Hamilton’s Andrés Forero
Down in the pit and up among the stars
Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Paul La Raia
Aside from recording with several jazz artists and doing some TV work, Forero has led a charmed performing life throughout his burgeoning Broadway career, having been involved with Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and musical director Alex Lacamoire on the previous successes In the Heights and Bring It On. And though those productions pushed the boundaries of what theater musicals are supposed to look and sound like, it’s Hamilton where it all comes together, especially in Forero’s eclectic and imaginative drumming.
There’s nothing traditional about the show, with its use of hip-hop and urban flavors and its cast of African-Americans and Latinos playing the roles of the country’s white forefathers. The music is funky and flat-out rocks, and that takes a special drumming hand. “It’s predictable and it’s unpredictable,” Forero says. “It’s creative because there’s a flexibility written into the show where the emotion dictates the flexibility. It can feel like a rock concert. At the end, I feel exhilarated.”
Forero, who is a humble family man, faced a major obstacle along the way, in the form of a serious car accident a decade ago, which was severe enough that he had to learn to walk again, not to mention remember how to play. But he was determined to prevail, and after a road stint in the national touring production of The Book of Mormon, the drummer got the chance to come home and apply his incredible dedication and commitment to learn the Hamilton drum book as the show moved to Broadway, and take the whole thing up a notch with his own creative offerings. The results? A Grammy-nominated cast recording, coproduced by Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots, on which Forero shines. The release even peaked at number one on the Billboard Rap Albums chart.
Hamilton is a bona-fide phenomenon, but it’s still hard work, as Forero maintains a grueling schedule of eight shows a week, with the occasional sub giving him a breather. If you’re lucky enough to score tickets, you’ll hear what so many others have heard—the drumming future of Broadway.
MD: Does anyone set out to be a drummer in a Broadway pit orchestra?
Andrés: I was interested in piano and guitar before drums. The first person I was exposed to was Glenn Gould, who served as an inspiration above anything. My mom said I was glued to the TV. My father had an organ in the house, so I’d try to figure out “Prelude” and “Fugue” at an early age. Growing up, I was exposed to R&B music, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Commodores in my house. I also listened to Rush, who were my favorite band, and Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Pink Floyd.
I never really listened to drummers until seventh or eighth grade, which is when I got into jazz drummers and that style. My high school music teacher in Rochester, New York, Ned Corman, was instrumental in bringing a lot of famous jazz musicians to our school, like Paquito D’Rivera, whom I’d later play with, and Max Roach, Ron Carter, and Steve Gadd. And we, the high school band, would perform with them. Ned wanted to help nurture my talent, and he and his wife bought me a set of Gretsch drums because I was so poor.
MD: How’d you go from jazz to the theater?
Andrés: I was in college still, and it wasn’t something I intended on doing. Eli Fountain was a member of Max Roach’s ensemble M’Boom. He called and asked me to sub on Jelly’s Last Jam for a few months. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I heard it was this amount of money and I said I’d do it. I was nineteen years old.
MD: Why did Eli ask someone like you, who had no experience?
Andrés: Part of it was luck on my part. Part of it was exhaustion on his part, because he couldn’t find anyone else. And he knew me from some jazz summer camps. He knew I was hungry and that if I wanted to do something, I was going to figure it out, no matter what. And Max Roach was a big part of my life. Musically he was a mentor to me, and he was the same for Eli. Maybe Max recommended me. I’m not sure exactly how that happened. But I had written a piece of music for Max and he performed it when he came to my school. And he told me that after I graduated, if I came to New York, I should call him.
So one day when I was at the Manhattan School of Music I did call him and went to his house, and he asked if I wanted to work for him. He had boxes of old reel-to-reels that hadn’t been heard before, and it was my job to transfer those reels to DAT, CD, and cassette. Eventually some of that stuff ended up in the Smithsonian. What an education for me. He was very generous and sweet. I was very blessed to have that.
MD: What was the Jelly’s Last Jam experience like?
Andrés: It was uncharted territory for me. There was a lot of jazz in that show. The show started with me and Gregory Hines! He’s one of my biggest influences to this day. Freda Payne and Savion Glover were both on that tour. Some huge people, and I didn’t know who any of them were. I was just this naïve kid. I had to go pick up the book and learn it literally on the plane ride to the first show. And it was both percussion and drumset. I worked hard to get it together because I didn’t want to let Eli down.
The first few shows were kind of rough, maybe really rough. [laughs] But then it got better. That was my intro to theater music. I went back to playing jazz and world music and Latin jazz to make money, and really began theater music a few years later. And school didn’t teach you about theater music. They taught you about trying to make it as a “legit” player or jazz musician. I could have been subbing in New York shows, but I just didn’t know.
MD: Was The Electric Company a challenge?
Andrés: Again, I had no idea what I was getting into. One of the co-orchestrators for In the Heights, Bill Sherman, was the new executive in charge of music at PBS. He was kind enough to ask me to play in it. I just knew it would be for a kids’ TV show.
In that show I played drums and all the ethnic percussion. You’d show up to a session and sometimes there was no music, so you’d create the part on the spot. And it’s not like you had all day to do it. Time is money. When you’re in the studio and it’s someone else’s money, you have to get in your brain and recall genres galore. One week it would be with Ne-Yo and the next with Katy Perry. It was very relevant. But you’d dial back for a ’60s feel and then hip-hop and then rock and then calypso. And you have to learn how to get along and be patient and stay light-hearted. There was a lot of waiting while other people did their takes. I also learned about equipment, how they sync music to time code. And I learned how to play for the scene and make that [priority] number one. It was a selfless situation. And I loved working with Bill and that band so much. I did that for about three years.
MD: So what brought you back to Broadway?
Andrés: Alex Lacamoire. He’s been a huge driving force in my career. Like a muse and a little angel in my life. I started with In the Heights back in 2002, before Alex did. That was before my car accident.
That was a very different show. It was a piano player, bass player, and me. I was also playing buckets and a conga. Everything was in the early stages.
Fast-forward to after my accident; I wasn’t doing so well, but they got their backers and Alex was hired to MD. They asked me to audition, and he hired me. The show did off-Broadway and then went to Broadway and had great success. I built a really great relationship with Alex. Eventually he’d go on to be this huge, important person in the Broadway community. So when he went on to do Bring It On, he asked me to be a part of that. Then they were developing Hamilton while I was on a national tour with The Book of Mormon. I had no idea about the show at all. Anything Alex touches turns to gold, so of course I’d be there.
MD: How did you prepare? Was hip-hop in your bag?
Andrés: I studied a lot of different styles, so I could hold my own. Every situation is different. But in this one, I saw the notes, I saw what the feel was, and sometimes there’s a hint. “D’Angelo-like” is one of them. Alex doesn’t leave one inch for you to question. Not in his writing, not in his conducting, and certainly not in his playing. So if you’re not prepared, why bother? So I wanted to over-prepare. I videotaped myself studying the show. Every night for six weeks, after The Book of Mormon would end I’d go into a studio from midnight to 5 a.m. to monitor my progress. But I didn’t know what Hamilton was. I was listening to it and practicing it, but it was very innocent. I was just dead set on owning this book. I wasn’t eating. I was going to give him every note ten thousand times over. When I got to New York, I was so ready and confident and in love with this music that at the first show I felt like I was home. Besides my three children, the greatest gift anyone has ever given me was Alex bringing me back to be home. I get to wake up in the same house as my wife and kids.
MD: The demographic of the Hamilton band is pretty young and multicultural. Is that important to present this kind of music?
Andrés: Alex is thinking about who is right for the part. It doesn’t matter if they’re black or white or Asian. It’s about who will interpret the music that he’s written. That’s what’s great about what we do. It breaks those barriers. It only matters that you understand what the music being played is. And the genius of Hamilton is that you have several different ethnicities that are portraying these forefathers who were all white. It’s a great time for that because of all the racial tensions now, and the climate of the world is murky.
MD: Are you technically approaching this show differently from In the Heights or Bring It On?
Andrés: For In the Heights I had a humongous drumset—two bass drums, five toms, two timbales, Rototoms, electronics, cowbells, four or five pedals on the floor…. I had to physically adjust the way I played to the number of drums I had, but I still set them up so they were comfortable for me. For Bring It On, the drumset was very similar to the one I use in Hamilton. Five snare drums. And there’s a lot of the Bring It On DNA in this show. For Bring It On, I tipped the snare drums quite a bit and played traditional grip the entire show. On the road with The Book of Mormon, I controlled the click, because that’s how that book was written. It was a challenge with another set of responsibilities. Not only was I playing the drums and a lot of heavy djembe playing, I would start and stop the click for the entire band. It was a little scary.
MD: How much input did you have in the Hamilton drum book?
Andrés: Alex and Lin wrote the book, but they rewrite things when a show goes from off-Broadway to Broadway, and you make that book yours by bringing your personality and emotion to it. I might have changed a part or played something that felt better, and Alex is great about allowing that. If he hears something and loves it because it makes musical sense, it stays. There’s one part of the show with these great triplets that I just felt one day and played them, and it became part of the thing. Now Alex plays them and the bass player plays them. I just did it spontaneously and it stayed with the show.
MD: And why the five snare drums?
Andrés: Stylistically it gives you a different flavor for all the hip-hop tunes. I’m with Sonor, and I use the ProLite series. The kit is augmented with two beautiful snare drums made by Calderwood Percussion out of Massachusetts. One is like a pre–Civil War drum on floor tom legs with a Ronn Dunnett snare throw-off and real gut snares. I believe it’s the voice of the show. It opens the show and I play it throughout the show. And I have a Steve Smith snare drum that’s really heavy and tuned very low.
I reached out to Sabian and told them it’s a different show with different sounds, so they sent me some things that weren’t available, as well as some from their HH Remastered line. They’ve been amazing. And I’m using 17″ hi-hats, but the bottom is really the top of a custom-made set, and the top is a crash. It works. The sound is perfect for the show.
I also use a ton of different Vic Firth mallets. I’m experimenting with the sticks for the show. I needed something longer, because the cymbals are farther away from me. And they sent me a bunch of sticks to try out, and a Split brush. I use Remo heads, all tuned to notes. I also use the incredible Cymbolt, which allows me to quickly pull my splash off to put on my snare. I can’t use the splash without that. That thing is super-essential for the show.
MD: Generally hip-hop has a lot of programmed stuff going on, but there seems to be very little prerecorded music in this show.
Andrés: The genius of what Alex did for Hamilton is that he made the loops be in real time. So he hired a percussionist [Benny Reiner] who is an outstanding drummer first. So he’s playing those loops in real time. Some of those hi-hat patterns are very machinelike. And no one is resting in the show. It’s a challenge every night to be consistent. When you set the bar, you can’t drop from that. You have to at least meet that. And if you really have your shit together, you’ll exceed that for your own musical joy. We do eight shows a week, but not every show is the same.
MD: What changes?
Andrés: So many things. The people on stage. We feed off their energy and they feed off ours. Someone can have an insanely great night, and when they’re on fire, we feel it. And maybe I’ll drive it really good one night, and they up their game as well. That’s what makes this show wonderful. We end the show with a guitar solo, a piano solo, and a drum solo. This is Broadway! This is awesome. Who does that? Alex wrote in solos. So it takes a special human being to infuse that element into something, Broadway, that’s known to be very traditional. [Usually] you use brushes, play a woodblock, and hit a splash.
MD: The Hamilton click is constantly moving. It speeds up, slows down, and disappears. Is that a challenge?
Andrés: I have a great relationship with the click. Either you make friends and you make peace with it and respect it, or you learn to hate it. There are a lot of guys who hate it.
MD: On Broadway?
Andrés: Maybe not on Broadway, but not every Broadway show has a click. But I love playing with it, because there’s no question of anyone saying something is slowing down or speeding up. The click doesn’t lie. At some point you’ve worked with it so much that now you’ve learned how to bend the click. That’s a funky concept, because that’s a machine. Now you’re manipulating the click with how you’re interpreting the emotion of it. Everything has emotion, even a machine like that. It’s what you make of it.
So one day I just stopped hearing the click. It was just part of the music, part of what I was playing, and I loved it. And it keeps you honest, and it helps. And if the click dies, you get emotional, you get nervous. At that point the most important thing is communication.
On The Book of Mormon tour, sometimes we’d be in a town and the band wasn’t the best. Being in a Broadway pit orchestra teaches you how to be more thoughtful. Sometimes someone isn’t prepared for something or someone had a rough night’s sleep. It could be anyone. But it teaches you how to help a person through a moment they might not be feeling super-strong in. On the Mormon tour, I felt like I was playing 16th notes the whole time. Whether ghost notes or whatever, it was providing a bed. It made me a better musician, conscious of other people.
MD: Let’s talk about recording the cast album. What was Questlove’s involvement?
Andrés: He and Black Thought from the Roots were coproducers. They went in after it was all recorded and Quest would say something like, “Why don’t you turn the drums up here?” Typically cast albums for Broadway shows have the vocals prominent, the band a little bit less. So those guys pushed to bend the rules. Quest does get a credit on the album. On one song he plays a hip-hop groove on a table and it’s ridiculous, it sounds so good.
Their thought process was to make it more like a pop album. Most cast albums are done in one day. This one took about six days. There are fifty-one songs in the show and forty-eight on the album, so that’s different. It was thoughtful the way they grouped recording the songs [on specific] days. It played into the emotion and how much energy you might be able to bring. And, oh, by the way, you have to play a show after you record!
Bill Sherman was behind the board. He’s a marvel to me. He can control a session with comedy and keep everyone calm. And this was my third cast album. So when we were listening back [after the Roots’ involvement], you could hear the drums and the bass—you heard everything.
MD: Any advice on how to break into the Broadway scene?
Andrés: I’m a true believer in investigating all styles of music and working avenues. Theater is an important avenue to explore if you want to be a working musician and have a steady paycheck, have health benefits, and be part of a union. It’s like having a normal job. You can have a retirement plan and a 401(k). It’s an incredible source of stability for anyone who wants to play. And there are so many styles of music.
If you’re afraid that it’s going to be boring or you’re going to have to play soft and it’s all brushes, there’s nothing wrong with that, but on my show we’re playing. Broadway has changed. The concept of what Broadway is has morphed into something else. It hasn’t ignored what came before, but it’s incorporated it into something more modern. And it’s evolved beautifully, I think. So I urge young students: No matter what instrument you play, join a union, sit in a pit, work on your reading, and figure out how you can get yourself to sub on a show. There are first national tours, second national tours, regional tours—get on it. And if your aspiration is to be a pit musician, it’s so much easier once you’ve followed those steps.
And an important part of having success is having great subs. You can’t dial Hamilton in. You have to play the parts but be emotionally prepared. All the subs have learned the “choreography”—and picking things up and putting things down.
MD: So what’s next? This show is sold out for a while. We know you want to be home.
Andrés: I do. My first job is being a father and a husband. But I want to make a solo record of my music that I’ve written. I have a lot of music that I wrote pre–car accident. It’s a mixture of jazz, pop, and old R&B. So there are a lot of singers, and a string quartet, and a woodwind quintet. I’m a different person from eleven years ago, and I got a second chance at life. I have such a huge array of music in my head. I want to get it out.
COLLEAGUES ON ANDRES
Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator and title role, Hamilton)
It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the role that drums and rhythm play in this score. I had the good fortune to work with Andrés on my last musical, In the Heights. We were playing with every type of Latin music on that score, so we drew on Andrés’s versatility in many different genres. That’s also true on Hamilton, but we get to let Andrés just rock out a lot more. I can literally feel Andrés going to town on the drums underneath us in the orchestra pit. It’s an energy that is so fun to harness. You can throw anything at Andrés. He’s the best in the business.
Alex Lacamoire (musical director, Hamilton)
Andrés is all about giving a thousand percent at every performance. He’s a “leave it all on the floor” type of player. Hamilton is an extremely intricate show, and every department relies on the drums to be there when we need them, to fuel the choreography, to give the boom-bap under all the raps. Andrés is our anchor, and he’s always on point.
Andrés is able to take my charts and add his own style in a way that’s respectful, inventive, and exciting. There’s an amazing fill that goes over the barline and crashes on 2 near the end of “Satisfied”—that was purely Andrés’s flourish. He improvised it once mid-show and I nearly fell off my piano bench with glee. I live for moments like that.
Andrés is one of my favorites because his musical influences resonate with mine. He plays busy without being distracting, he plays powerfully without bashing, and he plays creatively without begging for attention.
Steve Smith (Vital Information, Journey)
Hamilton is entertaining, fun, exciting, and politically insightful, and it drops historical knowledge and exudes a gravitas that is breathtaking. The musical score requires a vast command of grooves, from ultra-modern, hard-swung hip-hop to classic shuffles to drum corps to ballads and more, with constantly changing drum sounds and extremely precise parts. Andrés rises to the occasion and plays parts that will live on as the definitive drum performances that perfectly realize the incredible songs of Hamilton.
William Cepeda My Roots and Beyond, Live at Montreux Jazz Festival, Unity /// Luis Bonilla Terminal Clarity /// Various In the Heights Original Broadway Cast Recording, Bring It On: The Musical Original Broadway Cast Recording, Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording /// Adam Ray The Clown Parade /// Rolando Morales-Matos Forward /// ChapterFive Primitive /// Christopher Jackson In the Name of Love
FORERO’S HAMILTON SETUP
Drums: Sonor ProLite in Nussbaum finish
• 5×14 snare
• 8×10 tom
• 9×12 tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 17×22 bass drum
• 5×14 Sonor Phil Rudd signature snare with RimRiser
• 5.5×14 Sonor Steve Smith cast steel snare
• 12″ Calderwood Percussion custom soprano snare
• 16×15 Calderwood Percussion custom rope-tension field drum with gut snares
• 17″ prototype hi-hats
• 24″ HH King ride with four rivets (or 24″, 2,184-gram HH Remastered ride with four rivets)
• 19″ HHX Evolution crash
• 18″ O-Zone stacked on top of 12″ prototype China
• 18″ Iso (or 18″ Aero) crash
• Prototype mini hi-hats with 7.5″ top and 9″ bottom
• 12″ HH Remastered splash mounted on Cymbolt stacking device
Percussion: Gon Bops 14″ Alex Acuña signature timbale, Rhythm Tech Hat Trick G2
Electronics: Yamaha DTX-MULTI pad, Roland KT-10
Heads: Remo, including Weatherking Vintage A snare batter, Vintage Emperor Clear tom batters and Coated Ambassador resonants, and Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth Extreme 5A and B sticks, M3 marimba mallets, Split brushes, and SD12 Swizzle G
Accessories: GK Music UltraPhones
Divinyls all (Charley Drayton) /// The Brecker Brothers Detente (Steve Jordan, Steve Gadd) /// Wynton Marsalis Black Codes (From the Underground) (Jeff “Tain” Watts) /// Glenn Gould all (none) /// The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan (Max Roach) /// AC/DC Back in Black (Phil Rudd) /// Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nations Orchestra Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Ignacio Berroa) /// Kenny Clarke With James Moody The Paris Bebop Sessions (Kenny Clarke) /// Henry Cole and the Afrobeat Collective Roots Before Branches (Henry Cole) /// Brad Mehldau The Art of the Trio Volume One (Jorge Rossy) /// The Police all (Stewart Copeland) /// Dafnis Prieto About the Monks (Dafnis Prieto) /// Oregon and Paquito D’Rivera any with Mark Walker /// Plus anything with Joel Rosenblatt, Zach Danziger, Omar Hakim, Dennis Chambers, Anton Fig, Max Roach, Jim Keltner, Cliff Almond, Steve Gadd, Steve Smith, Neil Peart, John Bonham, Jeff Porcaro, Enrique Pla, Vinnie Colaiuta, Ringo Starr, Bernard Purdie, Keith Moon, Jack DeJohnette, Shawn Pelton, Brian Blade, Benny Greb, and Chris Coleman