Leslie Odom Jr. walks through his journey toward success—from discovery and rejections, to his first experience on Broadway and the Hamilton phenomenon.
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Hey, everybody, welcome to the Big Stage podcast, where we talk to athletes, artists, and entertainers of all kinds. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, Bernstein Managing Director and the Co-head of Sports and Entertainment. The interview you'll hear on today's episode was recorded in mid-May. It was just a few months after theaters closed their doors and just a couple of months before the musical Hamilton became streamable on Disney Plus—a reprieve from the pandemic for many super fans never able to see it in theaters. Today, most theaters remain closed. A select few are attempting to resume with extreme caution.
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Cast quarantines, mask rehearsal, screens separating backup singers, and COVID testing three times a week.
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It is on that note that we bring you this interview with my good friend Leslie Odom Jr. Today, I'm thrilled to be introducing a guest that barely needs an introduction. Leslie Odom Jr. You all know him for originating the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton on Broadway, but he's also done dozens of TV shows, multiple blockbuster movies, is a published author, and is now one of the hottest recording artists. He's a Tony and Grammy Award winner, Leslie Odom Jr.
01:14 - 01:22
Leslie, so great to talk to you. Thanks for joining the Big Stage podcast, man! It's my pleasure. And it is a big stage. Your audience cannot see
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but you have one of the best backgrounds I've ever—certainly for a podcast—that I've ever seen. But in our new Zoom friendly world, I mean, you got the bookshelves, the color coordinated books, it's really aesthetically pleasing.
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Looks good! Coming from you. I'll take it. And we've known each other a long time now—well before your Hamilton days, I think. I think we met when I was producing theater full time. And you were doing Leap of Faith. Oh! I think, yeah! It's been incredible to watch how your career has come along and just exploded. Yeah, I mean, Leap of Faith was, that was a show that I really wanted, believe it or not, and an experience that I really wanted. I had to really fight to be a part of it. And we ran for 23 shows on Broadway, two and a half weeks.
02:14 - 02:28
So slightly different run than Hamilton, just slightly less... More in line with the average, probably with most shows. For those who don't come from the theater world, the batting average isn't the best. But we'll come back to that.
02:28 - 03:02
Actually, I want to go back to the beginning, Leslie, and actually ask you, when did you know this was for you, that this was what you were going to do for a career? There was a show that came out when I was about 13 years old that changed my life. The show was called Rent, and it, like Hamilton, it was a show that, even though it was happening in New York, it was making waves around the country in this pre-social media, of course. And so it was in the traditional ways that shows used to get media attention.
03:02 - 03:31
I think I saw like a Dateline or 20/20 story about it. And it appealed to me, you know, it looked, I don't know, it looked like something my parents wouldn't like. It looked like something... maybe it looked as attractive and rebellious as the TikTok looks to young kids, you know, it was bold and brash and loud.
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And so, yeah, I went and listened to it at a... when there was still music stores. I went to my local HMV and I listened to the entire cast album and then I bought it for $20 and I just, you know, ingested the material. Probably two-three years later they're in Philadelphia and they're having... there's an open call, a cattle call, so they call it. And I went to the audition, not thinking that I would get the show. You know, I went really to get the... for the experience.
04:01 - 04:29
You know, there was a Broadway show that I loved that was in town auditioning. And so I showed up like seven, seven or eight hundred other Philadelphia hopefuls. And no one was more surprised than me when I got the call to come to New York and join the company. So that—that whole experience, stepping on a Broadway stage and getting to see what that life was like firsthand, let me know that it was something that I could do for a living.
04:29 - 04:50
And that was at a very young age, I think you were 17 when you made your Broadway debut. I was. I was. I was 17, yeah. And so before you went into that audition, did you actually think that, hey, I am going to do this one day, or was it more you were surprised that this actually happened in your life and it was a passion that turned into a career?
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Good question. I thought that I would do it one day. Well said, you know, I thought that I would get it one day, you know, when I was... I thought I was getting the process started early, but like, that, that at the end of the audition process, your headshot and resume goes into a filing cabinet. And maybe one day when you turn... when I turn, when I'm an adult, when I'm 25, 26, they'll call me, they'll remember that kid they met in Philadelphia and they'll call me to come do it. I really thought that it would
05:23 - 05:56
that that was the best-case scenario for how this story was going to play out and it was a little different. Well, going back to something you said, Rent was really revolutionary for its time, even for the art form of theater. And I've heard a lot of people make that sort of comparison to Hamilton in its own way, which transformed the art form itself. But before we get to talking about Hamilton, which I know our listeners are keen for us to do, talk to me about the time between when you're 17 years old,
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making your Broadway debut, and then you've got... you go back to college, right, you go to one of the top conservatories or top top schools for performance that is out there. And then you have a number of years before your next Broadway show and you do a ton of stuff in between. So kind of give our listeners a timeline of how your career evolved. Yeah. So I go to Carnegie Mellon and I get this really great training there and I think I'm training for New York again. I think I'm training to go back to New York. I had done that Broadway show and so I went.
06:28 - 07:02
Now let me backtrack and learn how to how to do this properly is what I thought. You know, I'm going to go to school and get some technique and a foundation of real undergirding, of support underneath me, so that I can withstand the test of time on Broadway, because even I was on Broadway for about three months and I saw how challenging it was and how it could lay waste to your body physically, to your singing voice and stuff. So I went to Carnegie to learn to get some technique and I come out of there and I think I'm going to go back to New York.
07:02 - 07:24
And part of the part of the thing that you get when you graduate from these conservatory programs is that you, you kind of, you do a showcase at the end of it. And that's you know, you're performing for recruiters, essentially, you know what I mean, you're performing for agents and casting directors and people,
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Right when you graduate, they're coming to get eyes on you to see if they can place you and you do it in New York and L.A. And I got some response in L.A., which again, I was surprised about. But there was there were people in my class, some people you can imagine.
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So so some of the kids I went to school with, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Katy Mixon. Who else would your listeners know? You know, really young, good looking, camera ready talent, people come to the Carnegie Mellon showcase knowing that they're going to find some kids that are ready to be plucked out and put on TV. So some kids, as you can imagine, get everybody wants to meet them.
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Some kids maybe nobody wants to meet them. It takes a little longer for them. And there are people like me.
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There was some fellows somewhere in the middle, but I had a woman at CBS. Her name was Lucy Cavallo. And I'll never forget her because I didn't have a ton of response. But I had somebody like Lucy who looked me in my eyes and she said, When are you moving to L.A. because I want to put you on TV. And I told her I was moving at the end of the summer and she said, well, call me. And I did. And Lucy had an opportunity for me.
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Within twenty-four hours, I was in L.A. and I auditioned for a show called CSI Miami, and I booked a little role on CSI Miami and they ended up making it a recurring role. And so that's how I lived in L.A. for about 10 years with little guest spots and little roles on TV, which was really exciting to me because that too was not something that I ever saw for myself. I didn't grow up thinking I was going to be on TV.
09:14 - 09:17
So that was totally new and exciting.
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And I just hoped that I could maybe become a big enough TV star or something, that I would be able to get Broadway shows again, because there was a trend on Broadway of, you know, the bigger following you have from television, the easier it is to star in a Broadway play. And that was what I was doing it all for anyway. Well, I bet this is a little-known trend that I think a lot of our listeners will appreciate. But 2008 had wreaked havoc across most industries, right? And financial industries, of course, being the most prominent.
09:50 - 10:22
A lot of people don't know that in 2008, a lot of big blockbuster movies stopped being made because of budgets. And so a lot of big A-list talent started coming to New York to do Broadway theater. And that, I think, speaks to the trend that you just mentioned, Leslie, with a lot of people with followers and stars doing Broadway shows. So Hamilton, in a sense, owes a little bit of being able to identify you as a cast member from Leap of Faith then, right? Because they kind of brought you back to New York and you did a show, and... Yeah, it all leads somewhere. Right.
10:22 - 10:44
These little... even though those 23 shows, there were people that... there were people that I met and Warren Leight being one of them. Warren Leight wrote the book for Leap of Faith and Warren Leight is the show runner for Law and Order: SVU. So some of your listeners probably only know me from that. I did like 10 or 11 episodes of Law & Order: SVU.
10:44 - 11:10
I played Reverend Curtis who's like... he's this minister in New York City who shows up like whenever there's a little black kid that's shot or somebody is racially profiled, Reverend Curtis finds himself in the center of all that to be an advocate, you know, is what he would say. But yeah, I met Warren in Leap of Faith.
11:10 - 11:37
So it all leads somewhere. That's awesome. So that, I think pivots to my next question is, how have you been staying busy during quarantine? It has been no problem staying busy. You know, there's been, man, so many Zoom benefits and Zoom concerts, and Instagram lives, and Instagram takeovers, and all that stuff has been
11:39 - 12:00
more than I could, you know, more than I would have thought, and at times it's... I've been a little overwhelmed by it... because at the same time, I have this song that is out... I put out an album of all original stuff at the end of last year. And right at the top of quarantine, I was actually starting my tour for the album.
12:00 - 12:31
We were going to be in 16 cities around the country. We opened in L.A., sold out crowd at the El Rey. We went to Vegas, House of Blues next, and then we had to shut down. We... Seattle was our next stop and they were, you know, they had just gone on lockdown. But in the middle of all this, you know, I have this song, Go Crazy. This big fun pop song that continues to climb the charts, is #25 on Hot AC, being played and picked up at radio stations around the country.
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So I've had to continue to promote the record, which at first felt there was like a dissonance that didn't feel great because it felt like, you know, especially right at the top of all this, when we were bracing for impact, when we didn't know how bad this thing was going to be, how long it's going to be, and how many people am I personally going to lose to this thing. I mean, we're bracing for impact and I'm showing up on radio stations, Instagram lives, singing about a woman I met in New Orleans and how she... what she does at night in the bedroom.
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I mean, you know, this was like it felt a little silly. But eight weeks later, it has been nice to have a distraction at times, it has been nice to have something joyful to focus on at times.
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And so I'll say it is, with a toddler and a wife and a house to house and house work to keep up with, it has been no problem staying busy at all. Well, I have to say, as a big fan of yours, art heals, and so the work that you and many of your fellow artists are doing during this time, I don't know how the rest of us would get through without that stuff. Thank you for all you've done.
13:47 - 14:17
You've been such a supporter of artists and training up and encouraging young artists for as long as I've known you. So thank you for that, truly. I mean, you know, for somebody who spends their life, I know you have a background as an artist, but, you know, you make your bones outside of this profession totally. But you've kept such a connection and you've made it such a priority in your life.
14:17 - 14:48
And, you know, I have benefited from it and people like me have benefited from it. So a podcast is the least I can do. But thank you for what you do, brother. Thank you for what you do now. Thanks for saying that, Leslie. So now let's talk about Hamilton for a little bit. Tell our listeners how it all came to be. I mean, if you had to summarize it, how you fell into Hamilton or how Hamilton fell into you and how you developed that role, and just give us the background. I saw a reading.
14:48 - 15:04
There was a... there's a New Works Festival that happens in Poughkeepsie, New York, at Vassar. And my wife was up there. She was doing a new play up there in development. She was up there for about three weeks. And so I would go up every weekend and visit her.
15:04 - 15:36
This is probably 2013. And they were doing a thing up there called the Hamilton Mixtape. And I knew that it was being put together by the same team that had put together a show that I liked so much, called In the Heights, a show that moved me. So I sent Lin a tweet. I knew Lynn from being on Smash and I knew Lin having done that little two and a half weeks show Leap of Faith, I knew Lin sort of casually and I sent him a tweet that's like, Hey, I'm in Poughkeepsie.
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I'd love to see this thing. And I scored a seat. I scored, you know, the very last folding chair and the very last row to see the very first reading of the Hamilton mixtape.
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And my favorite quote about art and artists is that an artist spends their entire life trying to get back to the place where their heart was first opened up. And I just finished telling you, you know, Rent was that thing for me. Rent was the show that opened my heart at 13 years old. And sitting in that folding chair in that last row, I had been waiting my whole... I'd been waiting since I was 13 years old to feel that feeling again. And Hamilton did it.
16:18 - 16:40
You know, that all I saw was Act one on that day. But it did it for me. The first 20 seconds of this thing, I was like, this is the most literate, confident, bold, exciting thing that I've ever seen this early, you know, since Rent for me. And so I committed on that day to being the very first Hamil-fan.
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I was going to bring everybody in my life to see this thing and to witness it, to partake in it, because I thought it was so worthy, worthy as a piece of work. I had no idea in a million years sitting in that folding chair, that I would be in it.
16:55 - 17:16
That's not where my head was at all. But I do remember thinking at the end, wait for it, wait for it ends, and the thought that crossed my mind was, damn, I mean, whomever gets to sing that song eight shows a week is going to be a very lucky actor.
17:17 - 17:32
And I was right. Adam, let me tell you, I was... I've never been more right in my life. So, yeah, then a few months later... three months later or so I got an email from Lin saying, hey, that thing you saw, we're working on Act two now.
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I've got like four or five songs written for Act two. Do you think you could come? I'm just getting a group of actors together.
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There's no money involved, you know, 150 bucks. It's not a guarantee of anything. But I just want to hear it out loud. Would you, would you come in and read Burr in this thing. And
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I just did... I just... if you could imagine, you know, I mean, when you, when you, at that point, you know, I'm probably 30-31 years old, you know, I mean, I'm not a kid, you know, I've seen enough. I've seen enough, I've experienced enough to know how special this piece is, that it is once in a lifetime, if that, that something like that comes along.
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It is now, even just in a casual way, it's not a guarantee of anything. But for a week, I'm going to get to hold on to this role. I'm going to get to sing these songs and be in a room with these people. So I just I wanted to make an impression. I wanted to. I wanted to inspire Lin, I wanted to... to be a part of it, wanted to be in the room, so I'd be, I just prepared.
18:53 - 19:15
The only thing I asked, I was like, well, look, I just don't want to be learning. I don't want to be learning this material in front of you guys. Like, please send it to me so that I can be prepared when we're in the room. I want to... I want to be able to do more than just like learn the material. And we only have a week.
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So let me come in with some familiarity with it so that we can work beyond just learning it. We can maybe we can work on acting a little bit. We can work on intention, you know. So that's what I did.
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I just I spent the next... I probably had three or four days before that, before those... that reading with him. And I just learned every inflection and every, every word. I made choices so that when I came in, I could really show them something. And then it was just, you know, we did that. We did that reading and it went well. And I got another email like that a few months later to do another one of those readings and then a few months later to do another one of those readings.
19:56 - 20:29
And it was just holding on for dear life until we opened on Broadway. We opened on Broadway on my birthday August the 6th. Yeah, August the 6th. What was that? 2015, probably. Or 2016. So, yeah. Wow, that's a great story. Well, you're known for your work ethic in the industry, so I'm not actually surprised at all that you insisted on coming prepared. I'm known for a few other things too, I'm known for. I think unfortunately I'm known for being a little tardy, which you got to experience firsthand today. No, no.
20:30 - 20:34
But I'm glad work ethic is one of them. It's always one that stuck with me.
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So. So tell me, we have a couple of minutes left and I'm curious to know, what was your biggest takeaway or lesson that you learned through that incredible experience, being a part of Hamilton? Well, you know, I know you're a big sports guy.
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I would... I'm less so than you, certainly, but I also... it was the first championship team that I was ever a part of. You know, at the end of the day, I mean, I hope that what I... I hope that I'm remembered as part of of an all-star team... that I played my position, I played it well. Because it was just such a collaborative thing. There was that and that. And that starts top down, you know, that the leadership starts with Lin and then Tommy, certainly our director, Tommy Kail.
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They set a tone early on that that this is... This is only going to be made, this is only going to be the best that it can be, if we all bring everything we have to it, and so there's just, you know, there's no, there's no assholes, there's no room for anything other than the best of yourself and bringing all that to the work. That's great, that's such a good answer.
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It makes me wonder if you're watching The Last Dance on ESPN. I haven't had a chance to watch it yet. And, you know, bro, I'm going to, don't you worry, I'm going to, I'm going to binge on as soon as I can. We limit the screen time with my kid, you know, so it's hard to watch... we don't watch TV, essentially, like, in her waking hours, the only TV that's going to be watched is like educational stuff, even though that would be somewhat educational. Maybe she could watch it.
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And then at night, you know, it's like, we have a glass of wine and we go to bed. So it's, yeah, it's been really, it's been really tough. And I've... what I have been catching up on when I am making time to watch something, it's been The Sopranos, I'm binging The Sopranos, which I never... I never got to see the first time around. So I will definitely get to The Last Dance. Nice! So I want to end it with two last questions.
22:54 - 23:16
So you're an author. Maybe a lot of people don't know you as an author versus knowing you as a performer, but you're an author, you are TV film actor who's been in blockbusters and dozens of TV shows. Everyone knows you from Broadway, obviously. And now you're really making your name as a recording artist, putting out some amazing content.
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What do you enjoy the most and what's the next chapter going to look like? I enjoy the collaboration, the tightrope and the butterflies
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and, you know, the theatrical experience the most. Hamilton was, people would ask me after that, what's your dream role or what is your dream project? And I'm like, yo... I just did it... like that was it! That was my wildest dream. So I... that is what I was made to do. My body's made for it, my constitution is set up for it, some people, you know, they're like, eight shows a week. They get, you know, how do you stay healthy? How is it, is it not boring?
24:06 - 24:30
I mean, that's you know, I was made for that thing, you know? So that's my favorite. I love all of it. And it's nice to take breaks because eight shows a week is a grind and it's tough on your body. And so I love my breaks away from the stage. But there's nothing like being a part of something, you know, I mean, Rent, Hamilton. I mean, there's nothing like being a part of something that you feel
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matters, makes a difference. You know, I like to say, it was the trifecta, you know, for me in entertainment, the trifecta is something that is artistically fulfilling, culturally relevant, and commercially successful. Those three things, when those three things line up in the theater, I'll just say there's nothing better. So that's my favorite.
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25:00 - 25:30
So, Leslie, Broadway just announced that they're going to remain dark probably until at least September 6th. Any thoughts about the future of live theater? I just read this article on this Bill Irwin interview in the Times today. Man, what a what a genius. And I'm so grateful for... he's 70, 70 years old. I think that counts as an elder. Now, Bill Irwin's an elder. Right. And he's and he speaks like one.
25:30 - 25:46
And I took heart from the wisdom of an elder today when he was saying that he believes we will come back. He certainly hopes he will come back. He certainly hopes we're not doing, you know, Zoom theater forever. This is what we're doing and we're making the most of it.
25:46 - 25:58
But I'd say that live theater is going to... the way it did after 9/11. It's going to have to, it's got to make a case for itself.
25:58 - 26:32
You know, I was speaking to a group of young people, one of my teachers had me come back and talk to a class of the Carnegie Mellon kids, the sophomores, I think, and I was telling them that we need them more than ever and their responsibility is to make vital, necessary, cathartic, interesting, fun work. That is their responsibility. We can't take it for granted that people are just going to come to the theater because we tell them it's important.
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We have to... we have to be happening. We have to do something inside that building that people need. In an increasingly secular society where people, you know, there are fewer houses of worship, where people are going on a regular basis to feel something communally.
26:55 - 27:30
And this is something that's been around for thousands of years. This is something that has been around, you know, since the ancient Greeks invented it. So this is something that we... that is a... that has sustained, lasted and sustained itself, lasted the test of time. But yeah, theaters got to... it's got to fight for itself. We've got to make stuff that people can't miss. Well said. I don't think the power of the performing arts can be underestimated, and I couldn't agree more. So I think that's a great spot to end.
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Leslie, thank you so much. Thanks for sharing your gifts with us during these difficult times and everything you do. And I know I speak for everyone where we're excited to see what you do next. So thanks again, man. Great seeing you. Thanks, Adam. I appreciate you, bro.
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- Adam Sansiveri
- Senior Managing Director