Leslie Odom Jr.: Being Burr in 'Hamilton' like falling in love

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Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in "Hamilton" in New York. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK - It has been nearly 20 years since Leslie Odom Jr. felt this way about a show.

The first time was 1998, the show was Rent, and there was an open audition for the Broadway cast. Odom was 17, just a kid from East Oak Lane, but he showed up anyway. He just knew he needed to be there.

The show - "rebellious, accepting, loving" - was calling him, he said. "It took me all these years, but this show makes me feel like that show."

That show, of course, is Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton, and to call it a sensation would be an understatement.

The 1,300-seat Richard Rodgers Theater is sold out into July. Fans wait for hours outside the stage door, post drawings of their favorite characters online, and propel the cast recording to the upper echelons of the Billboard rap charts.

Celebrities and dignitaries file backstage every night - from Beyoncé to President Obama to Sigourney Weaver, who asked to kiss Odom's cheek.

Odom plays Aaron Burr, the country's third vice president, who killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and became an enduring villain of early American history. In Hamilton, Burr is narrator, antagonist, antihero, and chorus, introducing himself in the opening scene as "the damn fool" who shot the hero of the story.

For Odom, those opening lines were all it took. Listening to them for the first time, he said, was like falling in love.

The kid from East Oak Lane is 34 now, but his parents still live in the house where he grew up, near Germantown's Canaan Baptist Church, where their son sang solos in the church choir. On breaks home from college, Odom would be summoned out of his pew by the pastor, mid-sermon, to sing for the congregation.

"I always felt that I was seen in my community," he said.

He and his friends rode for hours on public transportation to Masterman Middle and High. "We felt mature and safe, but we were babies," he said.

It was at Masterman that a fifth-grade teacher met a rambunctious 10-year-old Odom and saw a way to channel his energy.

She signed him up for a contest writing and reciting speeches. It was his first time on the stage. The speeches - he was good at them - led to arts scholarships, including at the historic Freedom Theater, and theater classes, workshops, and plays across the city. If Odom didn't get a part, he offered to usher at the show.

"I grew up in Philadelphia in a time where we took it for granted that we were supposed to be young and gifted and black," Odom said. "It was a culture of excellence - and all my friends were more talented than I was."

The Philly scene produced Alvin Ailey dancers - members of the country's premiere black dance company - successful musicians, and celebrated choreographers (no fewer than two of Odom's friends have created dance moves for Beyoncé). he quickly grew comfortable with "not being the best" in a group of friends who were one another's toughest rivals and biggest supporters.

That Rent audition in 1998 landed him a small role. He was the youngest actor ever cast in the show. On Broadway at 17, with a salary and a union card, he realized he could make a life out of his after-school hobby.

"No one was more surprised than I was," he said.

A half-hour before curtain at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, voices are filtering through the door of Odom's tiny dressing room. The show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars as Hamilton, paces the stage, his long hair tied back in a ponytail. Odom has been working with Miranda for two years, ever since he was invited to participate in a reading of the play.

"Every reading was your audition, and not everyone was invited back," Odom said. "You try to show what kind of a creator you are, what your process is like, and you hope you're enough."

Odom figures in nearly every scene, shepherding the audience through Revolutionary War battles and cabinet debates - in this show, reimagined as rap battles - and winter balls. His Burr is ambitious and calculating but almost ruinously reserved, the diametric opposite of the passionate, outspoken Hamilton.

He calls the show "the great joy of my life." That's not to say the years between Rent and Hamilton have not been interesting. He spent four years at Carnegie Mellon University's theater program and nine more in television in Los Angeles, where he met his future wife, Nicolette Robinson, who's starring in a show just down the street from the Richard Rodgers.

Eight shows a week on stage, in two hours and 45 minutes, Burr goes from bright young man to striving politician to the perennial runner-up who, consumed with doubt and despair, challenges Hamilton to a duel in Weehawken, N.J.

Ron Chernow, author of the much-read biography Hamilton, basis for the musical, is the show's historical adviser. Odom "has given that character a dignity and pathos and poignancy that are really very special," he said. "I think that's his greatest contribution to the show."

Odom has researched his character until he defends him in interviews. Yes, Burr killed the man now on the $10 bill. But he was also an academic prodigy, an accomplished writer, an early supporter of women's suffrage, and a doting father.

"And he was a good friend - well, not on that day in Weehawken," he said, laughing. "History boils him down to that one horrible act. It's my job to make the journey there a surprise."

Fifteen minutes before curtain, a voice over the theater loudspeakers reminds the actors gathering backstage.

Odom is full of praise for them all, from Miranda - "he has picked up the founding of our country and illuminated the great drama inside of it" - to those who share the stage with him, almost all of whom are people of color. That was a deliberate casting choice: to give those shut out of history books the chance, at last, to tell the story.

It's a choice in line with the themes of the musical, with its musings on legacy and memory and the untold side of history. And it reminds Odom of growing up in the Philadelphia theater scene, surrounded by black actors and dancers whose talents were respected, acknowledged, and nurtured.

"It's still a political statement to stand on stage as a person of color and be excellent," he said. "We still need those images to combat the narrative we're often fed - as someone innately inferior or inexorably linked with lack."

In a few moments, Odom will stride onstage and try to be excellent. He'll open the show with the words that first hooked him years ago: "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"

His Burr lingers on the edges of the stage, watching, waiting, slowly ratcheting up the tension that has become a hallmark of his character.

There's his solo in the first act, "Wait For It," one of Odom's favorites. He calls it a "Rubik's Cube of tension," all of Burr's desire and envy and insecurity wrapped up in a three-minute song.

There's his big, old-fashioned Broadway showstopper, "The Room Where It Happens," which gets so much applause the orchestra has strike up in mid-clap just to keep the show moving.

At the end of the climactic duel, Odom faces the audience alone, in a beam of white light, tears streaming down his face.

"Now," he sings, to a silent theater, "I'm the villain in your history."

Leslie Odom is not Aaron Burr and doesn't want to be. The kid from East Oak Lane is just walking around in a founding father's shoes for a while, learning from his mistakes and triumphs, experiencing "the full range of human emotion" every night, at the center of a play that has become a cultural phenomenon.

He feels, still, as though he is falling in love. And he wishes sometimes he could just sit and watch with the audience.

awhelan

@philly.com

215-854-2961

@aubreyjwhelan