'Hamilton's' Leslie Odom Jr. Talks Jazz Album, Residency Dreams and Potentially Playing Aaron Burr Again (Q&A)
"I'm in no way running from 'Hamilton' or its success," the Tony winner tells THR. "I have a few weeks left, and I'm still learning lessons from this show."
Leslie Odom Jr. is settling into the next “Room Where It Happens.”
Particularly, the Tony winner — who exits Hamilton on July 9 — is heading to the Manderley Bar in New York City's McKittrick Hotel for a brief weekly residency (beginning July 14), where he will croon on jazz renditions of “Brazil,” “Cheer Up Charlie” and Spring Awakening’s “The Guilty Ones” from his self-titled album. Released earlier this month and topping the Billboard Jazz Albums chart, the solo project was realized quickly when Odom met with S-Curve Records’ Steve Greenberg this past winter, narrowed down 200 potential tunes to 10 tracks, and recorded the album during his days off and afternoons before Broadway performances.
“The record company felt wisely that we should get something out before I left Hamilton or around awards time, and that deadline was not easy,” Odom tells The Hollywood Reporter. “My friend Lenny Beer, who started Hits magazine, actually sent Steve Greenberg an email about signing me while I was on Smash years ago. I don’t give Steve any crap about it, but he wasn't interested then! There's nothing that's changed about my voice, but it's really hard to get music out these days; the talent isn't always a deciding factor, or even the quality of a project. So this is a moment after years of hard work.”
Odom, 34, speaks with THR about pivoting from Hamilton’s hip-hop sound to his jazz roots, incorporating Aaron Burr’s numbers into his set and reprising his Tony-winning role in the future: “I'm in no way running from Hamilton.”
You perform hip-hop and R&B in Hamilton. What's your jazz background?
Jazz entered my life in my early teens; my jazz band teacher put Nat King Cole, Donny Hathaway and Ella Fitzgerald in my hands. There’s something spiritual about improvisation, the freedom and the audacity and the scariness of it. That's what attracted me to it. When I decided to move into the music space, I had to figure out: If I'm gonna stand in front of a microphone as Leslie Odom Jr., what kind of music am I gonna sing? I returned back to what I've been singing since I was a kid.
How does it feel to return to that sound after Hamilton?
It allowed me to focus on singing to one person. When I step onstage at the Rodgers, we're very lucky to have 1,300 or 1,400 smiling faces, people who are excited and paid a great deal of money to be there, but that's a different kind of output. The kind of intimacy I can have on a song like "Nobody Knows You (When You're Down and Out)" or "Autumn Leaves," I get to sing to one person at a time, and create a listening experience that's singular.
Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in Hamilton. Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Any concert or tour plans?
We're looking to do a residency somewhere in New York over the summer. It's such a new fear: I've spent a long time learning my way around a stage as an actor, but this I don't know as well. Humbly, I'm excited to get with a band and perform regularly as an artist and see what I can learn and how I can grow in that space.
What performance skills are you taking from Hamilton toward your residency?
I have a few weeks left, and I'm still learning lessons from this show. I've learned things about connection with the band and the audience that I'll never forget, that transference of energy that I'd love to carry over into my live shows. And Hamilton has just been a playground for expression, and I've explored my emotional range. I'm interested to see how I can make that make sense in a small club. It's not the same, but that's my question too: How can I tear the roof off of this place in the way I do during "The Room Where It Happens?" What does that look like in a smaller space?
I think there's also something I've learned about the responsibility that you have as an artist. When I step on the stage and sing "Wait for It," I'm singing that for everybody. I don't mean I'm singing it for them; I mean, you are their voice. When we go and cheer Cynthia Erivo on in The Color Purple, it's because we've elected her to be our voice, she sings “I'm Here” for all of us. Everybody wanted to be in the room where it happens, so when Burr descends into that declaration, I'm doing that for everybody in the room, for anybody who has ever felt denied. I'm gonna take those lessons.
At Elsie Fest last year, you did a jazz rendition of "The Room Where It Happens." Will your set list include similar Hamilton tracks?
Oh, you're damn right! I'm in no way running from Hamilton or its success or these beautiful songs that I've been blessed to be able to be the one to introduce them. I certainly won't be the last to sing them, but to be the first, I feel very lucky. I'm not running from this show or these songs. I look forward to being able to incorporate them into my set. If you're lucky enough to do these shows, you can gather those signature songs that people will come to hear you sing. Hamilton has given me that for sure.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has said he’s open to dropping in on future performances. Are you?
Are you kidding? Absolutely! I would do this part in this show anywhere in the world at anytime. I love this show; I love this part.
Any other acting roles we can anticipate?
If you can imagine, I haven't had any time to process the past year. We only get one day off a week. If I'm allowed it, I'm really looking forward to a little time on the couch and a little time on a beach in Brazil. I'd love to unpack “where we are” and “where we started,” to quote the show. So, beyond the music, I've got nothing planned right now.
Listen to Odom's new jazz album below.
July 7, 2:10 p.m. Updated with location of residency.