Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. Reveal How Rent Shaped History and Hamilton

News   Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. Reveal How Rent Shaped History and Hamilton
 
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. are the 18th-century fatal friends at the core of Hamilton. They talk history — both onstage and off — and how Rent paved the way.
Leslie Odom, Jr in <i>Hamilton </i>
Leslie Odom, Jr in Hamilton Joan Marcus

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. share a dressing room at The Public Theater. Odom, Jr. plans to decorate his portion with pictures from his childhood; a 500-page book on James Madison currently occupies Miranda's half.

"He's trying to write one new line for Madison," said Odom, Jr. (Miranda shrugged with a, "Yeah, I…") "This guy! He goes deep."

Miranda is pulling out all the stops (and all the historical documents) for Hamilton, his latest project that fuses contemporary and classic to tell the story of America's Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. History meets hip-hop, and pop culture permeates the past, as revolutionaries spit rhymes, aristocrats throw down and politicians turn up.

Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Renée Elise Goldsberry in <i>Hamilton</i>
Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Renée Elise Goldsberry in Hamilton Photo by Joan Marcus

Oh. And, one of the most famous personal conflicts of the 18th century is musicalized: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr face off, in a duel that went down in the books, for the first time on stage. "It's funny to think of Hamilton and Burr trying to share a dressing room," said Miranda, "but we do."

Aside from the dressing room, Miranda (as Hamilton) and Odom, Jr. (as Burr) also share an affinity for the musical Rent, the Pulitzer-winning show that contemporized the face of musical theatre almost two decades earlier (a few blocks away from the Public, at New York Theatre Workshop).

"I heard this really great quote not too long ago that said, 'An artist spends their entire life trying to get back to the place where their heart was first opened up,' and Rent was certainly that for me as a 12 or 13-year-old kid," explained Odom, Jr. "It opened up my heart and my senses, and [Hamilton] is the first time that I'm back there. So one of the biggest reasons why I had to do this show was for that 13-year-old kid. I haven't had a chance to decorate my dressing room yet, but I have these pictures of myself as a kid that I want to put up because I said, 'I really want to make sure that I take that kid with me on this journey.' I want him to experience this."

Looking at Odom, Jr., Miranda responded, "So much of what you said resonates with me, especially that notion of, 'There's a kid who fell in love with theatre.' I think we all start in theatre — if we went to elementary school or high school and did the school play. Most of us go onto other things, and then there are some of us who fall in love with it so deep that we never want to do anything else, and that's us!"

Miranda had an "a-ha!" moment the first time he saw Rent ("The show exists, and people go, 'That's for me. I can do that show.'"); and Odom, Jr. was unexpectedly cast in the musical as a teen ("I went right from community theatre to Broadway. The minimum at that time was $1,260 a week — at 17 years old, that is a million dollars a week.").

However, Odom, Jr. says that with Hamilton (unlike Rent), he did not immediately think, "I'm going to do that show." He was at Vassar College in 2013 to see his wife Nicolette Robinson perform in Brooklynite at the same time Miranda was debuting the first act of the then-titled The Hamilton Mixtape.

"I had never seen anything like it — so contemporary and so fresh and honest and exciting — and I had never in a million years thought I would be in it. Ever!" he explained. "I got invited to do [a reading] after I had seen it, so I knew what I was being invited to. I knew the room that I was coming into, so I prepared like I had never prepared before because I just didn't want to fall on my face in this room. And then I held on for dear life."

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in <i>Hamilton</i>
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton Photo by Joan Marcus

Now Odom, Jr. co-stars with Miranda in the world-premiere production, which will open Feb. 17 in a sold-out, extended run. Miranda plays the "bastard, orphan, son of a whore," who becomes one of the U.S. Constitution's most influential figures and the face of the $10 bill. Odom, Jr. is the privileged Burr, who would go onto vice presidency of the United States.

"They're so bound up in each other's lives," said Miranda. "Burr is someone, who all his life, hung back waiting for the right moment; and Hamilton is someone who always charged forward recklessly. And, in the moment that matters most, Burr charged forward, and Hamilton hung back, and it led to tragedy for the both of them. It's really fun to explore that, but they're like-minded. They're twin souls at the top of the show."

Odom, Jr. added, "They're people who had flaws and who had affairs and had sex and had scandals, and very rarely do we look at the totality of our heroes' lives." For Hamilton and Burr, their flaws paved a path in becoming both friends and foes. Thanks to Jonathan Larson (yet again), Miranda and Odom, Jr. had extra "friendship" rehearsals last summer.

"We really got to know each other over the course of this and the workshops, which is why it was so fun to do tick, tick…BOOM! this summer because we'd been playing Hamilton and Burr for about a year together, and then we got to go be best friends," said Miranda.

Added Odom, Jr.: "Yeah! Nobody dies at the ending!"

Although the show has been given three extensions through May 3, talk is still circulating about a quick transfer to Broadway before the current season ends. However, Miranda wouldn't divulge too much information.

"I don't know, man," he said. "We just extended for another four weeks, and we are still learning what the hell the thing is. The decisions about where it goes after The Public are above my pay grade. I'm still finding a line for Madison, and I have to finish reading this book, so I'll let you know after that!"

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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