Leslie Odom finds inspiring words, but sticks to music
It was a turning point for Leslie Odom Jr., the Tony Award-winning actor who played Aaron Burr in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton!”
It was 2011 and though he was getting parts here and there in TV, film and on stage, Odom felt his career had stalled. He was depressed, thought about giving up acting and was immobile as he hung out on his couch just waiting for the phone to ring with an offer for a rewarding role.
Then came advice from a mentor-teacher that would change his life.
“What did you do on your own behalf today?” his friend asked. “Did you do anything other than wait?”
That was just the jump-start he needed which started him on a path self-empowerment and eventually, to “Hamilton.”
Odom has taken those words of wisdom he received — as well as other lessons in life and career he learned along the way — and put them in a small-but-significant book — perfect for holiday gift-giving — called “Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher and Never Stop Learning.”
But not to worry. Odom, 37, hasn’t given up acting and singing to become a motivational speaker — though he would be quite mesmerizing if he did, recalling his show-stopping number as Aaron Burr from “Hamilton,” “The Room Where It Happens.”
Since leaving “Hamilton” in 2016 after its first year in Broadway, his singing career is flourishing with two albums — including a holiday recording — and concerts. He will be performing with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra on Dec. 8 at The Bushnell in Hartford, just a few days before the national tour of “Hamilton” lands there for a three-week run.
In the concert he’ll sing songs from his records, from the TV series “Smash,” where he played Sam Strickland, from “Rent” which he performed on Broadway when he was 17 — and still in high school — and, of course, his show-stoppers from “Hamilton.”
“Anybody who got to see me in ‘Hamilton’ saw me living my absolute wildest dream,” he says, “so it takes a second after your wildest dream comes true to dream a new dream, to figure out what the heck you want to do next. Two years later I feel like I’m ready.”
This interview took place on Election Day and he had just finished up volunteering in the Philadelphia area on behalf of Democratic candidates and “just doing my part.”
He says he first became engaged in civic action in 2008 “when a young senator from Chicago who looked like me ran for president. And ‘Hamilton’ certainly had a profound effect on me and how I felt about what my responsibilities were as a citizen.”
Of the decision to write “Failing Up,” he says publishers approached him to write a book when “Hamilton” hit, but he felt it was too early to write a memoir, so instead he wrote it as if he were giving a commencement address, offering realistic words of advice, hope and inspiration.
But the book, he says, will appeal to those of any age who might be experiencing a transition in their lives.
“Everyone runs into roadblocks at some time in their careers,” he says, “and you have to figure out, why you do what you do? What is it about this thing that you love? Why did you choose it?”
Odom encourages people to be “a good student of the universe and to listen to what it’s telling you. If you listen, there are always new lessons to be learned and the faster you learn those lessons the faster you can move on and escape from repeating the same patterns.”
Besides the “Failing Up” and the concert tours, Odom is working on a new recording “that keeps me in the same lane of jazz-contemporary pop — but this time with all original songs.”
This year he was part of a starry ensemble in Kenneth Branagh’s film “Murder on the Orient Express” and he recently completed production on two other features: “Only,” starring opposite Freida Pinto from writer-director Takashi Doscher and an as-yet untitled feature film directorial debut from recording artist Sia. Odom will also star in the film “Needle in a Timestack” written and directed by John Ridley.
He’s also filming “Harriet,” about Harriet Tubman who helped free hundreds of slaves from the South after escaping from slavery herself in 1849. Odom plays abolitionist and conductor of the Underground Railroad William Still and Cynthia Erivo (Tony Award winner for “The Color Purple”) plays Tubman.
Besides starring in the TV series “One Dollar” for CBS Access, Odom is also doing a pilot for an ABC comedy series which Kerry Washington is executive producing. In it Odom plays a pastor at a young, hip, diverse church in Los Angeles.
Though he left “Hamilton” two years ago it’s still in his heart and says he will be cheering when the creative team receives the Kennedy Center Honor this month in Washington, D.C.
And if he were to leave a note in the Bushnell dressing room for Nicholas Christopher, who is playing Burr on tour, what would he say?
“Enjoy this moment and stay as present as you possibly can,” says Odom. “There are so many small beautiful gifts right in the present moment.”
Leslie Odom and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra concert is Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $45.50 to $103. Information: bushnell.org and 860-987-5900.
Freelance writer Frank Rizzo covers arts in Connecticut and New York.