Although he’s worked on the New York City streets and in sun-drenched Los Angeles, actor and singer Leslie Odom Jr., who details the triumphs and setbacks of his career in his new book Failing Up, credits Philadelphia as the source of his inspiration.
“Philly gave me everything. It gave me my eyes. It gave me my taste. What I value and [the things] that are important to me as an artist, I got from Philly,” says Odom, 36, a native of East Oak Lane. Failing Up touches on just about everything one would need to know about taking risks and understanding the underrated power of failure.
Odom — who will speak at the University of the Arts on Wednesday — provides a crash course in trailblazing for creative young people in the formative stage of their careers that’s more practical than a “one-size-fits-all” approach to success. Best known for his Tony Award-winning performance as Aaron Burr in Broadway’s Hamilton, Odom has found a way to give back to his hometown community through storytelling. In Failing Up, he urges people to “fight for what’s fair” when negotiating deals and to “point to real numbers” that show the power of the black dollar.
What was your intention in writing this book?
My intention was to help someone. That’s what this whole thing is about. It’s a cycle. People pour into you so that eventually, you’ll pour into someone else.
It’s obvious that mentorship played a big role in your journey. I was able to get in touch with one of the mentors you mention in the book, Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown. She said that though you were “laid-back” and “hardworking,” she never noticed that you were particularly aggressive toward your craft at that time. Does that surprise you?
No, definitely not. That’s very kind of her to say. As you know, I mention in the book that I was the worst in the class. So “Aunt Joan” — as some people call her — is being very kind when she says that. I wasn’t great. There were kids that had been training longer; they were more talented than I. But I just loved it. I was so grateful to be there. I was honored to be the worst in the class.
Throughout the book, you solicit advice from your family before making big decisions in your career. Why is it important for young black men to have strong relationships with their families?
You want to be well and you want to be whole. Not everybody is lucky enough to have parents that stick around or stay together. There are just a lot of things that can change your circumstances. My family didn’t feel remarkable in any way, just a very average family. There’s something about the arts, too — this creative pursuit that has reinforced the importance of integrated life. I want my family close because time is not promised. I want to love on [my friends and family] while they’re here.
Rent was one of the first major productions you were a part of, and you describe it as “Friends in the face of death. Art in face of capitalism and consumerism. Protest in the face of justice.” What other theatrical productions, if any, speak to the same cultural pillars?
Well, at this point Rent is a period piece. In a lot of ways, Hamilton felt like it touched people in the same way. It’s not the same themes or motifs, but it did feel like I was getting a chance to revisit that time in my life. In a more contemporary way, in a more modern way, [Hamilton] touched people in the same way that Rent did.
Speaking of Rent, in the book, I learned that you sang Donny Hathaway’s “For All We Know.” Being from Philadelphia, where soul music is huge, are you influenced by soul musicians?
That’s the music I was nurtured on. Billy Porter, who I worked with at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, helped me see that I could sing in the theater the way I grew up singing. It was like a lightbulb moment for me when I heard Billy sing “Beauty School Dropout” in Grease. This is not in the book, but someone played that song for me during my first year at Carnegie Mellon, and it changed my life. It freaked me out because it had never occurred to me that you could sing Grease the way we sang in church. It had never occurred to me that I could bring the brilliant sound of Philly — like Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and Bilal — into the theater.
I love that you talked about navigating the financial aspect of the business. You encourage readers to “fight for what’s fair.” Can you tell me about a time when you’ve had to “fight for what’s fair”?
Oh, yes! I think that especially starting out, the word no is all you really have. You have to mean it. You have to be willing to walk away. Whenever I’m fighting for my worth, whether it’s more money or whether I’m fighting for time off for something important, like my wife’s birthday or an important family event that I have to go to … if you’re not willing to walk away, there is no negotiation. If someone feels that they can have you for whatever they offer you, you’ll lose every single time. You have to negotiate with integrity. You have to own your “yes” and your “no.” Almost every time I get a job, people aren’t coming in at the number [I] want. We negotiate several times a week.
Do you find that being a person of color plays a part in negotiations?
If I’m being honest, man, although we still have a long way to go, things are so different today even from when I graduated from college. And things are different for the kids that are coming out of school now. There’s more opportunity. There’s more equity. There’s more fairness than there ever has been because we have things to point to now, like the success of Black Panther and Get Out and the success of Shonda Rhimes. So when you can point to real numbers, [like] Hamilton, to show “this is what we can do, if given the opportunity,” you can get more dough in your pocket.
My favorite part of the book was near the end, when you talk about the Tony Awards, specifically your acceptance speech. There’s a powerful moment in your acceptance speech when you thank God for the calling of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s life. What do you think the calling of your life is?
To point to something greater. To use a moment when I’m in the light to not glorify myself. I want to point to something higher. I want to point to love and to be a vessel of love.
Leslie Odom, Jr.
- 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Elaine C. Levitt Auditorium, 401 S. Broad St., $25, www.leslieodomjrphiladelphia.brownpapertickets.com