Q&A: ‘Hamilton’ star Leslie Odom Jr. finds the music in life
‘Hamilton’ star Leslie Odom Jr. finds the music in life
Leslie Odom Jr. sings through innumerable earbuds these days as the magisterial, supremely self-assured Aaron Burr, the Founding Father who butts heads with the excitable, even more supremely self-assured title character of the rap battle/musical theater phenomenon “Hamilton.”
There’s another Odom voice out there too: the satiny, languorous one on a jazz-inflected album of such standards as “Autumn Leaves,” “Brazil” and “Love Look Away.”
Expect both to make an appearance when Odom performs in concert at 8 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge.
Odom and his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson, just moved back to Los Angeles to be closer to her family when they have their first child in the spring. It’s been a big year, what with him winning the the lead actor Tony Award and everything.
“The phone calls that we get, the rooms that we are in,” he said, his voice trailing off in wonder. “‘Hamilton’ gave me the opportunity to put my very best foot forward in front of the world. I will always be grateful for that.”
Smiles came easily during a recent interview, but his default was a contemplativeness so earnest that he sometimes squeezed his eyes shut as he pondered his next sentence.
Odom, 35, started out as a boy soprano whose singing was well known to the congregation at Canaan Baptist Church in hometown Philadelphia. At just 17 he reached Broadway, performing supporting roles in “Rent.” After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, he spent nine sometimes disheartening years chasing TV roles, commercials and singing showcases in L.A., but it was here that he met Robinson when she was cast in the 2008 Reprise Theatre Company production of “Once on This Island,” for which he was assistant director.
Since leaving the Broadway production of “Hamilton” in July, he’s toured to about two dozen cities to perform concerts with a five-piece combo. His self-titled album of standards was released in June, and his “Simply Christmas” album of holiday staples is just out.
In Northridge, he’ll sing an 80-minute set, choosing songs “for maximum potency,” based on the crowd’s mood. He sat down to discuss the concert and his forthcoming trip to London to film a Kenneth Branagh-directed remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which he will play the Sean Connery role.
This concert tour is your first post-“Hamilton” activity. Why did you choose it?
This is a hard business, and I think that if you stay in it long enough you have to answer the question of: Why am I doing this? What do I love about this? What I answered for myself was that I really am in this for connection. I love connecting with the people I’m on stage with; I want to connect with the audience. I love television and film and all of it; it’s wonderful, but there’s nothing that I love more than what I’m going to get to do at the Valley Performing Arts Center.
I imagine those attending your concert are going to expect something from “Hamilton.” Will they get it?
Absolutely. I don’t believe in disappointing an audience. If you’re extremely lucky as a performer, divinely blessed, you get songs or projects that are associated with your name. And I am keenly aware of that. I do songs from “Hamilton.” I do songs from “Rent” from time to time. Sometimes I do stuff from “Smash” [he appeared two seasons], and, obviously, stuff from my albums.
I read that when you were young, you would tape-record hours of yourself singing.
When I was 5 years old, I got a television and a tape recorder, and they both changed my life. I watched a good amount of television, and I think somewhere along the way I learned how to be on TV from watching so much. … [With] the tape recorder, I just couldn’t get enough of the fact that I could push these two little buttons and record myself sing something. It was a mirror, a way to see myself from the outside, and in that way I was able to, over time, to critique myself and try my best to perfect and craft my voice. ... Push record, rewind back, listen and fix it — make it sound like I intended for it to sound. It gave me the opportunity to step back and be my own teacher. I’m still doing it. Nobody is harder on my singing than I am.
What was your early exposure to music?
My parents were huge music lovers. They had an extensive record collection that I pored over for many, many hours.
Were any singers a particular inspiration?
Donny Hathaway changed my life. I had never heard a voice register emotion in that way; you could hear the longing and the sadness and the pain in his voice. Also Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, James Taylor; it goes on and on. Miles Davis, even. His instincts as a jazz musician and his thrust as a musician, I related to.
Your jazz standards seem like such a change from “Hamilton,” which sounds so of the moment. Or are they?
My goal is to make the [standards] sound as fresh as the “Hamilton” stuff — make “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)” and “Autumn Leaves” sound as vital and as necessary as “Dear Theodosia” and “Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens.” We do these songs side by side, and for me it doesn’t feel odd. We’re trying to make a case for both the old and the new. We’re trying to say that the newer songs are going to stand the test of time.
As Burr, you played one of America’s great villains.
I took my cues from what [Lin-Manuel Miranda] wrote. Anybody who writes a character song like “Dear Theodosia” is telling you, “Listen, I don’t think of this guy as a villain, and so you shouldn’t either.” ... I had a tremendous amount of love for what Lin had written. I had a tremendous amount of love for Lin and Lin’s Hamilton. And so I decided to hang the entire performance on love.
The night I saw the show, you were in tears after you shot Hamilton. Was that typical?
It happened sometimes and it didn’t happen sometimes. Once your create an environment — and you have to create it anew every single night — but once you create a space that is loving and joyful and safe and welcoming, whatever you feel is OK. Whatever comes up in me, whatever comes up in the audience, in my scene partners, it’s all OK. We’re here to have this experience tonight. ... You can laugh, you can cry, you can party.
Tell me what it was like to be in the tsunami of “Hamilton.”
It has started a conversation in people’s homes; it is intergenerational; it’s something that people are sharing around the dinner table. I’ve never seen anything like it — “American Idol,” maybe, in its heyday. It was healing and wonderful and just a huge blessing, every single day, in every way.
So you’re now living in L.A., and “Hamilton” opens here at the Pantages in August. What are the chances that you’ll reprise your Aaron Burr role in L.A.?
I have no clue. My schedule changes so frequently and drastically. I’d stay open to the possibility. Of course I love the role and the show.
If not in L.A., do you think you’ll ever return to “Hamilton”?
Um, sure. There are so many terrific performers who can’t wait to get their hands on the part. I’d hate to keep it all to myself. But if the opportunity presented itself I don’t see why not.
Beyond “Orient Express,” do you have anything definitely lined up?
We’re going to have a baby in the spring. That feels like enough. I haven’t taken any time. I had one week in between “Hamilton” and all this other stuff, and so I need a break. I went right from “Hamilton” to concerts for the album, and them I’m gonna go right from concerts into the film, which I’m so excited about, but I wouldn’t mind if things slowed down for a little bit and I got to spend a little bit of time home with the baby. And then we’ll see what happens. But, you know, that’s not the scariest thing in the world. You have to reinvent and rebuild every now and again. Next summer it might be time for that, it might be time to dig deep and find a way to surprise people again.
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