Hamilton opened on Aug. 6, Leslie Odom Jr.’s birthday. His birthday wishes must be coming true as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical has met with success and praise with Odom playing “Aaron Burr.”
Odom debuted during the four month sold-out stint at The Public Theatre in “a role that fits (him) like a glove,” according to Miranda. Odom’s performances gained him a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.
Alongside Miranda as “Alexander Hamilton,” Odom portrays “Aaron Burr” – the third Vice President of the United States during Thomas Jefferson’s first term as President. Burr is known for his political rivalry with one-time friend Hamilton – a Founding Father and the first Secretary of the Treasury – which resulted in an illegal duel that claimed the life of Hamilton and the political career of Burr.
Burr is “like all of us” Odom said of the character during an appearance on the “Charlie Rose” show, which aired Aug. 12. The emotional and passionate Odom sat at “The Table” and talked about the impact of Hamilton and his role, along with the nuances of 21st century politics and race relations.
For Odom, it began when he attended a July 2013 workshop production of Hamilton – then titled The Hamilton Mixtape – at Vassar College Reading Festival. Utkarsh Ambudkar, a former VJ for MTV Desi, portrayed “Aaron Burr.” When Odom was invited to attend a reading for the part, he arrived fully prepared – knowing all of his music and understanding the direction of the excerpt that “blew him away.” He said of the music: “I recognized the rhythms and the syncopation and the pulse of the piece. I recognized that. It’s been in my ear since I was born.”
The Queens, NY native said he recalled watching “Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry Jam” on HBO and described the poets as having “blood in the pen” and “an urgency and a fire in the belly” for listeners to grasp the power of their words. After reviewing a rehearsal tape, Odom realized that the cast sounded very much like those poets who have appeared on the five-year long series.
That music and sound were of a hip hop generation. A sound filled with a need to be heard.
Miranda said “Aaron Burr” gets all the great songs when he appeared on Charlie Rose’s “The Table” along with director Thomas Kail.
Odom said he hasn’t found a demographic that doesn’t appreciate the show. No doubt because it is comprised of a cast “like America looks now,” according to Miranda. Yet, Odom acknowledged the care of Miranda to find “all the places where we are alike.” Beyond the creative team and cast, however, Odom said there is “something else that happens” to generate the show’s impact. “Whatever happens between me saying it on stage and how it affects you and what it does to you, that’s the part that none of us have any control over.”
Everything he had done prior to Hamilton – which includes a self-titled album released last August on Borderlight Entertainment – prepared him for his current role. “Not just the work,” the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama graduate told Charlie Rose. “It’s also life, the disappointments I’ve had, the fighting through depression, the points you’re not working in the business and you’re trying to understand why. (Hamilton) was the right moment. It couldn’t have happened at any other time.”
His 1998 Broadway debut was as a “Paul” replacement in the long-running Rent. His entrance into television began in 2004 (“The Big House”) with several years of episode work, numerous re-occurring roles and some TV movies. He appeared in the 2012 feature film Red Tails, then returned to the stage as “Isaiah Sturdevant” in Leap of Faith that same year. After a lead role in “Smash” (2013), Odom’s most recent re-occurring role was on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” – a role he turned down to take the leap of faith on Hamilton.
While Odom studied musical theatre during college, he noted during the interview that he truly majored in empathy. “In its purest form…we are stepping inside these people’s shoes, and we are learning about ourselves by talking about them. That is, I think one of the most powerful elixirs for healing in the land.” He said this ability is what is needed amid the panorama of pain caused by racism. “What’s really going to bring healing is empathy, sitting down and talking with one another and finding where you’re coming from, where I’m coming from.” He continued: “That’s what Lin’s done with “Aaron Burr.” (Lin-Manuel Miranda) got inside this man’s head and his heart, and he found out what made him tick. In that way you can take a villain and turn him into a human being, which is what he was.”
Odom, who is contracted for a year with the musical, has been forever changed by the humanity of Burr and the healing of Hamilton. He talked about his favorite part of show time is when he briefly watches the audience from a specific place in the theatre at the top of the show. It is a time he gets to know his audience, he said. Even more magical moments has been when he begins to sense the members of the audience leaning forward.
“I feed on that response. I need them with me,” Odom said of the Hamilton audiences.
The gift of Hamilton has been the opportunity to have art be a lightning rod for life. To celebrate his 35 years of life, Odom captured behind-the-scenes footage of the musical’s opening night and produced a video (released Aug. 26) that he dedicated to his fellow cast members. The video ended with his quote: “I’m a better man for having known you. Let’s never forget this night or this time.”
Ultimately, American theatre is better for Hamilton. Click HERE for tickets.