5:00am PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Leslie Odom, Jr. ('Hamilton')
"Everybody wants musical theater to be relevant again, for it to sound like the radio again," says Leslie Odom, Jr., the best-actor-in-a-musical Tony nominee for his portrayal of a singing Aaron Burr in the unparalleled Broadway phenomenon Hamilton, as we sit down at New York's iconic Empire Hotel to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "We all want that. It's really f—g hard to do. Lin [Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show's creator and Odom's co-star] figured out how to make pop music work in the theater."
(Click above to listen to this episode now, or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Harvey Weinstein, Jane Fonda, Aziz Ansari, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart and Michael Moore.)
The 34-year-old, whose Broadway career began half a lifetime ago when he was plucked out of Philadelphia to become a replacement in Rent ("the Hamilton, if you will, of its time"), says just being a part of Hamilton — which has been awarded a Pulitzer, a Grammy and a record 16 Tony nominations, and in which he gets to sing "Wait for It" and "The Room Where It Happens" eight times a week — has been a dream come true. "Hamilton has given me the opportunity to be the kind of artist that has always inspired me. I never had the chance to be this guy before."
Since Odom's three-month stint in Rent, his journey has been a rollercoaster. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, returned to New York and found "there were no [stage] shows for me to do" as a black man. So he relocated to L.A. and "did a bunch of TV that nobody was watching" — "There's a market for safe and bland, and I was firmly in that market," he says — until a small part on NBC's short-lived but cult-favorite Smash brought him back to the Big Apple. Once there, he also mounted his return to Broadway, this time as a lead, in Leap of Faith — but the show closed after just 23 performances.
Around the time of his 30th birthday, he faced another bitter disappointment. He landed the lead on a TV pilot that didn't get picked up, and then the phone stopped ringing entirely. Demoralized, he considered quitting the business, and even looked into the possibility of working as a hotel clerk so he could pay his bills. But then an acting teacher/mentor sat him down for a frank conversation, at the end of which Odom humbled himself and enrolled in the man's beginner's acting class. "I was never the same," he says now. "It changed everything."
Odom, a fan of Miranda's 2008 musical In the Heights, learned that Miranda would be holding a reading of the first act of his next project at Vassar College. Odom managed to secure a ticket and was blown away. "It was just the freshest, most exciting theater I'd ever seen at a music stand," he says. Soon thereafter, Miranda and director Thomas Kail invited him to inhabit the role of Burr at a five-day workshop, and Odom realized he "had an opportunity to have an opportunity," so he prepared like mad. "I did not want the way I felt about the piece to be a secret."
As the show headed Off Broadway to The Public, Odom, to his delight, was invited to remain with it. Knowing that he would only be earning $500 a week, though, he sought additional work, as well. NBC's State of Affairs was set to shoot in the area, so he went out for a part in it, got it and signed a standard seven-year contract with the network. Then the production was moved to L.A. and he was in a bind. "There's no finagling out of a contract like that," he says. "It was agonizing." He came close to withdrawing from Hamilton ("There's a lot of my family that depends on me financially"), but he ultimately couldn't bring himself to do it and appealed directly to The Peacock Network's chief — and Broadway mega-fan — Bob Greenblatt, who saved the day.
The show became a hit at The Public, where it was extended three times — "That was difficult 'cause we were starving down there," he says — before opening uptown at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last August. There, it became the hottest ticket in Broadway history, attracting the likes of President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and, no fewer than 12 times, Rosie O'Donnell. As the show's producer began to rake in millions, Odom and other castmembers who helped to develop it, sought a profit-sharing deal. "That was a really difficult eight- or nine-month conversation," he reflects. "The show is a phenomenon. That doesn't have nothing to do with us." In April they agreed to terms — believed to be similar to the one made by the original cast of The Book of Mormon, which reportedly splits one percent of all profits — which Odom thinks is only fair. "There's more than enough money to go around," he says. "This is life-changing money that we were fighting for. We had to fight for it."
Meanwhile, Odom says he and his collaborators continue to pinch themselves about what a special thing they have helped to bring to life, and all that has come with doing so. "At Hamilton, eight shows a week, I get to say the thing that I came here to say," he volunteers. "And so if nothing else happens after this show, I got to say the thing that I longed to say." Of course, that scenario is far from likely, acknowledges Odom, who will be releasing a self-titled album on June 10. "It's a magic key, Hamilton. There's really not a door in this business that this show doesn't open up."