Being Aaron Burr (Sir): Leslie Odom Jr. Talks 'Hamilton,' Tragedy And Karaoke
If you ever see Leslie Odom Jr. out on karaoke night, fair warning: the man who originated the role of Aaron Burr in Broadway's Hamilton is determined to win you over.
"[I'd probably choose] a power ballad: 'Don't Stop Believing,' or even some Peter Gabriel or something like that," he says. "You know something in that '80s power ballad family."
So, he's going to get the audience up on their feet cheering and crying at the same time?
He laughs. "I hope so! Or booing. Or booing and throwing things at me, one or the other."
These days you're not likely to find many people booing Leslie Odom Jr., though. His role in Hamilton turned him into that rarest of things: a Broadway rock star whose performance captured the cultural conversation.
Since leaving the show, his presence has only grown. He's already released several albums featuring his exploration of the Great American Songbook, toured extensively, and appeared in the new film adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express.
Now, he's visiting Greensboro as part of the Guilford College Bryan Series. WFDD's Sean Bueter spoke with him about his time on stage as Burr, what it took to build the character, and how it changed him.
On knowing Hamilton was special, but not knowing how the show would land until even the most hardened industry audiences were applauding:
These people were reduced to tears or childlike innocence. And so when we were winning those audiences early on, I said 'this thing is really special and powerful' and I just hoped that people would really connect with it the way I had.
On how he turned Vice President Aaron Burr, a complex historical figure who is often considered one of the most controversial politicians of his time, into a sympathetic character:
Well, [Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda] was my way in, you know? My way in was through Lin's imagination and so I did look at Burr with a lot of compassion and a lot of empathy but that's only because Lin did first. I think that Lin is a master storyteller, and...the things that he highlighted in the story make it a real tragedy, a dramatic tragedy which we have lots of experience with as audience members – you know, Romeo and Juliet. When you see a really great production of Romeo and Juliet, you know when those kids come on stage and they are properly full of life and promise and hope, you should want that thing to turn out differently.
That is a tragedy. A tragedy is when you sit down as an audience member and you see two forces locked, pitted against each other and there's nothing they can do to change their fate. This evening, we're going to have to watch them go through this and we're going to have to learn from it and take away from that what we will. But Lin did it first. Nobody who writes a character song like "Wait For It" is thinking about that person like villain. No one who writes the character a song like "Dear Theodosia" is thinking about that guy as someone who should be written off. And so, I never wrote him off.
It's easy to see how starring in Hamilton could change a performer professionally. But did it change him personally?
Yeah, that's a great question. It does, because you have a suspicion deep down in your belly somewhere that you could be capable of something great, that you could really make a mark – whether it's on someone's life or in an industry in an area of the world – that you could make a difference. And until you get the chance to prove that, to yourself really...it's just a theory.
It's a deep question. It's an existential question, almost. And Lin gave us the chance to prove it to ourselves. If I never get the chance to fly in that same way again, I flew once. I flew once alongside [Hamilton cast mates] Lin-Manuel Miranda and Daveed Diggs and Renee Elise Goldsberry and Thomas Kale. I flew with these people once in my life, and so, that question mark is erased now for the rest of my life. I can ask other questions. So that's a real gift.
Leslie Odom Jr. is appearing in Greensboro on Wed., Nov. 15, as part of the Guilford College Bryan Series.