How a Miami musician overcame hearing loss to help create the music to ‘Hamilton’

How hearing loss affects 'Hamilton' music director Alex Lacamoire

Miami's Alex Lacamoire overcame hearing loss to help write music to the Tony Award-winning ‘Hamilton,’ one of the biggest hits in Broadway history.
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Miami's Alex Lacamoire overcame hearing loss to help write music to the Tony Award-winning ‘Hamilton,’ one of the biggest hits in Broadway history.

Alex Lacamoire leans in to listen. At his parents’ zero-lot-line house in South Kendall, the man responsible for the music of “Hamilton” — one of the biggest hits in Broadway history — is having trouble hearing.

A pair of hearing aids sits on a couch just out of reach. Behind him, seven other Cubans are chattering in a normal tone — that is to say, it’s loud in here.

His mother is telling stories about her son, the Kendall-raised boy who graduated from the New World School of the Arts and went on to win two Tony Awards and two Grammys, as she shows off pictures of Lacamoire hugging first lady Michelle Obama.

That was the night that started all of this. The night that actor Lin-Manuel Miranda asked Lacamoire, his right-hand man, to play piano for a White House performance that became the seed for “Hamilton.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, accompanied by composer Alex Lacamoire, perform at the White House an early version of what became the musical 'Hamilton.'

Overstating the effect of the show, which won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Miranda, is difficult. It’s the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, an orphaned immigrant who became U.S. Treasury Secretary, told in a rap musical by a multi-ethnic cast. In short, it’s like nothing Broadway had ever seen.

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In the year since the play opened, “Hamilton” tickets have been harder to come by (and are sometimes more expensive) than Super Bowl tickets. Celebrities had to call in favors to get in. For the original cast’s final show in July, seats (available only on the resale market) started at more than $3,000. “Hamilton” recently opened the show in Chicago, and franchises are planned for Seattle, San Francisco and London.

And an anticipated documentary on the phenomenon, “Hamilton’s America,” part of PBS’s Great Performances series, will debut at 9 p.m. Oct. 21 on WPBT.

As the show’s musical director, Lacamoire, 41, oversees the orchestra and wrote parts for all the instruments in the score, creating the mood and feel — what the show’s director calls “the DNA.” The “Hamilton” album, which Lacamoire produced, climbed to the top of the Billboard musical and hip-hop charts.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘This is my son?’ It’s such an incredible feeling,” Maria Lacamoire says, laughing. “I want to run down the street telling everyone who my son is.”

But Lacamoire’s relationship with sound is complicated. After taking a family picture at home, he reinserts the hearing aids. The full range of the room’s buzz floods in. Throughout high school, he refused to wear the aids because they made him feel different. When he’s being photographed, he’s still self-conscious about them.

And yet, Lacamoire’s unique ear for music sets him apart.

“I often wonder if my handicap is actually an asset,” he said. “My hearing loss makes me listen a little harder. It allows me to live in my own bubble. I can really focus in on music and tune out the world around me.”

Arriving at acceptance has taken a lifetime. Lacamoire was 2 and living in Los Angeles, where his parents met after fleeing Cuba, when family members started noticing Alex had an affinity for sound. As a toddler, he’d sit facing the stereo, his face inches from the speakers.

His parents bought him a toy piano when he was 4, and Maria Lacamoire was surprised to hear him play along with the music he heard on the radio. A friend suggested piano lessons, and family chipped in to buy him an old Baldwin piano.

But that year, life became a lot harder for the Lacamoires. One night in 1978, his father, Alfredo, was playing dominoes when he felt a stab of pain in his head and what he described as a cold feeling — “frio, frio, frio” — wash down his right side before he passed out. Alfredo Lacamoire awoke to a ruptured aneurism in his brain and was paralyzed on his right side. He would be disabled for life.

Maria Lacamoire became the primary caregiver to her husband and provider to Alex and his 2-year-old sister, Michelle.

Meanwhile, she noticed that Alex sat too close to the television and that she had to raise her voice to get his attention. Once, he almost ran into traffic when he didn’t hear her. Worried that the trauma of his father’s accident had affected him, she took him to a child psychologist, who, after a battery of tests, discovered Alex had at least a 15 percent hearing loss.

The school system wanted to move Alex to a school for the deaf, but Maria and the psychologist petitioned the school board to allow him to remain in his regular classes. Maria drove Alex to speech therapy three times a week. Alex needed hearing aids, but the family could afford only one at the time.

When Alex was 9, the family moved to Miami, where Maria had more family support and rents were cheaper. Alex called it “the best thing to happen to me.” They brought the family piano along. Alfredo remained on disability, and Maria took on a string of odd jobs. She worked at the post office, in a toll booth, as a hairdresser, in a funeral home, as a hairdresser in a funeral home — whatever it took to support her family.

“We didn’t have a rich family member taking care of us,” Maria said.

Maria continued paying for piano lessons, and Alex’s musical talent blossomed. By 8, he could read sheet music, which helped get him into Southwood Middle’s music magnet. Maria nicknamed him “Alex Name That Tune.”

“When a talent like that just tumbles into your arms, it’s a piece of luck,” said Judie Berger, who taught Lacamoire piano at Southwood Middle. “He was absolutely phenomenal from day one. You know the ones that have it. When you’ve seen and taught thousands of kids, the great ones rise right to the top.”

Music was his life. While staying at the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach during a family vacation, Alex carried his sheet music of popular songs to play on the baby grand piano in the lobby. A hotel worker put a tip jar on the edge of the piano, and he made $11 his first hour.

He was 10.

By 13, he was chosen to give a recital at Mexico’s University of Yucatán at the largest concert hall in Mérida. When he returned home, he told the Miami Herald, “I want to make it my life.”

If his disability limited him, no one could tell, especially after he was accepted into New World. Maybe that’s because he saw how his father coped with his own limitations. Alfredo learned to drive a car with modified pedals and steering wheel.

“My dad is a fighter. He was determined that he wouldn’t just ‘be,’ ” Lacamoire said. “My dad would pitch in in every way he could.”

Every morning, he drove Alex to the Metrorail station at Dadeland so he could take the train to New World, and he waited for his son at the platform every afternoon.

“I bought him bats, balls, gloves. Hey, I’m Cuban, so I started with sports,” Alfredo said. “But music is what he loved.”

But in school, Alex was still self-conscious over his hearing aids and stopped wearing them altogether.

“It’s a drag because I missed a lot. Jokes my friends told. Lectures from teachers,” he said. “I had to ask strangers to repeat things.”

While he was at New World, people would call in looking for a student to play at a cocktail reception or piano for community theater events. One of his parents would take him and wait outside for several hours for him to finish. Once, his mother and sister drove him from Kendall to Sunrise, where he was likely the youngest fan at a Bruce Hornsby concert.

“My mom never said no if it was something musically related,” he said. “I didn’t have people telling me I couldn’t.”

Lacamoire had developed a sort of photographic memory for music. He could hear a song, transcribe what he heard into sheet music and play it flawlessly.

“He would just nail it,” said his longtime friend Martin Bejerano, now a professor of jazz piano at the University of Miami. “It was no secret how extremely talented he was.”

Not even Hurricane Andrew could stop him. (Every true Miamian — he says “bro” a lot — needs a good Hurricane Andrew story.) The family fled their Perrine house just before the storm hit and caved in the ceiling, damaging his Baldwin baby grand.

The story of the talented New World student who had lost his piano in the storm made WSVN news, and a local repair shop fixed his piano for free. He still graduated a year early with a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“I got a front-row seat to see how hard he’s worked since he was little, to see all his success,” his sister Michelle said, her eyes filling with tears as she recounted the story at her parents’ home.

Alex stands and hugs her.

Several Miami actors he had worked with remembered that combination of compassion and talent when they were workshopping a new sort of hip-hop play in New York, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” Lacamoire had broken onto Broadway as a keyboard player when his friends on “In the Heights” told Miranda he had to meet Lacamoire. There was an instant connection.

“We just never stopped hanging out and never stopped talking,” Lacamoire said.

Miranda doesn’t play piano well, and his ideas for the music are usually in his head. He makes demos of the music, a sort of musical skeleton using a keyboard and a computer program. Lacamoire fleshes out the song and creates the sheet music. He decides which instruments and where a 10-person orchestra will create the complete sound.

Creating the music for “In the Heights” was a particular challenge, melding Miranda’s rap skills with the sorts of Latin melodies Lacamoire grew up hearing at Cuban parties but had never formally studied. So he read textbooks, listened to music and learned the rules.

“Alex is simply the best in the business at creating music arrangements that help create mood, character and movement,” said Andy Blankenbuehler, choreographer for “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.” “Magic comes out of his hands.”

Seasoned musicians will pick up hiccups in the music, such as when he turned around the clave, the beat that gives Latin music its rhythm. But it oozed authenticity, including when Lacamoire added a Cuban tres guitar to the band, after hearing it during a family trip to Cuba.

“I think I did a pretty good job of faking it,” Lacamoire said, laughing.

The result? “In the Heights” won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Lacamoire won the Tony for Best Orchestration and a Grammy that year for the cast’s album. When the musical came to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Lacamoire had 70 seats reserved for his mother’s birthday.

“If he doesn’t know about something, he dives in and becomes fully immersed,” said Tommy Kail, who directed “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.” “Having done this for almost 20 years, I don’t think I’ve known anyone who has his level of talent, humanity and compassion. He’s so attuned to other artists. He immediately knows how to plug in.”

Miranda and Kail signed Lacamoire on when they started developing “Hamilton.” Again, Miranda came with detailed notes on the music, but “Lin trusted me to let me express my voice,” Lacamoire said. Lacamoire helped develop music for entire sections from scratch, including the Brit-pop feel for the King George solo number “You’ll Be Back.” The show was nominated for a record 16 Tonys.

“I don’t even know how to imagine how the show would be without him,” Kail said. “There’s so much of Alex’s spirit and heart in the show. He’s part of the DNA of the show. It is full and complete because of him.”

His mother’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled how far her son had come last week when he came into town for a day between rehearsals for “Hamilton” Chicago to buy her a shed. She held his hand when she sat next to him.

In a private moment, she admitted that for years she wondered whether she had done something wrong during her pregnancy that cost Alex his hearing.

Now they know better. They no longer question his gift — or how it came packaged.

“For me, music involves all the senses,” Lacamoire said. “It’s about overcoming a disability to the point where you don’t feel it’s a disability anymore.”

Carlos Frías: 305-376-4624, @Carlos_Frias