Leslie Odom Jr. said he wasn’t “athletically inclined” as a child, even though his father put him on “every” sports team within a “10-mile radius” of their Philadelphia home.
He said he was an “alright” athlete, but who wants to be alright?
It wasn’t until he landed a role as Aaron Burr on the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” that he realized he also joined his first “championship team.”
Odom, a Tony and Grammy Award-winning performer, spoke as the first guest in UB’s 34th Annual Distinguished Speaker Series. The event was held over Zoom for the first time, with roughly 1,700 audience members watching from their screens. Odom spoke to audience members about being your most authentic self and looking toward the future. He also spoke about his creative inspirations and time working on “Hamilton.” The event ended with a Q&A session led by Director of Music Theatre Nathan Matthews. The 2020-21 Distinguished Speaker Series will continue to be held over Zoom and is free for those who register online.
Odom recalled the first day he encountered the “Hamilton” production— then called “The Hamilton Mixtape”— when visiting Poughkeepsie. The production, still in it’s developmental phase, only seated 100 invited guests. He reminisced about how each song held a new “surprise” and spoke of the emotional feeling he had as he listened to the music.
After the show, he knew he had to audition.
“I have never in my life seen four men of color on a stage singing about friendship and brotherhood,” Odom said. “I thought that was radical. I thought it was important and I signed up right then and there to be the very first Hamilton fan.”
Odom credits empathy for making him a better husband and father and said it was his “pathway” to performing as Burr. He said his rehearsal process consisted of making sure his need to be liked didn’t get in the way of the story being told. Instead of having the audience like him, he aimed to have the audience empathize with his character.
“Most of us want to be liked. I step up here, nervous, hoping that you’ll laugh at some of these corny jokes, hoping that you’ll think I sound a little smart, but with Burr, I gave up the need to be liked and I wrapped my hands around the need to be understood,” Odom said. “If I was successful, the audience might not like my Burr, but it would be hard not to put themselves in his shoes. I wanted your empathy.”
Before Odom found his championship team working on “Hamilton,” his heart “first opened” when he was 13-years old listening to the Broadway show, “Rent,” a musical following a group of young artists struggling in New York City during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He called “Rent” his “Hamilton,” as they were both special to him and helped him realize who he was as an actor and as a person. He knew all the words to the “Rent” production’s songs as well the names of the cast members.
“While I didn’t live in New York City, I heard about it where I was and I saw pictures of the cast and I heard the music and I bought the double CD, that cost more than I've ever spent on any piece of art in my life,” Odom said. “I just began to take in this world. There was something about it that was really akin to the big pop stars of the day–– Broadway [had] the biggest pop stars of my youth.”
When Odom finally had the chance to see it live, he described being “pinned” to his seat and being “blown away” by the end of the first act. During the second act, he saw something that “changed his life.” When one cast member entered the stage from the left to begin the notorious song, “Seasons of Love,” he winked at a cast member entering from the other side who then started to laugh to herself.
“I wasn’t only enthralled and engaged in what I was seeing on the stage in front of me, now I was curious about the life and the lives, the relationships that were happening off stage,” Odom said. “What was that wink that I just witnessed? It was so full and I had so many questions! Was it about them hanging out last night? Did something happen backstage just now? What did I just see?”
The wink changed his life and made him realize he not only wanted “desperately” to be a part of what was happening on stage, but what happens behind the curtain. At 17, he auditioned and joined the show, but said when taking this role he wasn’t sure of the intentions he had for his future.
“I’m sure I was not fully aware of the power of clear intention 20 years ago when I went to that audition but whether I knew it or not, my life was organizing itself in front of me based on the deepest desires of my heart,” Odom said. “My purest and clearest intentions were determining the way my life was unfolding.”
Those intentions were tested when two opportunities were presented to him: join a television show with a guaranteed half a million dollar paycheck, or join the developing “Hamilton” production that would pay him $400 a week. He knew the $500,000 could further his career, but Hamilton was his dream.
“I’ve said my dream has always been to be a part of [a show] that is culturally relevant, creatively fulfilling and commercially successful,” Odom said. “That was the trifecta, that was what “Rent” was and “Hamilton” was not very different.”
Deciding between his dream and a stable opportunity helped Odom answer the question of who he was and how he viewed himself.
So he walked away and chose to prove his intentions right.
“Life will present us with opportunities to answer this question for ourselves and for one another,” Odom said. “We’re always watching and learning from one another. Your courage to be who you are, to line up your actions behind your intention–– it inspires your neighbor, your kids, your co-workers, your empathy will too, your compassion will too.”
Alexandra Moyen is the editor-in-chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AlexandraMoyen
Alexandra Moyen is the senior features editor of The Spectrum.