'It's a gift' _ Leslie Odom Jr. relishes his 'Hamilton' shot

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — During an early version of the Founding Fathers musical "Hamilton," Leslie Odom Jr. was in the seats with the audience, blown away. The guy playing Aaron Burr was making him a little envious, too.

"I said to myself, 'Whoever gets to do that eight times a week is going to be the luckiest actor in New York City,'" Odom recalls. "It's the role of a lifetime."

A few months later, the New York native got a chance to make the role his own and — to snatch a line from the groundbreaking hip-hop musical — he wasn't about to throw away his shot.

"If you get one of these in a career, you did it. So I'm going to enjoy every second of this year," Odom said in his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. "I have to remind myself that it may never be this good again."

Lin-Manuel Miranda's buzzed-about biography about the nation's first treasury secretary opens on Broadway next week, showing America's revolutionary men and women as red-blooded, fully dimensional figures.

Odom as Burr plays the narrator and a rival to Hamilton, played by Miranda. It's a complicated relationship between colleagues with similar backgrounds but Burr eventually kills Hamilton in an 1804 pistol duel in Weehawken, New Jersey.

"I love that it's not about two enemies. It's about two brothers. It's about two friends," says Odom. "And it's about the erosion of that over time and how a series of tragedies and deaths and personal failures in both of their lives led them to Weehawken."

Odom, who was on TV in "Smash" and "CSI: Miami," on film in "Red Tails," and on Broadway in "Leap of Faith," says the role of Burr, which he first played off-Broadway this winter, feels like the culmination of all his experiences.

"My perimeters are so wide and so I get to paint with all the colors in the box," he says. "I can bring up that clown that I saw at the birthday party when I was 6 years old. I can bring up my love of R&B music or growing up in the church. There's a place for all of that in this show. It's a gift."

Producer Jeffrey Seller, who first met a then-teenage Odom in 1998 when he was cast for Seller's "Rent," said Odom plays Burr with jealousy and envy — and so much empathy.

"It's always been very rewarding to see how he has grown and developed as a man," Seller says. "And what a powerful, psychologically complex performer he's become."

"Hamilton" audiences have been stunned by its irreverent look at history, with Founding Fathers swearing and swaggering, having rap battles over monetary policy and using a street-hustler's cunning to get ahead. With the exception of King George III, the cast is entirely Latino, Asian and African-American.

"It's actually opening the door for so many Americans to feel a part of this country of the first time." Odom says. "We can feel so disenfranchised and we can feel so not a part of it, even though we helped build it."

Things came full circle this month when President Barack Obama saw the show with his daughters. The commander in chief had been on hand several years ago when Miranda debuted the first song.

Odom, who walks to the theater each day from the apartment he shares with his actress wife Nicolette Robinson, kept his focus on his breathing and vowed to keep himself grounded, despite the excess energy swirling around a presidential visit.

"It was really important to me that we showed him our show," he says. "So much of the show couldn't have existed or wouldn't exist with the resonance that it does without a Barack Obama."

In many ways, "Hamilton" reminds Odom of another musical — "Rent," which he called "a bat-signal to kids all over the world — it was rebellious, it was passionate, it was gritty. It felt like something that your parents wouldn't like."

Odom became the youngest person ever cast in the Broadway company of "Rent" and hopes to surf a similar wave of youthful energy this time with "Hamilton."

"I want us all to feel on that stage that we are being as bold and audacious and of our time — full of our time as we can possibly be," he says. "This is our moment to tell our story. I don't want to leave anything offstage."




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