BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Hamilton premiered in 2015 and quickly made its way to Broadway. In 2016, it was nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards, winning 11, including Best Musical. The original cast recording won the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and the play won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The historical drama written by Lin Manuel Miranda (who also starred in the original production’s title role) revolves around the life of Alexander Hamilton during the Revolutionary War. It has since spawned numerous productions across the US, including two productions currently touring the country in one-month residencies. But touring percussionist Jake Wood had never heard of it before he auditioned for the San Francisco production two years ago.
Not only was he new to a musical theater pit orchestra, but before his first stint with the San Francisco production of the show last year, he thought Regina Spektor was in Hamilton.
“I wanted to listen to the music first, and they said it was online,” says Wood. “And I see that Regina Spektor played on it. Anything that Regina Spektor plays on, sign me up in a heartbeat. That was an easy no-brainer.” He soon discovered that he had heard the Hamilton Mixtape album, a Miranda-blessed album of covers from the musical. But he wasn’t going to throw away his shot. “Thankfully, the actual music was also phenomenal,” he says. “Lyrically it’s smart, and it’s fascinating arrangement-wise. It keeps me interested after all this time.
“When [people ask], ‘What do you do in the band,’ and I say ‘percussionist,’ it still feels weird,” says Wood, 35, over the phone from Tempe, Arizona, where the show is in production for the month. “For the last 20 years, I’ve been ‘the drummer.’”
Though he had first heard about the show a year earlier from one of his students, “Honestly, I completely brushed it aside,” he says. “I completely forgot about it.”
He might have been the only person on the planet who didn’t know about the show. The phenomenon had even extended into current-day Washington D.C. Because of the immense popularity of Hamilton, The Treasury Department changed its plan to update the $10 bill, choosing to keep Alexander Hamilton on the currency and swap out Andrew Jackson’s face on the $20 instead. Even the longest-running Broadway musical of all time, The Phantom Of The Opera, didn’t influence US monetary policy.
A few months later, recommendations and his portfolio of video drum covers helped Wood secure the percussion position. Now all he had to do was figure out how to actually do it. That involved getting intimately familiar with a Yamaha DTX multipad, learning show-specific music notation, and plenty more. “I’m coming from a place where I’ve never played a musical before, I’ve never followed a conductor before, I’m not really a keyboard player, I‘m not really a percussionist, so there were a lot of new things for me,” says Wood. So he went into hyper-woodshed mode. “I shut down for the whole month. That’s all I did every day without a single day off. I averaged 10 to 12 hours of practice every day. I stopped hanging out with people, I stopped teaching, I pretty much had no life the whole month.”
But in the end, that’s what it took to be part of such a dynamic production. “I’m really glad I put in that work,” says Wood.
Drums And Sticks
The songs in Hamilton are all over the place, stylistically. The musical is rooted in hip-hop, but there’s plenty of Broadway glamor mixed with funk, soul, rock, pop, orchestral, and even drum corps influences. The drum set is featured prominently in the score, but the percussion is an equal, if not larger part of the soundtrack. In addition to snare, marching bass, and auxiliary percussion, there are many electronic sounds and audio cues to keep track of. Some of those playback tracks also serve as cues to the actors onstage. Applying his four-limb independence in a different way, Wood triggers those cues with his left foot during the show.
Hamilton is groove-heavy, but the depth of the pocket varies throughout the production. Wood is not only following a conductor via closed-circuit video monitor in the pit; he has to stick to a click track as well. Any given song may have half a dozen different tempo markings, and the percussionist is also responsible for initiating the click track for the entire pit band. “The click comes in roughly over 100 times for this show; there are tempo changes left and right,” says Wood. “When I first listened to it, I didn’t notice the tempo changes because the band was so tight together.” His job is to keep it that way.
“To make matters even worse,” adds Wood, “the metronome also fires off lighting cues.”
This has required meetings with the technical crew to plan what happens in case of an equipment failure or, knock on wood, a missed cue by the percussionist. And there have been equipment glitches — Wood has even had to switch to a backup computer mid-show.
“It’s more than, ‘I’m going to show up and play the music.’ It’s very high stakes,” says Wood. Without hyperbole, he adds, “My role has a higher chance of massive failure [than other instruments].”
When he got the gig, Wood turned to the New York production’s percussionist Benny Reiner for advice. “He was very kind and helped me out,” says Wood. “He told me right off the bat, this is probably the hardest gig I’ve ever done, and there’s really no margin for error. At the time I brushed it off . . . boy was I wrong. It is the hardest gig I’ve ever done without a doubt.”
Wood’s background is in rock drumming, and when he’s not playing with Hamilton he tours with the San Francisco gypsy-rock group Diego’s Umbrella. He’s also toured with Portland-based, percussion-heavy stage show March Fourth. But this is a completely different type of live theater. “The mistakes that do happen, they’re so miniscule most of the time,” says Wood. “It’s a different world, a different level of professionalism, a different level of intensity.”
Though only about 30 percent of his instruments are electronic, Wood says, about 80 percent of what he plays is on a Yamaha DTX multipad. There’s also some pad work and cues played on a keyboard. About 85 to 90 percent of the percussionist’s parts are played on some sort of electronic instrument, he estimates. Because it was such an instrumental part of the show, Wood — who also contributes to Drum as a writer, including electronic percussion reviews — bought himself the same multi-pad he would be using on the show a month before rehearsals began in order to get used to it.
With very little dialogue in the show, music fills almost every moment of Hamilton. Wood has about 50 charts with more than 100 pages of music, which he plays note for note every single night. “Every note is written,” says Wood. “There are no slash marks in my charts. There are no ad-lib moments for me.”
It’s a lot different from being behind the kit, he says. “The difference is when you’re playing drum set, you’re kind of driving everything. For the most part, the groove is a full body experience where the limbs are constantly in motion. But I don’t do that [on percussion].” Working alongside a drum set player is “kind of fascinating,” says Wood. “It’s been really cool hearing the different drummers play it,” he adds, noting current touring drummer
Vancil Cooper’s “phenomenal” playing. “This drummer — as well as the rest of the
band — is so talented, it’s really easy to lock in with them,” says Wood.
The tough part for him is remembering not to flam on the 2 and 4 along with the drummer. “I imagine this is how a guitar player would feel if they just hit 2 and 4 on a Motown number. It’s cool to try and have as sturdy of a timekeeping feel only playing those notes,” says Wood. With almost 200 shows under his belt, he still has to fight the urge to flam on some parts, he says with a laugh. “It’s a trip to try and play with the drummer and not flam.”
What Comes Next?
After months on the road, Wood’s pre-show warmup routine doesn’t involve rudiments, stretching, or even brushing up on American history. “I don’t prepare,” he says. “I show up about 20 minutes before a show and put on my black clothes. . . . I don’t need many chops for the show, it’s more about playing accurately than playing fast.”
He cites Reiner as an influence for his playing on this show, along with one other well-known motivator. “My influence is fear,” he says with a laugh. “Fear makes me play the notes properly.”
In an example of how one tiny miscue can throw off the show, Wood describes a technical glitch that, fortunately, only happened in rehearsal. “There was a day I thought I was going to get fired,” he says. He was trying to play in sync with the conductor’s hand, but “time stretches and contracts depending on what the conductor wants,” and every time he turned on the metronome, the music felt off. “I genuinely believed this was it; I thought I had what it takes, but I don’t.” It turned out the fault was not his own. The Ableton rig, which supplied the metronome, was just a hair delayed every time it was triggered. Crisis averted. But the snafu illustrated why a player’s timing is so critical for this show.
After a few months into that first San Francisco production, Wood auditioned for the drum set position. He didn’t get it. “One of the reasons I got rejected, they said, was because of my timing.” Wood admits he was a bit taken aback by the rejection, but he took the comments to heart and doubled down on his practice routine. “The art of practicing is one of those things that keeps me sane. I’m always looking for another challenge. . . . If something so simple and basic as the foundation of your timekeeping needs work, it can totally change the way you play,” says Wood. “I’m not done learning yet.”