The multiple Tony Award winner ventures to television for the first time with FX’s Fosse/Verdon.
If you want your musical to go to new heights, you collaborate with Alex Lacamoire. This man can do anything. The producer and composer (among other things) has been behind blockbuster musicals like Wicked, In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and that little, scrappy Hamilton that you’ve been hearing such great things about. While working with his Broadway chums (like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tommy Kail, and Andy Blankenbuehler), Lacamoire was able to convey a story of enduring love and creative genius through the music of Fosse/Verdon.
Lacamoire has the utmost respect for the history of musical theater, and I discovered that he was drawn to Bob Fosse from the first time that he ever saw a picture of the man. There’s probably not a musical theater fiend alive who doesn’t remember their first encounter with something Fosse related. Lacamoire wrote a perfect theme song for Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon that, in under 90 seconds, gears you up for the kind of show you’re going to watch. He rearranged the music of Pippin for an episode revolving around the Stephen Schwartz musical, and it’s one of the tightest, most well crafted episodes of this television season.
When I first started watching this limited series, I knew there was something different about it. Sure, FX has brought to life stories about Hollywood feuds or true crime, but Fosse/Verdon isn’t sordid and it isn’t cheap in how it depicts this love story. By the end of the show, you are kind of wishing that the story is wrong and that Bob Fosse is still producing shows with Gwen Verdon. This creative team is paying its respect for these two icons, and Lacamoire’s finds true ‘Glory’ in his contribution to this story.
You’re known for orchestrating a lot of huge Broadway shows. What did Bob Fosse mean to you before this project came along?
When I think of Bob Fosse, I think of when I discovered him and that was when I was playing through the vocal selections of Pippin when I was 13 years old. Inside that book of vocal selections were pictures of the show and a 24 year old Stephen Schwartz and pictures of the cast. Also in there is a picture of this man with a brooding gaze with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth, giving this intense look, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, who is that?’ I immediately learned who he was and what his contribution to the show was and how his dance steps had a certain flair—they had a voice to them. I always found his style so captivating and so singular. It’s one of those things where you see a Picasso painting—you know it’s Picasso. If you see a Fosse dance combination—you know it’s Bob Fosse. I was always drawn to that. While I’m not this huge connoisseur of classic Broadway musicals, the ones he did were the ones that I thought were awesome. I’ve always been drawn to the rhythmic nature of his shows and that attitude. Bob Fosse always symbolized a unique visionary who has a very distinct style. I was so excited to delve into the catalogue of this show.
I know you’ve done music for television before but not to this scale. You’ve worked on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and other smaller projects.
Were you looking to do television?
Absolutely. The big draw was to do something new. I’ve had a lot of fun creating things for theater and working with my buddies and making things we were proud of. This was an avenue I had heard a lot about—a new frontier, if you will—and it was a challenge that I was ready for. When I heard that Tommy Kail had gotten the project, I thought, ‘Man, I’m in.’ I was even more excited when it was the same buddies that I was just talking about a second ago. The newness and freshness to it was really appealing and it was an opportunity to take the skill set that I’ve honed over the years and put it to use in a new medium that I was unfamiliar with.
I really feel that musical theater hasn’t got its due that it really deserves. There have been the live musicals, and they are great because they bring live theater to a wider audience. This the first show that I can think of that’s a true dramatization of something important in musical theater history.
You’re welcome. You can tell that the people behind the camera were people who care about theater and they come from theater. I felt that immediately.
I appreciate that. It helps that we have all gotten to work in theater or come from theater and we’ve gotten to know what it takes to make something. What it’s like to be in that rehearsal room. They threaded it in a way that shows what makes Broadway cool for us. It’s about how something is created. Sometimes something doesn’t come out perfect the first time. The fact that you have to have debates along the way and you have to make sacrifices to make things happen. All of that goes into this stew that people aren’t aware of. What people see is the finished product and they aren’t always aware of the meat grinder that shows go through to get to that point. The writers were able to integrate that process into the story into the narrative so the occurrences were integral parts of the story. It takes a whole 20 minutes to arrive at “Who’s Got the Pain” in episode 2, because the number’s not working and Bob thinks the producers think the number is crap, and they try to fix it. Seeing those winding roads is what makes it so cool. We honor the process.
If I may ask about two very specific moments of music in the series…
I love specific. Go ahead!
Great! The “Fosse/Verdon Theme” feels very New York to me. What did you want to convey or translate with that introduction?
It was important to me that the theme would sound like something Bob and Gwen would dance to. Dance was such a big part of these people’s lives, and I wanted to evoke something that had a beat to it, not bouncy per se. That was important to me. I also wanted it to feel a little melancholy. To me, there’s something about the clarinet that has that quality to it. There’s a loneliness to that instrument, and there are certain passages where it could feel forlorn. Truth be told, there was something about that melody and, while it is upbeat and has a jauntiness to it, it has the hunched shoulders and inturned pose. There’s almost a sad clown vibe to it. There is a moment where these clarinets play in these duos, and that reminded me of Bob and Gwen. The bass clarinet and B flat clarinet weaving in and out of harmony and drifting apart in contrary motion much like Bob and Gwen—almost magnetically. There’s a journey in the middle that sort of comes together and goes apart and comes back together. I wanted it to encompass who these people were and what they were about. It could harken back to a certain time. There’s a spareness to it.
I love it. The other moment that I wanted to ask you about was the moment where Bob Fosse passes in Gwen’s arms on the street. I know you didn’t write that section, but I wanted to know how you felt about perfecting that moment. The music is very gentle and beautiful.
It was tricky, yeah. Hats off to Nate Barr who wrote that music. His first pass at that, while very beautiful, was almost too melancholy. It had a requiem kind of feel, and what we wanted it to feel like love. It had to feel like love. It couldn’t be, ‘Oh, this guy is dead and it’s over.’ It had to express that someone was leaving, but it also there was a lot of beauty in creation despite whatever difficulties these two people had in their personal lives. There’s a reason they stayed together. As you know, they were separated, but Gwen never stopped being married to Bob. Clearly there was a need being met and clearly there was a bond they didn’t want to break. We had to honor that. What Nate did so beautiful was that it had a meditative quality to it and it’s elegiac without being overtly sad.
You originally mentioned Pippin, and episode 4 is wall to wall Pippin. Since your curiosity began with playing that music, what was it like to rearrange those pieces?
It was a dream. Pippin is one of my top 5 musicals of all time, and that’s a show that I could play you the whole score. I could even play you the underscoring of it from memory I know it so well.
It was a no brainier, because all the songs are such easy access for me. It reminds me of what I do in my “day job” which is to try and use motifs and reuse themes in a way that serve the story. What if we use this song in this way, for instance. What if we take a ballad and use it as an uptempo using those chord progressions and using those themes. I was particularly proud of that episode because the Pippin melody itself went through a couple permutations. The first time I got a script and it had the songs in a certain order with dialogue threading in and out. My next step was like ‘Here’s a pass of how all that sounds. Here’s your creation with the music underscoring the whole scene, and what if we use this swath of music there and we use this part of the finale earlier.’ That was the first time that I delivered what they asked for but I also suggested something new with it. Once they heard that, they were able to bounce it back to me. We were able to make cuts and move music around. Then I made my second pass and throughout it all I was checking in with Susan Misner, the choreographer. It was a very collaborative process. I tried to musicalize what were, essentially, words on a page and it eventually drafted out what the final picture was.
Any time any music played in that episode, I remember turning my ear to try and figure out the arrangements.
When I first got the script, they used the word ‘extraordinary’ but they didn’t actually sing any phrases of the song itself.
I love that song.
I couldn’t have enough Pippin.
Do you have a favorite song from that show?
Aww, man…it depends on the day. Probably “Morning Glow,” and I’m bummed that it was never used. I tried to have it be underscoring. “Corner of the Sky” even though I know it tends to be overused, but, fuck it, I love that song.
There’s a reason it’s an overused song. I’ve heard that song in so many audition rooms…
It’s a great song! I also love “On the Right Track” and “With You.” Did you see that video of me leading that Pippin sing-a-long backstage?
I did actually.
That was me living my best life.
You were recently honored at Berklee College of Music. How did it feel to go back and receive that?
Amazing. I love my school so much, and I loved going there. It was the perfect school for what I wanted to do. I could do it all. In one day, I could start with a jazz piano lesson, take a class in the afternoon about progressive rock, take a class on Stravinsky, and at night transcribe Queen harmonies. That’s how I want to live my life, so that was perfect. Giving the speech for the graduating class was something that was a wish of mine. It wasn’t something that I pursued but I always thought it’d be great. One day I got the call, and it was an honor. And they didn’t tell me that Missy Elliot and Justin Timberlake were going to be there either! It was something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life, and my family was there too so that was wonderful.
I have to ask you about one more thing before I let you go.
Is it about Hamilton house seats?
No! Well, I feel like everything is about Hamilton house seats, isn’t it? I’m sure you get that all the time. My question was about working on In the Heights since you have a history with the original show?
The biggest different between theater and television, from what I’ve seen, is that the interception with theater happens a lot more. You’re in the room at the same time and it changes when you’re all there together. With my experience with TV, all these different roadways don’t always intersect. You’re not always hanging out with the costume designer or in the rehearsal with the choreographer. I’d be walking around on set and see things for the first time.
There was one day on set where I walked on set and I started crying because I never envisioned that the set could look that way. What started off as 6 young creators trying to figure out the end of “Carnaval” has turned into a ton of people on location in Washington Heights trying to create this huge thing. That never ceases to amaze me how all these people can do all this amazing work and then you don’t meet them or perhaps you do have the pleasure of meeting them but you’re all working separately. There are people that do contribute to your show in theater, but in the world of film or on TV with Fosse/Verdon it’s multiplied. I was blown away by that. It was very touching to see someone interpret something and you may not even know who they are.
All episodes of Fosse/Verdon are streaming on FX.com.