“I’ll never forget what it was like to see it,” says Tony nominee Leslie Odom, Jr. of the first time he saw what would become Hamilton. “I saw the very first reading of it at Vassar as an audience member, so I know how it affected me. Whenever I’m tired or, you know, achy, the body has sort of given out—I can remember what that was like, and I can imagine there’s somebody that’s out there... I can imagine myself in the back row of the theatre and do it for that person that’s seeing it for the first time and experiencing it for the first time, because there’s nothing like that. Nothing like that.”
He beams that easy alabaster smile just thinking about it.
Odom holds onto that inspiration as he tackles his demanding role eight times a week. The young star made his Broadway debut in 1996 in Rent, played Sam to Christian Borle’s Tom in NBC’s inside-the-industry series Smash and won an Astaire Award for his portrayal of Isaiah Sturdevant in 2012’s Leap of Faith.
But, more importantly, every night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (and through the reverberation of his performance throughout the national media) he forces us to consider what it means to be a villain.
As Hamilton’s Aaron Burr, Odom plays the story’s flawed narrator. An orphan, Burr was a high-achiever afraid of rocking the boat—your consummate people-pleaser—on a never-ending search for acceptance, but always coming in second to Alexander Hamilton.
It’s easy to root for Hamilton, the “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant—also an orphan—whose accomplishments through willpower and drive seem to have been the original American Dream. Burr’s nervousness and concern with appearances, his practice to “talk less, smile more,” loses him respect as Hamilton gains clout.
Played with compassion and complexity by Odom, audiences, and Odom himself, identify with Burr.
“I’m a less judgmental person after playing Aaron Burr,” says Odom. “That’s somebody who history has deemed a scoundrel and a villain, who we need to leave room for the possibility that it was just a guy trying to do the best that he could for his wife and daughter, right? I think about that when I look at people and the things that they do; you think about the parts of their life that we don’t see and just give people the benefit of the doubt.”
Odom has had a lot of time to contemplate his character, having been with the show since its workshop, but less time to reflect on his own life.
On the morning of his Tony nomination, May 3, Odom was still trying to wrap his mind around the success of the show. “It’s been such a long time with the show, and it just started with the tiny belief that I had in this material and the potential that we all had collectively, if we did our jobs right,” he said. That potential materialized in acclaim and once-in-a-lifetime moments Odom couldn’t have anticipated, including a visit to the White House in March, which Odom still has trouble fathoming. “Quite frankly, you’re not allowed to get carried away, because my responsibility is to be the audience guide through this thing, and it kind of doesn’t matter who my audience is,” he said. “You can’t geek out. You have a job to do.
“There’s going to be a great deal of this [experience] that I’m going to sit down and look back on and go, ‘Oh, that’s what that looked like,’ or ’That’s what that felt like,” he said.
“There’s a really beautiful thing about the theatre that keeps you present,” he says. A naturally present person, he radiates a sense of warmth and gentleness as he speaks. “When you shoot a movie, you shoot a great movie that people love … and now you can just hop around the world and celebrate it with people, and you can pop champagne bottles and just celebrate the work that you did. But we have to rebuild it every single night.” Still, odds are champagne will pop on Sunday night at the Hamilton after party.
Come June 12, Odom faces a competitive category, including his onstage nemesis and real-life collaborator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. “I depend on Lin every night for so much of my performance,” he says. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”