By Mark Thomas Ketterson
Leslie Odom Jr. is not the kind of guy to let grass grow under his feet. Even if he wanted to, the grass wouldn’t stand a chance, given the actor/singer/dancer extraordinaire’s fancy footwork. Though now firmly fused into American consciousness for his Tony and Grammy Award–winning portrayal of Aaron Burr in the Broadway megahit Hamilton, Odom has long been demonstrating his astonishing versatility not just on stage but on television with his appearances on CSI: Miami, Grey’s Anatomy, Person of Interest, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and particularly in the role of Sam Strickland in the 2013 musical series Smash. His many fans will shortly enjoy him on the big screen as well, in Kenneth Branagh’s soon-to-be-released film Murder on the Orient Express.
Despite his considerable achievements, Odom is hardly some remote, self-impressed star. This is a very perceptive, serious man who is passionate about his craft. Themes of intellectual curiosity, of self-examination, and a burning thirst for artistic development weave through his conversation like a leitmotif. His performance philosophies all reflect a statement often heard from him, that “you have to walk toward things that make you alive.”
“I think that comes from the fact that I chose a path that isn’t always fair or based on how much work you put into it,” Odom reflects. “I’ve had to learn to measure success in a different way because it didn’t always look like success to other people. It certainly does now; Hamilton makes it look like success to everybody. When I was kicking around LA for 10 years, I had some success, and I had some not so much success, believe me. So you have to define it for yourself. For me it was about, was I growing, was I getting better? I couldn’t always measure it with bank accounts or fancy cars. So I have had to wrap my head around my pursuit of this thing. I think any performer that’s been in the business long enough has to reckon with that at some point. You ask yourself, why am I doing this? And that’s what I’ve come up with at the end of the day—that this is what makes me feel most alive.
“It’s like that Buddhist philosophy that everything around you has a soul. A chair, a pencil, a tree has a soul. Whether I believe that or not, it’s nice to think about; it’s a way you walk through life in which you have respect for the living and nonliving things around you. But the thought behind that is that a chair is happiest when it is being used for its purpose. A chair can be a table, or you can use it as a doorstop. But a chair is happiest when you sit in it and make use of it for what it was designed for. That’s the way I feel when I’m onstage, whether it’s in a concert or a piece like Hamilton. I feel like my body and mind, my spirit is being used for what it was designed for.”
Odom’s destiny made itself apparent in his early teens. Born in Queens, he was raised in Philadelphia, where he attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative Arts. He made his Broadway debut at the tender age of 17 in Jonathan Larson’s Rent. The following year, now a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, he was confronted with a difficult decision when he landed the role of Mereb in the Broadway musical Aida. He turned it down.
“I like saying that was the last decision that my parents made for me!” Odom laughs. “It was a real turning point, and I am so grateful for it. My parents really tried to teach me growing up. They tried to teach me how to think, not what to think; how you put the pieces together and make decisions. I wanted to go to New York to do the show. You know, college was hard; it was a drag sometimes. I was looking for that ‘get out of jail’ card! So they really made that decision, but it was so important because at 18 years old I saw that you could walk away from an opportunity like that and the sky doesn’t fall down. The sun comes up tomorrow and life goes on. I learned the power of ‘no.’ It was important that I took time to grow and learn. I mean, you make a decision like that at 18 years old—that’s huge! I would never, ever be afraid to say no again, ever.”
That insight proved to have a profound impact on his career many years later, as Odom was preparing to take on the starring role of Lucas Newsome in the television series State of Affairs. He had signed a lucrative contract for the endeavor when another opportunity came knocking—a promising, genre-morphing musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the life of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. Sensing the chance of a lifetime, Odom decided to risk backing out of the series.
“I had a belief that this experience was going to change my life. I didn’t know that we were going to be in Vogue magazine, or win Grammy and Tony Awards, but I knew this was going to be a room that I had to be in, that I was going to learn more and grow more. It exceeded my expectations. I look back on it as the wildest ride of my life.”
Hamilton catapulted Odom into superstardom, and he quickly became a go-to guy for directors and casting agents around the world. The musical also provided an opportunity for him to break out of a restrictive box that Odom had long sensed African-American theatrical performers were historically corralled into. “We’re often asked to stop the show, but we’re rarely asked for complication, for depth or substance. I learned from auditioning that there was a certain thing that was being asked of me solely. It wasn’t being asked in a bag of other things. I was only being asked to sing the highest note I possibly could for as long as I could hold it, or dance until my feet fell off; how many back flips [I could] deliver on command. It felt like very little of my humanity was being asked of me. I saw the roles in Jersey Boys, and that guys could come out of college with the same training I had and go into those shows where the best of them was required, all of them was required. There are five or six companies of that show playing all over the world at any given time, so there are those four guys onstage plus their understudies. That is a lot of employment and a lot of learning and growth going on. Not so much if you look like me—there weren’t really those shows around, and it’s disheartening. That changed with Hamilton. Now we’re going to have companies all over the world and it’s almost the reverse of that for black and Latin and Asian actors. Actors of color all over the country now get to sink their teeth into roles that challenge them. When you get that kind of challenge you leave a better actor, a better person.”
It is impossible not to ask what someone does after a career-defining experience like that. “You look for opportunities that are going to stretch you,” Odom enthuses. “There are doors that were not open to me before Hamilton, doors like Murder on the Orient Express and my recording deal. Those were not opportunities that were available to me prior to Hamilton, so you try to go make some other dreams you had along the way come true that never seemed possible. You know, an opportunity like Ken Branagh offered me, to be locked on a train with Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer and Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp, and see that in process. A lot of times you might be in a film with all these people but you never meet them—you work your three days and then meet them at the premiere. This was a situation where we were all going to be on that train for weeks. I got to see how they prepared for a moment, these people who have had film careers for 25, 30 years or longer, some of them. I got to watch them in process. Something like that is invaluable. It’s about jiggling the knob again and seeing if the door is open now. And a lot of times we find, yes, it is.”
Ravinia’s audience can spend an intimate evening with Leslie Odom Jr. on August 13, when he delivers his remarkable talent to the Martin Theatre. “I’m going to bring some stuff from Hamilton, of course. I don’t believe in an audience leaving disappointed! As a performer, it really doesn’t get better than being associated with songs that people love. You know, when people applaud when the intro starts”—he laughs raucously—“that is as good as it gets! We’re also going to do stuff from my debut album and even stuff from my Christmas album that’s not particularly related to Christmas. When we recorded my albums, I said I wanted to make the kind of music Nat ‘King’ Cole might make today. So that’s what the show’s ending up looking like, that and a little bit of Hamilton.
“I hope I have shown my audiences that I’m an artist who cares about their time and their money. I’m not interested in wasting either, so I hope people will come to the show and give us a shot. I want to give them such a good time that they come back in a few years and bring a friend!”
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.