Published October 15, 2020
In opening UB’s 34th Distinguished Speakers Series Oct. 14, Leslie Odom Jr. spoke less as a celebrity, and more as an artist seeking to connect personally with his remote audience.
The Tony and Grammy-winning performer — best known for playing the ambitious anti-hero Aaron Burr in the hit musical “Hamilton” — talked about the importance of empathy and intentionality in forging one’s pathway in life. He described what it was like to be part of the “Hamilton” phenomenon from the moment he saw an early version of the show to his own acclaimed performance on Broadway. Especially satisfying for the audience, Odom performed two songs from “Hamilton” along with one of his original compositions from his album “Mr.”
In introducing Odom, President Satish K. Tripathi said this was the first time a Distinguished Speakers Series lecture was being presented virtually. “Despite these unconventional circumstances, this great UB tradition continues otherwise unchanged,” Tripathi noted. “As always, we remain committed to featuring compelling public figures who enlighten, entertain and foster new ways of thinking about issues of our day.”
True to series format, there was a lecture by a renowned personality, the moderator’s interjections and the posing of audience questions, albeit delivered via chat. Yet like all Zoom presentations, there were the unexpected, often delightful, add-ons impossible or unlikely in a pre-COVID setting. At one point, for example, Odom, speaking from his home in California, paused to shut off his ringing phone. Toward the end of his lecture, his toddler daughter, Lucy, happened by for a brief appearance.
Odom recalled the moment in 2014 when he first saw what would become “Hamilton” at Vassar College’s New Works Play Festival. “It was putting the Hispanic-American experience at the center of a narrative on Broadway in a way that we’ve never seen before. … It was to tell the life story of Alexander Hamilton using the signature writing style [of composer/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda] employing the use of a multiethnic group of performers and I was excited.”
Other people were excited, too, so much so that the Vassar show was sold-out “even before ‘Hamilton’ became a thing,” Odom related. Happily, he knew an usher who secured the last folding chair in the last row in a tiny black box theater. He was captivated from the get-go. “Each new song held a surprise. I remember the feeling in my body when I heard ‘Satisfied’ for the first time, ‘Wait for It’ and ‘Dear Theodosia.’ … There’s a little interstitial song called ‘The Story of Tonight’—I can get emotional thinking about it. It’s a throwaway song, almost. But as a fan of the theater, as a fan of this style of storytelling, I had never in my life seen four men of color on a stage singing about friendship and brotherhood.”
Of that experience sitting in the back row enthralled by the show’s characters and concept, Odom said he “had no idea in a million years” that he would end up in “Hamilton.” But the actor/singer who made his Broadway debut at 17 in “Rent,” was part of the original “Hamilton” cast who electrified audiences and performed before world leaders and legions of fans. Odom said he relished the chance to play Aaron Burr, the founding father who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. He cherished the bond formed with Miranda and the other cast members and enjoyed being part of a winning team. Growing up in Philadelphia, he explained, his father placed him on “every sports team within a 10-mile radius of our home.” But he was merely “alright” as an athlete. “Who wants to be just alright?” Odom asked. “The ‘Hamilton’ company was the first championship team I’d ever been a part of.”
In performances and life, Odom says he tries to feel and instill empathy. “Empathy engenders compassion and compassion changes lives and changes the world. … Empathy was my pathway to the performance of Burr. The rehearsal process for me building that guy was about making sure that my need to be liked didn’t get in the way of the story that needed to be told.”
For Odom, empathy and one’s intentions are closely intertwined and behind every performance opportunity and career milestone. He recalled seeing a touring production of “Rent” in his hometown of Philadelphia and how observing a chance wink from one performer to another inspired him to wonder about actors’ relationships off stage and what that wink might signify. Not too long afterward, he found himself in “Rent” on Broadway. In retrospect, he said, “Everything lines up behind your intention — the opportunities that come your way, the people you find surrounding you. … Much of our ultimate success lies in just how well our actions line up with our intentions.”
Nathan Matthews, associate professor in the UB Department of Theatre and Dance, served as moderator, fielding questions and posing his own on such topics as artists’ challenges during the pandemic, systemic racism on Broadway and elsewhere, and whether or not Odom is Serpent on “The Masked Singer.” Odom closed the evening with a performance of “The Room Where It Happens” from “Hamilton,” at one point including “Buffalo” in the improvised lyrics.