, that was frankly something [Bob] Fosse was chasing all his life. He really wanted to be Fred Astaire, and he wanted to do what Gwen was doing. The fact that he wasn’t able to attain that — it left a hole that couldn’t be filled in his life. I think that void creates some of the most exciting conflicts in this story.
Essentially, it’s about people who pick a platform that involves dance, that involves storytelling, that involves theater, and it exposes what goes into that because it’s not always easy or harmonious. There’s a lot of work that goes into it — a lot of politics, and a lot of drama. I’m just really glad that there’s a TV show about these people, about that world, and what comes out of it. I’m very fortunate to be involved.
Congratulations on your “Outstanding Music Direction” Emmy nomination for the series pilot of Fosse/Verdon. The “Life is a Cabaret” episode is a vibrant introduction to the deeply complex creative and romantic partnership between legendary filmmaker/ choreographer, Bob Fosse, and Broadway’s finest dancer, Gwen Verdon. Coming on board as early as the casting process, what was your vision for the relationship between song and score in this limited series?
I wanted it to be as fluid as possible. It was very apparent to me, just in the way that the script had been written, that there was going to be a lot of — I guess realism is the word that comes to mind. Even in the early days of shooting, I was able to see that there was something very organic about the way the story was being told. I knew that things were going to be fluid looking, so I wanted to make sure they were fluid sounding as well.
Musically speaking, it’s great that there were some of the best songs in the Broadway canon for us to work with. It was my job to make sure that we were honoring that music and serving the storytelling within those songs. It was also about storytelling within the scene and the episode that we were shooting, as well as trying to capture some of that special magic that we associate with the performers we were portraying.
There’s something about the way Liza Minnelli sings that is so visceral and exciting — it’s megawatt. She sings like there’s no tomorrow, so it was essential for us to have our actor who was playing Liza Minnelli, Kelli Barrett, really sing in that same way. She had to really give her all and just leave it on the floor when she was performing. We also wanted to try to get those weird idiosyncrasies out of Joel Grey [played by Ethan Slater] — the way he’s so character-driven when he sings. We wanted to try to capture that kind of energy without trying to impersonate. We weren’t looking for it to be a complete replica or facsimile of, “Okay, you have to do everything exactly the way Liza does.” It’s more about trying to capture the spirit of what those performers did.
The power of those songs, those compositions, and those performances gave life to the story we’re telling, so I wanted to make sure it felt deliberate and be at least half as good as the script, the performers, and the actors who were being hired to work on Fosse/Verdon.
You raise an excellent point in that, the songs themselves have taken on lives of their own. Great music is just like that, even in its purest form.
Yes. A lot of the time, something can be deceptively simple. However, I find that really what’s behind it all is an excellent performance and a compelling story being told. If there’s a feeling being conveyed, you’ll be able to pick up on that, whether you’re watching someone in front of you singing, or whether you’re just putting on a pair of headphones and listening to that person.
There’s an energy that you can pick up on from the way a song is sung. That is really important, and that’s what I love to capture in the studio. I just love to be in there, listening to how someone is portraying a song in the moment, and try to find that irreplaceable take — that real, special, inexplicable magic that occurs when someone’s really on. That was one of my most fun endeavors on Fosse/Verdon.
What were the unique benefits and challenges of adapting your musical expertise to the medium of television in a grander capacity than ever before?
Because I’ve done so much theater, in which it was my job to craft underscoring that served the story and draws on themes from the score, one of the benefits was being able to bring that experience to the TV medium. I was really excited about that.
I found that it was very helpful to know that if you just capture it once, that’s all you need. With theater, we’re in this art form where we have to replicate what we want to be a perfect performance night after night. With TV and film, the goal is to capture it at least once, maybe a couple of times, so we can have another angle to work with, or what have you, but knowing that, if you get it right that one time, it lives on forever. So, it was nice to have the ability to craft that “perfect performance,” if you will.
One of the challenges I found was the time constraint. With theater, I find you always have time to go back and redo something. Even if you don’t have that perfect idea today, you’ll be able to tackle it again tomorrow. If you don’t have your ideal performance tonight, there’s always next week, where you can perfect that ending and get a better stab at that orchestration.
With TV, I find you really have to capture it all during that moment. When you go to the studio, and you hire that band, you have to get it right, but then you have to cross your fingers and hope that it’s what you need for the moment. It’s especially challenging if you’re pre-recording before you’ve actually seen the set, and before you’ve actually experienced the moment. You have to do some educated guesswork in the hopes that you’ll get it right the first time.
Tommy Kail [co-creator and director of Fosse/Verdon] put it best. He found that, for this show in particular, when we were shooting, it was like compressing all of the things we would normally do in theater, that would take three weeks, into a single day. So, in one day, we were designing, and teching, and rehearsing, and filming, and capturing. In theater, you usually spend years workshopping something. You won’t put it in front of an audience until years later. You rehearse it in the room, and then you put it in front of an audience. After that, you make cuts and edits, and then the critics come and decide months later, looking at what you’ve done.
So, here we are trying to do all of that in a limited amount of time. That was definitely tricky, but it was a challenge that I was up for, especially having so many smart people around me to help guide the process.
Bob Fosse is one of the most influential figures in the history of musical theater on both stage and screen behind beloved works, including Cabaret, Chicago, The Pajama Game, and Pippin. He remains the only person to ever win an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony all in the same year. What is your personal connection to his life’s work? What were the core components you wanted to distill from his far-ranging artistic canon and showcase in the music of this series?
My introduction to Bob Fosse came through my obsession with Pippin, the musical. I was a kid, and I would play the entire vocal selection by myself in my room night after night. Inside the vocal selections was a picture of Stephen Schwartz at the age of 24 with a little bio underneath. On another one of the pages, there was a picture of Bob Fosse with his bio. That was the first time I heard his name and had known who he was.
I had a mentor who was able to explain to me that when you see someone’s palms with their fingers splayed, they’re like Fosse. You’re like, “Oh my God.”, and I automatically just associated this certain move. I was able to watch the videotape of the Pippin performance that was released in the ’80s and be introduced to Fosse’s style, direction, and choreography. It intrigued me because it all just felt so cool, and it just drew me in. There was something I found to be magnetic about his dance and stagecraft, honestly.
I had read the [Sam Wasson] biography years before Tommy Kail approached me about the TV show. I was just fascinated to learn so much about Fosse — more of those crazy stories I had heard about him, and what went into creating these iconic shows. I was on board [for Fosse/Verdon] right away.
In terms of what I wanted to capture, I loved that the breadth of the shows Fosse had been a part of, was so eclectic. You’ve got classic Broadway from the ’50s like Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game, and you’ve got Pippin, which is like a rock musical. Then you have Chicago, which is old jazz Dixieland, and All That Jazz, which has more funk-rock in it as well. It’s just all over the map, and I was so intrigued to be able to dive into all those styles because they all make me happy in different ways. To know that one person had his finger on the pulse of so many different genres and sub-genres, and was responsible for bringing such a wide variety of music into the Broadway canon, I was all about that.
That eclecticism was something I wanted to honor. It was important to me to pay tribute to all those styles and have them sound as authentic as they were the day that they were originally performed. They were all very current styles in their time, and there was something so fresh and exciting about it, so I wanted to capture as much of that feeling as possible.
Considering this is a period biographical series by design, were the musical selections from Fosse’s body of work written into the script, or did you have a hand in that process? What are the stylistic sympathies you share with the incredible team behind Fosse/Verdon that is best represented in its musical identity?
The songs from musicals were definitely written into the script and a part of the writing process. I would get a script, and inside, they would say, “We sing Big Spender.” But when it came time to decide which part of “Big Spender” we’d sing, that was usually decided by committee. That was done through conversations between me, Tommy [Kail], Joel [Fields], Steven [Levenson], [Andy] Blankenbuehler, Susan Misner, etc. It helps when you have people who are really good at telling a story, people who are really good at weaving song into scene, and back again. It all felt organic, and like it had a purpose. It never felt like we were showing off, or trying to be clever for clever’s sake. There’s something about [the music] that really felt like it all belonged. I thought it was very important to keep everything feeling authentic, rich, multi-layered, and all of that.
In terms of stylistic sympathies, I know I’m definitely drawn to storytelling in music, and I’m drawn to shows where there’s a real fluidity between the speaking, and the singing, and back again. It’s that kind of realism, if you will, in music theater. Yes, you’re in a heightened world, yet there’s something about it that feels like it’s a moment, and then it feels like it’s communication. I often tell singers when they’re singing, I say, “Try to make it feel like you’re speaking.” Yes, you happen to be singing on pitch, and singing on a particular rhythm, but at the end of the day, you’re trying to communicate an idea and a thought. So, I think that’s probably what we all share in our storytelling, which is how to make that theatrical experience feel as real as possible.
“Life is a Cabaret” features three electrifying standout onscreen performances — “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity and Kelli Barrett’s deliveries of “Mein Herr” and “Cabaret” as Liza Minnelli. What were your methods to achieve historical authenticity and innovate upon this iconic material?
I touched on this earlier, but I needed to capture the spirit of what those songs sounded like back then. We know those recordings so well, right? We all know the film Cabaret. I keep going back to the word visceral, but it’s a really effective word to describe it.
When you put on a soundtrack like Sweet Charity, and you hear the opening fanfare of “Big Spender,” it sounds dirty and grimy like it has some special sauce to it. The first couple of times we played it in the studio with the musicians, it sounded fine, and it sounded like it was there, but we really had to work to put some grit into it. It was important for me not just to play the notes, and not just have someone sing the words. They had to be performed.
I thought it was my job to make it feel like the music just exploded off the screen, if you will, whether that was in the sound of it, in the performance of it, or the feel of it. When these songs first came out, they were groundbreaking. They were hits, and they were hits for a reason. I had to seek out what gave those songs such a special quality, whether it was the orchestration, the arrangement, or the overall feel of it, and try to hone it as best as I could. I wanted to take people along for the ride, never taking them out of the moment because something didn’t sound “correct.”
To close, your entrancing original theme for Fosse/Verdon captures both the harmony and turbulence of Bob and Gwen’s multi-faceted professional and personal relationship. Can you elaborate on the influences and symbolism behind this composition?
For me, it was important that the theme felt like something that could be danced to. I wanted to have something with an upbeat quality, but at the same time, have there be something forlorn about it. I thought of “Mr. Bojangles,” and it had this kind of sad clown mentality to it — acting like everything is great, but underneath is pain. So, there’s something about my Fosse/Verdon theme that has some melancholy to it. I wanted to have that be a part of the piece.
There’s a little bit of emptiness to it, somehow. It’s not extremely fleshed out. It’s a little spare in its instrumentations, and I think that adds to the hollow quality of it. There are times that the melody tends to go together in harmony, and then it spreads apart, and then it comes back together again. To me, that just felt like it symbolized Bob and Gwen’s relationship — how they were together, then apart, then together, but they somehow always were still magnetized to each other. You hear that in the melody. There’s a part where there are two clarinets — a bass clarinet and a B flat clarinet — playing together as counterparts. That, to me, felt just like Bob and Gwen.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Alex Lacamoire and Impact24 PR.