HE’S LIN-MANUEL’S RIGHT-HAND MAN

‘Hamil­ton’ mu­sic su­per­vi­sor Alex La­camoire hasn’t al­lowed hear­ing loss to de­rail his dreams.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Tim Greiv­ing cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Alex La­camoire has hear­ing loss. But the Tony-win­ning mu­sic su­per­vi­sor of “Hamil­ton” wants you to know he’s no Beethoven.

He’s heard that you can see teeth marks on the wood in­side Beethoven’s piano “be­cause he would bite it to try to be able to hear the vi­bra­tions,” La­camoire said. “I mean, that’s pas­sion. My hear­ing is not that bad.”

When he was 2, grow­ing up near Los An­ge­les’ Kore­atown, La­camoire would sit in front of the stereo and stare into the speaker, drawn to mu­sic like a drug. When he was 3, his mother ob­served him sit­ting too close to the TV, fol­low­ing the char­ac­ters on “Se­same Street” with his eyes.

“I no­ticed that when I called him, he’d run away like he wasn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion,” Maria La­camoire said.

She took him for a hear­ing test, where it was dis­cov­ered he had mild hear­ing loss.

“I think I was a lit­tle bit too young for it to re­ally un­der­stand,” La­camoire said. “All I re­mem­ber is, like, oh, wow, they’re putting this weird goop in my ear to mold me [for hear­ing aids] and then I walked away and I had th­ese lit­tle ap­pa­ra­tuses be­hind my ears.”

When he was 6, the school district rec­om­mended that La­camoire at­tend a spe­cial class that com­bined sign-lan­guage in­struc­tion along with spo­ken lan­guage.

“That was dev­as­tat­ing for me,” his mother said, “be­cause I didn’t no­tice any other prob­lem with him, be­cause he was very smart.”

She ap­pealed the de­ci­sion, and La­camoire was given an IQ test. He scored 165. He not only joined a main­stream class at Com­mon­wealth Av­enue Ele­men­tary School but also skipped the first grade.

“Alex was the most out­stand­ing stu­dent I ever had,” said his sec­ond-grade teacher, Dorothy Chap­man, who taught at Com­mon­wealth for 25 years and re­tired in 2002.

Chil­dren with hear­ing loss, es­pe­cially when that loss is iden­ti­fied late, of­ten lag be­hind their peers be­cause they’ve ab­sorbed less vo­cab­u­lary and less in­for­ma­tion. Chap­man said the charm­ing lit­tle 6-year-old would fin­ish his as­sign­ments in five min­utes, whereas it took his class­mates 20, so she would give him third-grade work.

“I’ve just al­ways been drawn to de­sign, whether it’s uni­for­mity or har­mony — and by har­mony I mean sym­me­try and bal­ance and those kinds of things,” La­camoire said.

He found beauty and de­sign in the piano and started lessons at age 4. Af­ter his fam­ily moved to Mi­ami when he was 9, he at­tended an arts high school and then the New World School of the Arts.

For La­camoire, mu­sic was “as fluid to me as writ­ing down words. When I see mu­sic and you see a chord, I see de­sign. I just, very early on, started to get some kind of trans­la­tion be­tween what is on the writ­ten page to what my fin­gers ac­tu­ally do and what my ear ac­tu­ally hears.”

In high school, La­camoire stopped wear­ing his hear­ing aids out of em­bar­rass­ment. He said he de­vel­oped a bad habit of bang­ing on the piano to pro­duce the vol­ume he wanted. The lone­li­ness and angst most kids ex­pe­ri­ence in ado­les­cence was ex­ac­er­bated by hear­ing loss.

“All my life I’ve missed punch­lines — where peo­ple just say that one joke and then the whole room starts laugh­ing, and I have no idea what they said,” La­camoire added. “Some­times I feel bold enough to ask the per­son next to me, ‘Hey, what’d he say?’ Other times I’m too em­bar­rassed. And some­where in my soul, that just is an­other thing to add to the list of ways that I feel left out.”

Mu­sic, and par­tic­u­larly mu­si­cal theater, be­came the bridge — “a sal­va­tion,” in his words. He found that en­ter­tain­ing his peers with pop songs or ac­com­pa­ny­ing them in shows was a po­tent, al­most magic con­nec­tor.

“I’ve worked with a few mu­si­cians like this, where there’s just sort of no dis­tance be­tween their ear and their hands,” said “Hamil­ton” cre­ator Lin-Manuel Mi­randa. “He’ll just hear some­thing, and it’s com­ing out of him a sec­ond later. I think he learned early on what the band geeks in my life learned, which is: If you have that tal­ent, that’s a su­per­power.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic in Bos­ton, La­camoire went to Broad­way, where he quickly rose from re­hearsal pi­anist in “The Lion King” to mu­sic su­per­vi­sor for the big­gest phe­nom­e­non in theater.

His role in what has been dubbed Hamil­ton’s “cab­i­net” be­gan with or­ches­trat­ing Mi­randa’s songs. The num­bers Mi­randa writes don’t change, Mi­randa said, but “sort of grow and blos­som” with La­camoire’s or­ches­tral nu­ances and hip-hop swag­ger.

“I’ll make th­ese ex­ten­sive Logic ses­sions, so I’ve played out the bass part and the gui­tar part and the piano part, but then Alex brings all of th­ese other col­ors to it,” he said.

La­camoire ac­com­pa­nied Mi­randa on key­board when they first work­shopped “Hamil­ton” for the Oba­mas in the White House. He con­ducted the pit band dur­ing the show’s ini­tial Broad­way run, and he pro­duced the cast record­ing al­bum, which won a Grammy and was cer­ti­fied triple-plat­inum last spring.

An or­ches­tra­tions Tony for “Dear Evan Hansen” in June raised La­camoire’s count of Broad­way’s big­gest award to three, and he was just hired as ex­ec­u­tive mu­sic pro­ducer on the up­com­ing mu­si­cal film “The Great­est Show­man,” star­ring Hugh Jack­man. The hear­ing loss cer­tainly hasn’t hin­dered his me­te­oric rise; with hear­ing aids, he loses only some vol­ume and cer­tain high fre­quen­cies.

Yet even amid “Hamil­ton” ma­nia two years ago, he had one day that plunged him right back into his teenage self. He was get­ting a rou­tine hear­ing test, sit­ting in an iso­lated booth and be­ing asked to re­peat ran­dom words that got in­creas­ingly qui­eter.

“There were so many words I wasn’t hear­ing, that I just knew I couldn’t hear and make out, that I just started to feel sorry for my­self,” La­camoire said, with a self­dep­re­cat­ing laugh. “I felt lonely. I felt dis­con­nected. I felt in­ept. And that’s rough.

“But you deal with that and you move on — or you use it as fuel to work harder.”

Theo Wargo WireI­mage

ALEX LA­CAMOIRE, left, cel­e­brates a Grammy win af­ter a per­for­mance by Lin-Manuel Mi­randa and com­pany on Feb. 15, 2016, in New York City.

From Maria La­camoire

ALEX TRIES on a gui­tar for size while ac­com­pa­nied by his mother, Maria La­camoire, dur­ing their trip to Ti­juana.

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