LESLIE ODOM JR.’S RISE TO REVOLUTIONARY

Patience is Aaron Burr’s vice, as expressed in his now famous refrain, “wait for it, wait for it.”  But let’s be clear, Leslie Odom, Jr. (the actor who plays Burr in Hamilton) has never waited for “it,” he’s had “it” all along.  Leslie is now receiving the acclaim he has always deserved for his role in the Pulitzer Prize winning musical.  He’s been long respected in the theater community, and now his talent is wowing the world.  In this interview, read about Leslie’s rise to success and how he became the revolutionary performer he is today.

MC: When did you catch the theater bug?

LO: Growing up in Philadelphia, I kind of did all three things separately. I sang in church. I danced socially—dancing was something you learned, like Michael Jackson’s moves from MTV, Janet Jackson’s moves. Then I would act sort of in school, if there were looking for someone to lead the auditorium in the Pledge of Allegiance, things like that, I gave little speeches. I did them all separately. It wasn’t until Rent—honestly I was pretty old when I discovered there was a medium I could do all three.  Probably early in my teenage years I started taking classes in all the different things, but it wasn’t until Rent when I knew there was an art form that required singing, acting, and dancing. It felt, for me, like home. It felt like an art form that I could finally bring all of myself to.

Even though you say you got a late start, you made your Broadway debut in Rent at 17, which is actually pretty young. What was your approach to the Broadway lifestyle prior to formal training? How does it feel different 17 years later?

The biggest thing I learned back then—the biggest shock to me—was that there was no difference between the way I performed on Broadway and how I performed at my church on Sunday, or at the family reunion, or any place I had ever performed. I think that I kind of expected when I walked through the stage door on 40th street at the Nederlander Theater—I half expected that—something about me would change, something about the way I performed, because I was on Broadway, would go to the next level or something like that. But I was really hearted actually to find out—and I guess I was surprised to find out—that the same exuberance, the same joy, the same childishness that had followed me my whole life up until that point was still what was making people applaud, what was still making people see me and validate what I did. Nothing changed between Church and Broadway, or the school play and Broadway. That continues to be the same thing…

Hamilton, for example! You know, we’ve been doing workshops and readings of Hamilton for the last two and a half years. I’ll tell you, anybody who saw the workshop or reading that we did two years ago in June, or a year and a half ago in January, our goals were the exact same as they are at the Richard Rodgers: we wanted to touch people, we wanted move people, we wanted to have a connection with each other. There is nothing special that happens to us because the show’s on Broadway now. If I’m singing “Wait For It” at a birthday party or in your living room I’m going to approach it the same way I do at the Richard Rodgers Theater. That consistency as an artist is important to have. That’s your integrity, that’s what I’m trying to say, integrity as an artist. It is the same approach no matter where you are performing in this world. We are always trying to strive for the same thing.

Leslie singing “Wait For It” on Hamilton‘s cast album

That consistency and integrity you just mentioned, it really comes across on the Hamilton cast album.   I saw video of you recording the album and you really deliver a full performance in the booth that comes across on the soundtrack. It’s the way so many people are experiencing Hamilton. How did you prepare for that day?

I’ve done a couple of cast albums before and I always learned from them. I’ve also done a recorded product before: I recorded an album, I’ve recorded on other people’s albums. I think the first couple of cast albums that I did, I approached them like they were a recorded product. I didn’t really like the results because on a cast album you really are trying to capture on record for those people who are not going to see it, or that may not see it for a very long time, you’re trying to capture the spirit of what’s happening live every night. Alex Lacamoire, our orchestrator and one of the producers on the album, helped me keep my focus on that as well. He really wanted to make sure—because with Burr it’s tricky, you get to paint with all the colors in the box. I have really explosive moments and I have intimate moments. But those intimate moments are still shared with 1,300 people at the Richard Rodgers. It can only be so intimate—you have to take those 1,300 people into account. In my imagination, those 1,300 people are with me in the booth. What I was really trying to do is not change anything from what I do every night, so that this work that I love so much just really got it due and touches hearts. For people who may not see it for a very long time, we all wanted them to feel like they were having a Broadway experience…

You went to Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. What did you learn there that helped set you up for success?

So many things. I’ll boil it down to just a few. I’ll say, 10,000 things—I learned 10,000 things over the course of those four years. Some of them I got right away, some of them I got yesterday. Some of them took a long time to “drop in”—to cook.

Some of the things I’m most grateful for is singing technique. I had a teacher there for all four years—almost all four years. His name was Thomas Douglas. He taught me how to sing. I came in there with a little bit of talent. I had been singing for so long so I knew about tone, and I knew about vibrato, style, some of those things. But I didn’t know how to sing. I didn’t have a way to protect my voice. And Thomas really gave me that. So I can sing now without fear of losing my voice, which is a great comfort to someone who as to do what I do eight shows a week. Thomas gave me that singing technique.

We all learn from each other.  That’s why diversity in these programs is so important.  I think when schools make diversity a priority everybody benefits from it.

I had dance teachers, Judy Conte and Jim Caton—my ballet teachers really gave me a strong ballet foundation…That too, in the same way as the singing technique, those rudiments, that foundation is a way to protect your body from the floor up. It teaches you how to diagnose problems. Usually any kind of injury that I run into now is because I’m out of alignment in some way. I have a checklist that’s from my training.

And really, I think, half of my education at Carnegie was from my professors and the other half was from my classmates. The other greatest gift that program gave me was life long friendships and learning from some of the best talent in the country. We all meet up there and we learn from each other. We learn what they’re teaching down in Florida. What are they teaching in California? Because I’d never been. What are they teaching in Kansas? I’m meeting all of these people from all of these different places that also come from great training backgrounds. They bring such diversity and a wealth of knowledge from these places that I had never been. We all learn from each other. That’s why diversity in these programs is so important. I think when schools make diversity a priority everybody benefits from it. The students also benefit from an education that is culturally rich and wide spanning. 

You said on NPR that you realized you had to forget your training. What does that mean exactly? How has doing that helped you?

Well it takes a long time. I was a really good student. School was a lot of money and I cared about being a good student. I graduated with honors. I did really well there. But when you’re really trying to make art, the audiences come to you in need—and they’re not in need of technique, I’ll say that. They’re not in need of perfection. What we come to see, as an audience, we come to see you be a gladiator: you do the things that we don’t have the courage to do. We want to see you go the places that we don’t dare go. That’s why we pay you to do it. So the technique, preparing the instrument for the arena to be a gladiator, so that I can exist as long as I possibly can, so that I can maintain and preserve my body as long as I possibly can. In the arena it’s about something else. It’s not about getting an A, or getting an A+. It’s about touching people and moving people. That comes from instinct, that comes from my gut, that comes from what my scene partner and I are courageous enough to do that day with our connection with each other and the audience. I took me a long time to figure that out and to have the courage to let the comfort of my training go. Because that’s the other thing too. It protects you for a long time. If you think you’re doing it “right” then no one can say anything bad about you. That’s what you think. You think it protects you from reviewers or critics, or your own fears—the worst things you think about yourself. You use the training as a barrier between you and those bad things. You have to tear it all down and get back to that scary place. You have to be vulnerable. You have to go to those places. That’s what they come in need of.

I think wanting to be in “the room where it happens” is a very common feeling for actors. While you were first trying to get work—and even at the points you were between jobs after having some success—what kept you focused and what did you do to fulfill your creativity?

You forget it from time to time, but there has to be something within you that pushes you forward. There has to be something within you—it’s your integrity. It’s your personal bar for yourself, the personal goals you’ve set that you’re constantly working on. That’s what you’ll keep going back to in those moments, in those lulls. All through elementary school, middle school, high school, college, there’s a schedule set out for you every single day. There are places for you to be creative, there are boundaries, there’s safety. That’s a wonderful thing. And then the second you graduate from school, all of that is gone. There’s no schedule, there are no boundaries, it’s whatever you want it to be. Then it becomes about independent study. You become an independent studies major. It’s really about whatever you set up for yourself in your life. It’s a really exciting time because then you can pick up and put down anything you want. If you have a desire to learn Spanish, do it! You have a desire to read all the works of Malcolm Gladwell, do it! Read all of those books. If you have a desire to meditate or learn Eastern medicine—what I mean is that the world becomes really wide. It’s up to you to follow your passion. But the study doesn’t stop.

That’s what I do. In the lulls, I start refilling the well. There’s no excuse these days because information is at our fingertips. Everybody can get a library card, but there’s also Netflix and YouTube. You used to have to go to the library to get the things that are a couple of clicks away. You can watch classic movies that you’ve never seen, if you’re into film. You can watch every season of The West Wing, if you want to see one of the greatest TV shows ever made. Because I also believe that these things, the disciplines—to an extent—if you love them, they will love you back. What I mean is, if you want to be on TV, you’ve got to watch a lot of TV. But you’ve got to watch with a different eye. You have to know what shows you would be on and why. What is it that you do that would be of value to shows like that? If you want to do film, you have to love film. I mean it as a verb. You have to love the art form. Theater’s the same way. If you love the theater, it will love you back. Go see theater, talk about theater, read about theater, make theater. Make your own art. That’s what you do it those times.

 

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The cover of Leslie’s debut, self-titled album

One of the best things that I did for myself was make that album. One of the best thing I’ve done since I graduated school. It was the first time that I did something for me, that was mine. What I realize now is, as a performer, I’m a hired hand. When I get hired, I am there to work on somebody else’s baby, someone else’s vision. I do that to my greatest potential, but I am being used how someone else sees fit.

In the case of Hamilton, thank God, it’s the first time really that I feel like everything that I do is being asked of me. It’s something that I never thought that I could do. But most of the time, I only being asked to use a small part of what I do—that’s all they need for what I’m creating. My album was a situation where I felt like I was being used at my fullest capacity and I was in charge of it. I picked those songs and I made the arrangements. I lost sleep over when a musician couldn’t do a session the next day, or fighting to get this guitarist that I really loved. That was thrilling for me. It made me anxious. That’s the kind of thing that you do when you’re unemployed. You make your own work.

Your first encounter with Hamilton was as an audience member. How did you know that you would be a perfect addition to the cast?

I didn’t. When I saw it, I never thought that I’d be in it. I certainly felt how special it was. I’d never seen anything like it and I fell in love with it every time a new tune started. I was like, God I love this thing. Then a couple of months later I got an email asking me to be a part of a reading of it. All I wanted to do was not embarrass myself. I wanted to make sure that I was as good as the material. That was my goal. I was just trying to live up to the bar that was already set. And then it’s just about fighting the entire way. Fighting is the wrong word. You’re just trying to hold onto it until it has its moment. It’s very precarious. In New York, the workshops and the readings—those phases—when you find something that you like you try to hold onto it with everything, but you’re not always in control of that. Look at Gentleman’s Guide [to Love and Murder]—that thing took 10 years to make it to Broadway. There are people who some of those very first workshops and readings that may have moved away or gotten out of the business, maybe the live in LA now, maybe they live in London. You never know, but you try to hold onto them as long as possible because as easily and as quickly as they come to you, they can go away…

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Leslie and his castmates rehearsing for Hamilton

When I interview Daveed Diggs, we spoke about how collaborative the rehearsal process of Hamilton was. What were some ideas that you pitched that ended up in the show?

It was an artistic conversation for two and a half years—or almost two years before we got the show up. While we were at the music stands, Lin brought in the first part of the conversation. The first part of the conversation was the script. Then it was my job to have an answer to that in my work. When I hear the song that you wrote, this is how it affects my voice. I don’t know if it’s right, I don’t know if it’s wrong. This is how I feel when I hear that. This is how the song makes me move. I don’t know if you can use any of this, but this is how I feel like moving right now when I hear this music. And then Andy [Blankenbuehler, the choreographer] answers that with the steps that he brings in. It was a conversation in that way. I just wanted to inspire them the way that they were inspiring me.  

“Room where it Happens,” feels like it fits me like a glove because that was a production number that we built brick by brick, step by step, over time. Like I said, Lin brings in the song first and then I start moving however I want to move, and then Andy brings in the steps based off of that. It got better and better, and cleaner and sharper, and more focused. Once we got into the Broadway theater—we had already done several labs, readings, and workshops, we’d done the production at the Public already—we were in Previews on Broadway when Lin came to me having seen the show…The number was working, but it wasn’t working the way it’s working now.  I had added a bunch of dancing and Lin said, “Maybe what would be good is if you make us wait for it a little longer. How long can you make us wait for that part of you, that explosion?”

I said, “Well, I can try it.”

That night, it was really pedestrian. I was telling the story, telling the story. I didn’t dance until the last 32 counts of the number and the audience went nuts. That was the key. I danced for a year and a half to get to “you shouldn’t dance at all” and now they go crazy.

Again, it was just a constant conversation. You bring in something, I bring in something. You bring in something, I bring in something. It’s the best way to create. No judgment. You couldn’t do anything wrong. There was nothing you could do that could be wrong or bad or judged. It was a “Yes, and…” room. 

When playing a historical figure, how do you avoid intellectualizing your performance with all the background information and research swirling in your head?  Did you have to work to forget it the way you did with your training?

You have to be patient with yourself. That takes time too. If somebody gave me a great book on Burr that I’d never read, I’d start reading it tomorrow and it would have no choice but to make its way into the performance. But yeah, you give yourself a couple of shows for those things to creep in. And it’s not a bad thing, actually, as long as it’s not stopping you from action.  It can’t just [sit in] your head, it has to go from your head to your belly—so if you think of something, the next question is, “How does that make me feel? What do I want to do because of what I just thought?” That’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get that brain-belly connection. We don’t want to see you living in your head. We want to see you living in your body.

The research helps and then it lives somewhere else. You call it up when you need it. You call it up for intellectual conversations with Charlie Rose. It’s great to be able to talk about that stuff. But at night, I’m just thinking about my belly and my body. I’m just trying to reach that part of you—the [emotional core] of the audience—and then we can all intellectualize it later.

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Leslie as Aaron Burr

Burr really is the manifestation of the things that keep people up at night: fear of mediocrity, jealousy, those scary emotions that everyone experience.  On stage you look very free, but there’s an understanding that you’re feeling all of this anguish. Does it feel free or do you feel that tension?

There’s tension up there for sure. That’s why I get my massages and my physical therapy every week—there are places where my body’s holding tension, places where I’m hard on my body for sure. It feels like drugs. I don’t mean fun drugs. I mean the balancing drugs. I mean the way practicing your art at the highest-level balances an artist. You don’t have to [be filled with all of that negativity] in your real life so much, if you’re doing it on stage. I get so much of that stuff out on stage so [those feelings] don’t keep me up at night anymore. I wish it for everybody. I get so excited to be the first in a long line of Aaron Burrs for people to feel what this thing feels like. I think Hamilton will be like that for a lot of people as well, the role I mean. There are people who honestly feel like, “I never thought I’d live past 20. Where I come from some get half as many.” What does it feel like for that person who feels like they’re running out of time? That’s Lin’s side of it.

The story of Jonathan Larson, the tragedy of that story, that’s what keeps Lin up at night: that he would create something and then wouldn’t be allowed to see its full glory. So there are going to be people who relate to that. These roles are some of the greatest ever written for men in musical theater. I’m so excited to see different actors take on these parts and make them their own. I feel just really profoundly blessed that I can be the first. It’s just a gift.

It’s a gift for the audience as well, believe me.  What’s your advice for aspiring actors?

I said it before and I’ll say it again: love it and it will love you back. Give your heart and your time to it. Celebrate it. Love it. Listen to it. Watch it. Read it. Write it. Create it. And you may not end up where you thought you’d end up. I’m surrounded by people everywhere in my life—managers, casting directors, people who thought they’d be performers, stage managers—who ended up finding out that they loved something else just as much, still with in the art form that they loved. That’s what I’ll say: love it and it will love you back, that’s for sure. ♦

Click here to get your Good luck getting tickets to see Leslie as Aaron Burr in Hamilton!

Photo Credit: Christopher Boudewyns, Joan Marcus, Theo Wargo/Getty, Amazon