Leslie Odom Jr. is not an overnight success.
For many years, he was featured on a variety of television series, most notably on procedurals like CSI: Miami and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He also starred in Person of Interest, Smash, and Big Day, and he scored one-time guest appearances in everything from Supernatural to Grey’s Anatomy.
But it wasn’t until he stepped into the role of Aaron Burr in the Broadway sensation Hamilton that Odom was suddenly a star.
For stardom to be achieved via Broadway in the 21st century is itself a bit unusual given the limited number of people who get Broadway tickets. But Hamilton attracted a new audience, and Odom has been on the rise ever since.
Beyond the tonys
Having won a Tony for his portrayal of Burr (beating out Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda for the honor), Odom has parlayed his popularity into a number of ventures which have kept him high profile. Touring the country to perform with symphony orchestras — including his upcoming visit with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic— has allowed fans to hear his wide range of vocal talents.
Odom also had a successful turn as author with his inspirational story featured in Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning, and in 2017 he landed one of the lead roles in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Of course, much of this is thanks to the boost he got from Hamilton, and it was his belief in the role and determination to play Burr that led to this ascension.
To be part of the show, he had to get out of a series commitment, one which would have certainly paid more, but he was certain that Burr was the role he was meant to play, as he told the New York Times in 2016.
“As a black actor, I can just tell you that I saw the potential to turn what is expected of us so often on its head,” he said. “We’re oftentimes asked to stop the show, or to make ’em laugh, but we’re very rarely asked for vulnerability, very rarely asked for complication. And here was a role where he got to do ‘Room Where It Happens’ and he gets to do ‘Dear Theodosia.’ You just don’t find parts like that. You don’t.”
Graduating from Hamilton
Odom has often told the story of his decision to attend college at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, one of the country’s top theater programs. Offered a role in the Elton John Broadway musical Aida (which launched Fort Wayne’s own Heather Headley to fame and her own Tony Award), Odom was fully prepared to abandon school for the chance at an early career in New York.
But when his mother called crying, asking him to reconsider, he did, completing his studies in Pittsburgh before heading to Los Angeles to find work.
He said he now completely agrees with his mother on the matter, and it was that lesson among many others that led him to write his book — and to put the emphasis on those lessons rather than writing a more self-congratulatory memoir.
“As you can imagine, there are so many open doors and opportunities after Hamilton,” Odom told Entertainment Weekly as he toured the country on his book tour. “My agent said, ‘The publishers are interested in a book,’ and I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m writing a book.’ But I took the meeting. They had heard about the fact that I enjoy working with college kids. So they said, ‘What if you wrote a commencement address? What if you wrote a book and we designed it like a commencement address?’ And I said, ‘Well, that I could do.’
“In the course of writing it, I really started thinking about graduation as a metaphor. As you are sitting there with your cap and gown on college graduation day, it feels like the end of something, but also the beginning of something. That was the first of many graduations.
“Leaving Hamilton was a graduation in a lot of ways. You graduate into your 30s. I graduated into fatherhood recently. There’s all these moments of transition where you are clearly going from one time in your life to the next time and it can bring up fear. It can bring up trepidation. I just wanted to write something that would encourage people and inspire people during those moments.”
Focus on the music
Audiences and reviewers have said that Odom brings much of this wisdom to his concert performances as well, telling stories of his life before Hamilton, sharing experiences that brought him to this moment in his career. But of course it’s the music that brings people to the concert hall, and on that score, he definitely delivers.
The Daily Nebraskan said, “Odom’s style of music consists of smooth jazz pieces and Broadway hits, all backed up by a jazz quintet. Each member of the quintet is an astounding musician in his own right, and Odom gave them plenty of time to shine through their own individual solo moments throughout the concert.”
The Portland Press Herald concurred, saying, “Fronting a crack five-piece band, the singer explored a repertoire of pop and jazz standards along with a few tunes from his Broadway days during the 75-minute performance. His seasoned but smooth tenor provided many soulful, swinging and — assisted by a touch of reverb — soaring moments that showed he’s an artist and entertainer who respects musical traditions as well as recent innovations.”
Odom’s arrival in Fort Wayne is sure to thrill his admirers and bring new fans to the Fort Wayne Philharmonic.
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July 21 • Sweetwater Performace Pavilion