Hayden Thomas interviews "Smash" alum Leslie Odom, Jr.
Leslie Odom, Jr., hailing from Queens, New York, is perhaps best known for his TV role as Sam Strickland on the Broadway-centric musical series "Smash" on NBC, as well as his current Broadway outing as Aaron Burr in the hit musical Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The open-ended run is currently booking through to 30 October 2016.
Our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter!) caught up with Leslie for some 18th century banter:
Hayden Thomas: If you think back to the beginning, when did you first realise that 'Hamilton' was going to become the huge success that it is today?
Leslie Odom, Jr.: Well you never know if something is going to turn out like 'Hamilton.' You can never tell. But all you do know is how something affects you. That's why it can be so heart-breaking when things don't work out because for some reason it moved you and touched you and made you want to be a part of it and then it doesn't find an audience. It doesn't connect with people in the way that you hoped it would. It just breaks your heart. I had no idea that 'Hamilton' would find this kind of support and would become this phenomenon. But I'm so grateful that it has because what I can't deny is how it affected me from the beginning. When I first heard Lin-Manuel Miranda's demos, my first experiences of this piece were unlike anything I had experienced before... Well, not since 'Rent.' 'Rent' was the show that brought me to theatre and helped me find my way into this business. There have been times when it has been quite difficult to make a living and you wonder why you are doing this and then 'Hamilton' comes along and reminds you of why you started this thing in the first place.
HT: As you put it, 'Hamilton' certainly has become a "phenomenon," so what are the key ingredients of the musical in the recipe of its phenomenal success?
LOJ: I think that firstly it's the music. It's the melodies, the lyrics, the rhythms - it's the most contemporary score that exists in the theatre at this moment. The music is our music. If you are ten years older than me or if you are ten years younger than me - Lin is only a year older than I am - this is the music we've been listening to our whole lives. I am acutely aware of the music that inspires him to write a show like this. That's what it is first and foremost. And then it's a story that has it all really. It has the joy and pathos that you look for in an evening at the theatre. One of the reasons why we feel so connected with the audience after the show is because we really feel like we've lived so much life together. We've fought a war together. We've seen the birth of children. We've seen death and real tragedy and we've built a nation. So it's also the story.
HT: Every time I see new pictures released of 'Hamilton,' it nearly always involves some new celebrities that have seen the show and met the cast backstage. Are you completely used to that now or have you ever been a little star-struck?
LOJ: Well, meeting Jay-Z and Beyoncé was a big deal because stars in the music industry are different from anybody else. They really are worldwide stars. I did a movie once with the singer Ne-Yo, who recently was in "The Wiz Live!". It was a George Lucas movie and we shot it in Prague. This was about five or six years ago. Ne-Yo walked down the streets of Prague and is just as famous as he is in LA. It gave me a new kind of respect for the power of those people who make 'stadium music.' They are international celebrities. So whenever we have music stars, it feels a little special. Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Katy Perry, those kinda people, you feel their power in a different way. But mostly for me, the kinda people that make it a little difficult for me to speak are actors, who are either indie film or theatre actors - not necessarily the most famous people - but I have been a fan of their work for a long time. People like that will make me star-struck faster than a big movie star.
HT: It has already been reported that Sir Cameron Mackintosh has bought the rights to produce 'Hamilton' in the West End. I was just wondering how you perceive London audiences reacting to a musical that has such an American story and style?
LOJ: I certainly hope that London will like it as much as America does. I have no idea though. We will have to take that journey when it comes. I don't want to assume anything but I feel London is going to recognise this music. London will recognise this story of a bunch of guys that were trying to make something happen and make their country great. They were petty and brilliant and brash and... rude (laughs) and the show has a spirit of generosity. Normally what we find is that the show is received the way that it is given and we really do give it with as much generosity and love as we can, so I hope London will respond to that.
HT: Do you feel you would like to make a West End debut yourself or do you feel quite tied to New York?
LOJ: Oh I would absolutely love a West End debut! That's my American dream in the same way that my friend Cynthia Erivo is over here making her Broadway debut in 'The Color Purple' and that was her dream. The West End is absolutely something that I'd be interested in and I hope that I'll be afforded the opportunity.
HT: Before that though, the Tony Awards will take place. I was wondering if it is a positive or a somewhat strange feeling to be in the musical which is such a clear frontrunner to win Best Musical at the Tonys?
LOJ: Oh I don't think about it to be honest. The thing I like about the timing of this - and it was by design really as they decided to wait another season - is that by the time the Tonys happen (and it would be wonderful if we win) but we will have been open for almost a year. I'm going to be coming to the end of my contract by then. What I would say is that, while that would be wonderful, it is not going to be the defining moment of the experience of this show for me. And I am so happy about that. Most of the time that I'll have done this show, it will have had nothing to do with the Tony Awards. I do hope that the show gets everything it has coming to it, but I'm also happy that we had so much time before that. We've had so many good times. We've been popping bottles since it opened. We're just celebrating the thing that we love so much. In June, we'll either continue to celebrate with a Tony win or we won't. This is my first time with all this too. I've never been a part of the Tony Awards before. I have no idea what it's like to go through the whole Tonys process.
HT: Well, I'm sure there will be a few more bottles popped, as you say, around that time. Actually, it's a wonder that the cast aren't permanently drunk, Leslie! They'll be carrying out breathalyzer tests in the wings, if you're not careful!
LOJ: (Laughs) Yes! I had to actually stop drinking after every show. I was having people visit me in my dressing room after each show and early on in the run, I realised I couldn't do it anymore. So no more drinking for me after the shows.
HT: I can't even turn on a laptop when I'm hungover, let alone sing, rap and dance for two and a half hours, I tell you.
LOJ: (Laughs) Exactly!
HT: Now I was a big fan of "Smash" and I know you took part in the 'Bombshell in Concert' event over the Summer. Would you like to be involved in the actual Broadway production of 'Bombshell' in the future?
LOJ: You know the thing that 'Hamilton' has done for better or for worse is that this is the role of a lifetime. You can't know if another 'Hamilton' will come along, but I do know that the kind of roles I'll be looking for are the ones that will challenge me to do things I have never done before. I don't know what they have in mind for the 'Bombshell' musical, but if they find a way to make that role interesting and challenging for me, then sure! But after playing Aaron Burr, it will be hard to go backwards.
HT: Well, we'll have to stay tuned then. I won't take up any more of your time, Leslie, so I just want to thank you for speaking to me and I wish you continued success.
LOJ: Thank you so much.
Hamilton is currently booking at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre through to 30 October 2016.