How a Mid-South Musician Ended Up in Smash Hit ‘Hamilton’

BY ANDY BELT

With a little bit of luck and a whole lot of skill, percussionist Benny Reiner scored the biggest gig of his life.

An Arkansas native, and former University of Memphis student, the 25-year-old Reiner eventually landed in the Big Apple where he began to intermingle with the Broadway musician crowd. In the summer of 2014 came the offer that would change his life: the opportunity to play in the eventual smash production, “Hamilton”.

“It was expected that it would be successful,” Reiner said. “But not what it is. You can’t predict that kind of success.”

The show, which deals with the life of Alexander Hamilton via hip-hop musical, set the record for most Tony nominations with 16 and eventually won 11, including Best Musical. Not to mention, “Hamilton” is still one of the most sought out tickets on the Great White Way despite opening two years ago off-Broadway.

But years before all this, Reiner was discovering his passion for drums when he was in middle school back in 2002.

“I was in seventh grade and meeting with my counselor and she asked if I wanted to be in the school band or play an instrument,” he remembers. “And I thought, I guess I’ll try drums. I had a little bit of an interest in it before, but I immediately fell in love with it. I’ve been doing it for about 15 years.”

From there, Reiner played all through high school where he moonlighted in a “bunch of rock bands.” Upon graduation, he studied jazz at U of M where he remained for three years before leaving to go on tour. A residency in Nashville came next followed by moving to his current home in NYC where he graduated from the New School for Jazz, a prestigious conservatory program.

One of Reiner’s Broadway musician friends, Sean McDaniel (the drummer for “The Book of Mormon”), was instrumental in getting the young drummer into “Hamilton”.

“One summer, (Sean) asked me to send him some videos and recordings because he wanted to recommend me for a gig he thought I’d be good for,” Reiner said. “I met with the (“Hamilton”) music director, Alex Lacamoire, after that. He offered me the gig and I’ve been there ever since.”

Soon after its opening night on Aug. 6, 2015, Reiner knew that “Hamilton” had landed with audiences. This was confirmed when celebrities like Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson and Anna Wintour flocked to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to see it.

One of Reiner’s fondest memories with the show though is playing live on a Grammys simulcast (the musical would eventually go on to win an award for Best Musical Theater Album).

When he’s not playing the drums for a cultural phenomenon, Reiner also composes music for movies and TV with The Practice Worldwide, a music production and publishing company. Some of his work includes the soundtracks for “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Despicable Me 2” along with projects for the Discovery Channel and Disney.

“The art of songwriting, composition and keeping things simple appeals to me,” Reiner said. “I’m the biggest fan of music. I’m probably more a fan of music then I am a creator of music.”

And he’s not kidding. Reiner cites everything from Coltrane to Stravinsky to rap producer J Dilla as influences on his musical career. One of his biggest role models is Steve Jordan, the longtime drummer for John Mayer.

“As I get older, I get less interested in just flashy stuff,” says Reiner of Jordan’s in-the-pocket, laid-back drumming approach. “And Steve Jordan is a total master of that. He’s more of a musician then he is just a drummer and that’s what I love about him.”

As far as what’s next for Reiner, for the moment, he’s content to stay in the orchestra pit on the drums for “Hamilton”.

“I just take what comes at the time,” Reiner says of the future.  “‘Hamilton’ is so great and everyone there is so awesome. I can’t foresee myself leaving that anytime soon.”