To most Broadway audiences, the conductor is a little-noticed presence — barely visible in the pit, maybe glimpsed on a small screen in the theater viewable by the performers onstage. But it’s safe to say that Alex Lacamoire — the conductor for the acclaimed revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd currently playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, starring Josh Groban in the title role — is better-known than most.
As an arranger, orchestrator, musical director and music supervisor, Lacamoire has ensured that the visions of composers like Lin-Manuel Miranda (on In the Heights and Hamilton) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen) are fully realized as the blockbuster scores they’ve become. Now, as Sweeney Todd‘s musical supervisor and conductor, he’s ushering one of contemporary musical theater’s greatest works back to Broadway with a rare full orchestra under his baton.
The three-time Tony-winner and four-time Grammy winner will also co-produce the recently announced new Sweeney cast recording (out later this year on Warner Music Group’s Arts Music and Reprise Records, it’s safe to say it will likely add to his list of Grammy noms). As Lacamoire admits, conducting Sweeney on a nightly basis requires all his energy — but he took some time before a recent performance to speak to Billboard about his dream gig, working with Groban, and what it’s like to be a music director with fans of his own.
How do you sustain yourself conducting eight shows a week?
Larry Blank, a great music director/arranger/orchestrator, sort of prepped me for the show and let me know that in Sweeney the conductor really is the motor behind the music. In some shows you can kind of depend on the drummer to keep the tempo moving, or the piano to kind of lead the band; this show doesn’t have piano, and the percussion doesn’t really lead except for a couple key moments. So he let me know the conductor is truly like the metronome, the engine for the show. That was good advice.
I’ve been trying to make sure my diet is good, trying to sleep, to not take on too much, though I fail miserably at times. I mean, I’m 47 now — I’m not doing as easily what I did when I was 30. So I’m just trying to make sure I’m careful about my bandwidth. This is an important show, and it demands a lot of the person with the keys to the car.
What does “musical supervision” mean for this show, in which the original orchestrations are being used?
It’s the same as music director, just having that grand overview of the show. For this, it entailed a little bit of arrangement work but very little – a couple transitions we just needed more time for, underscoring moments we thought would suit our production. So a few key moments where I tried to write something “in the style of….” the original Sweeney.
From a musical perspective, why is Sweeney considered such an apex achievement for Sondheim?
It’s melodrama, it’s a thriller – I can’t think of any other musical thrillers that are this tightly woven, this motivic, that just feel so complete. The music feels eerie in just the right places, the amount of material he was able to create from such a small amount of motifs, there’s an economy to composition and orchestration.
[Sondheim] was such a chameleon, the styles he wrote in. If you compare Company, which has its roots in at the time contemporary music, and then A Little Night Music which is so lush, and Merrily We Roll Along which has some jazzy bits as well, and then Pacific Overtures with Asian influence….all those styles are completely different! And then you throw in Sweeney, which is grand and really just goes for it.
Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations for this show are particularly revered — why is that?
Jonathan Tunick can make 26 instruments sound like 52, the ways he uses them. I was just amazed, as I was studying the score — in so many spots I thought the amount of instruments would have been much larger. There’s nothing about the score that feels superfluous; everything is intentional and meaningful. The music just innately has a size and heft to it; it’s powerful. It’s no wonder this piece gets performed at opera houses and has a place in the classical music canon, too.
You had the opportunity to work with Tunick himself in the preparation for the show, right? What was that experience like?
He was in all our orchestra rehearsals. It was so important to have someone who just knew where everything came from. The insight he could offer us was so powerful. In certain ways, I’m guessing – I’m trying to interpret what Sondheim meant because sadly I don’t have the luxury of being able to pick up the phone and ask him. Sometimes we’d play the orchestration and I’d think we were doing okay, and Jonathan would have a note just about how the oboe played a passage, or how I conducted a passage, that just changed everything.
Even in the opening number, there’s a way one could play it with a lot of undulation and rise and fall, almost classical. And Jonathan’s big note was that the opening number works when it’s just steady, without over-adornment – instead of this big push and pull, it’s just very direct and machine-like. That really changed everything.
In a show led by big stars like Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, is your working relationship with those actors different behind the scenes?
I have to say it doesn’t feel too different to me. It helps that people like Josh and Annaleigh are so down to earth. The things I speak to them about are specific to them, but the things I talk to the ensemble about are specific to them too. I think the nature of this piece, it does have that need for the conductor to be following the singers. There are times when they lead, times when the orchestra leads, and I think of it like a dance – we take turns.
I was excited to see your name emblazoned on the outside theater advertising – I think that’s the first time I’ve seen that for someone in your role.
Ha, so is my mom. I’ve never seen that ever, so I’m floored and honored.
You became a recognizable face thanks to the Ham4Ham performances you participated in outside the Richard Rodgers Theater in the early days of Hamilton. Do you get recognized?
I’m always honored that people … know what I do? [Laughs.] I’m very touched when people ask for an autograph or picture. It usually means they’re theater-savvy, and probably fans of Lin’s shows I’ve worked on, or Dear Evan Hansen. I give a lot of thanks and credit to composers I’ve worked with who are kind enough to share spotlights with me. Lin-Manuel doesn’t have to shout me out the way he does, just as Justin [Paul] and Benj [Pasek] don’t have to feature me in videos, you know?
You’ve worked on some very big shows, and you seem to focus on one at a time when you’re in such a pivotal musical role. Is that the case with Sweeney, too?
My schedule has worked out in such a way that I’ve been able to give Sweeney my all. I think I’ve realized to be able to do my best work I need to be careful about how many things are on my plate. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to be all-in on something I’m so passionate about. Sweeney’s my dream gig. I’ve always wanted to do a Sondheim show, and this is my first. So to set aside the time and feel as if I gave this everything I could — well, I’m trying to make that happen!