The entertainer discusses his latest film Murder On the Orient Express and album, Simply Christmas.
Singer and Actor Leslie Odom, Jr.
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight a conversation with Tony and Grammy winner, Leslie Odom, Jr. best known, of course, for originating the role of Aaron Burr in the Broadway musical, “Hamilton”. He’s just released a deluxe edition of his critically acclaimed “Simply Christmas” album.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with actor and singer, Leslie Odom, Jr. in just a moment.
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Tavis: I am delighted, tickled, to have Leslie Odom, Jr. on this program. He’s best known, of course, as originating the role of Aaron Burr in the juggernaut Broadway musical hit, “Hamilton”, but he’s now focused on music and film projects and has just released a deluxe edition of his critically acclaimed “Simply Christmas” album.
You can also see him in theaters in Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express”. You’re a busy brother [laugh]. Before our conversation, though, here now some of the video for “Christmas Waltz”.
Tavis: That voice of yours, man, that voice. When did you know you had this? How old were you when you knew this was your gift?
Leslie Odom, Jr.: I don’t know. I still don’t know [laugh].
Tavis: If you don’t know by now, you ain’t never gonna know [laugh].
Odom, Jr.: You know, I was singing since I was a kid. And when I was a teenager, I got serious about it. But you know how it is. I mean, when I was singing in Philly, I was singing with singers, you know. There was no musical theater to speak of in Philly, so it’s like when I was singing, I was with singers. When I was dancing, I was with dancers. So I was always the worst in the class. You know what I mean? It was a good thing.
Tavis: If you say so.
Odom, Jr.: It was a good thing. It kept me reaching. It kept me, you know, climbing. So probably about 13 is when I started to take it seriously.
Tavis: Are you doing now what you wanted to do? Is this what you had planned when you realized that you had the talent?
Odom, Jr.: Yeah. It’s crazy how faithful God has been and how the dream has sort of manifested and happened before my eyes. I’m humbled by it. At this point, it’s farther than I ever thought I could go. So if it all stopped today, I would have to, you know, sit down and smile and be grateful to God because, like I said, it’s farther than I ever imagined really.
Tavis: Let me pick that apart or you help me pick it apart. So if it stopped today, it isn’t, thankfully, and so much more for you to do. You’re just getting started in a very real way. But if it stopped today or, for that matter, if it continued and you never got back to Broadway, I can’t imagine — this is just me — I can’t imagine that you could ever find anything like what you did with Aaron Burr.
I mean, I know what Broadway is, I know what Broadway isn’t, and you know where I’m going with this. I mean, whether your Broadway career stopped or continued, how would you ever — I don’t want to say top that, but how would you ever…
Odom, Jr.: You know, I think if you are divinely blessed, you are lucky if you get to touch your truest potential, if you get to touch your greatest potential once in your life, some people — Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson — some people touch it again and again and top themselves.
That’s what we all strive to do, but there’s other people who you can look back and really their career is defined by one truly spectacular work, one seminal, incredible moment where we got to see the fullness of who they were.
So I had to reckon with that after “Hamilton”. I had to go if that was it — in the middle of it, I was saying that. We all were. You know, me, Renee, Chris, Daveed, Lin, we’re not kids. You know, we’re young and stuff, but we’re not 18, 19 years old.
So we’ve been out there a minute, so we knew how special it was and we knew how lucky we were, again, to touch it once. Now we go on from here and we try to see what we can do from there. But, again, if a “Hamilton” never was to happen for me again, it happened once.
Tavis: How do you process that strategically with the decisions you make after something like “Hamilton”?
Odom, Jr.: I remember, I mean, we’re here sort of to talk about the album and talk about this Disney Concert Hall concert that we have on the 8th. I so clearly remember a few years ago right before I turned 30 when the phone wasn’t ringing at all. And meeting with a mentor of mine, meeting with Wren Brown and meeting with…
Tavis: Hey, Wren, you got another shout-out on this show [laugh] for Wren Brown. Yeah, I love him, yeah.
Odom, Jr.: Meeting with Wren, meeting with Stuart K. Robinson and saying to those brothers like, “I am ready to do something else. I’m ready to move on to something. I want to know that I’m gonna get a check on Thursdays. I want to know what that check is going to say. I’m sick of the up and down.”
And Wren gave me some fabulous advice, but Stuart gave me the advice that changed my life. He said, “You could quit. That’s fine if you want to do that, but I’d love to see you try first. I’d love to see you try before you quit.” I looked at him like he was crazy. “What do you mean? I’m out here working…
Tavis: I’m hustling.
Odom, Jr.: Yeah, I’m hustling, right? Stuart was like, “Okay. So the phone didn’t ring for you today, right? I think when you get calls, when you get an audition, you show up and you do a great job. You’re present. You do a great job, so the phone didn’t ring today. What did you do for yourself today? Do you know that there’s coffee shops and clubs all around Los Angeles that would have you singing every night of the week if you wanted to?”
It had never occurred to me. He pointed out, you know, half of my business that I was ignoring. So after “Hamilton” for me, all I wanted to make sure was that I was never again in that position again. I never wanted to be sitting on my couch waiting for a phone call to come to me to get to work.
So we record, we make music, I’m all around the country meeting people, singing for sold-out crowds. That is like I get to make my living as an artist. You know, I get to feed myself and stay inspired and inspire other people as an artist. It’s as good as it gets.
Tavis: And singing nationwide jingles [laugh] and getting checks for that. You ain’t gotta go nowhere [laugh].
Odom, Jr.: Yeah.
Tavis: That’s the best kind of money, ain’t it, the kind that keeps coming in?
Odom, Jr.: One day of work. That’s not bad. And the thing about nationwide, you know, I mean, as a singer, growing up as a vocalist, I would tap in to other vocalists, right? You know, “The best part of waking up…” You know what I mean? Like I used to sing those jingles, so to get to sort of have a moment where we got to make our own jingle, it was like a childhood wishful thinking.
Tavis: See, I figure if Luther can sing about chicken…
Odom, Jr.: And Patti can sing about McDonalds, yeah, listen.
Tavis: You see my point [laugh]? That’s not a bad start, singing about insurance. Tell me what it’s like now. Because we talked about the phone not ringing, so now that the phone is ringing off the hook, you may not be taking it off the hook because it’s ringing so much, but now that it’s ringing so much and now that you’re traveling around the world, because Wren and I are friends as well, we were talking about you one day a few months ago.
You were on the other side of the world and he told me what you were doing for the three nights you were doing it and what the crowds were like on the other side of the world. I was like, “Leslie has really, really blown up.” So now that you’ve experienced this, how are you being received around the world and what are you hearing about what you were able to do with Aaron Burr?
Odom, Jr.: I think “Hamilton” is one of those pieces of work — there’s very few things that we share across generations. You know, people my age share the show with their parents and their children. It holds a special place in peoples’ homes and with their families because it’s like, “Me and my kids listened to this on the way to school. You’re a part of what unites me and my kids.
You’re a part of what unites me and my parents. You know, I don’t share anything with my parents. There’s nothing that we think is cool together.” So that’s what I found mostly is that it’s something that is uniting people around a dinner table.
Tavis: One last question about that and we’ll move on to some other things, including this CD. How do you think years from now you’re going to look back on the “Hamilton” experience with specific regard, Leslie, to what that moment meant for a stage full of people of color?
It is possible — you don’t want to make too much of these things because you never know — it’s possible, though, that that experience was a gamechanger for other productions that we know not of at this moment that will star a cast full of colored folk because they now know that it can work. How do you regard that part of the journey?
Odom, Jr.: I remember I replaced Titus Burgess, Emmy nominee Titus Burgess. He’s on “Kimmy Schmidt” now, but he was in “Jersey Boys”. I mean, the phenomenon, “Jersey Boys” up in La Jolla. Titus left on opening night to go do another show in New York and I replaced him.
So I saw the birth of a phenomenon. You know, these sold-out crowds at La Jolla standing up, people going crazy. I remember really with no jealousy, but looking at that thing honestly like.
So here’s a situation and I’ve seen it over the years where four white dudes get to sort of come out of college and use the best of themselves. They really get to like see what they’re made of. They get to use their training and just, you know, flex.
That didn’t exist for me. That didn’t exist for people like me and it didn’t exist for Lin. And where Lin-Manuel Miranda steps in is that he created it for himself and for people like me.
So now little brown kids, little Asian kids, little Latino kids, little Black kids that are in these conservatories learning how to do Shakespeare and Moliere and all this stuff, they get to come out and they have a place where they can go flex. They have a place where they can use their skills on a “Hamilton” stage. That’s extraordinary.
Tavis: So I suspect while you were on the stage in New York doing “Hamilton”, there are all kinds of opportunities that were coming at you then that you, obviously, couldn’t access because you were onstage every night. So how did you get around to even doing a Christmas project?
Odom, Jr.: Oh, man. You know, any free hour that I had, it’s not easy, but it’s just about, you know, we have an opportunity right now. I didn’t want anything to go untapped. I didn’t want any skill to go untapped, any opportunity to go.
I just wanted to take advantage of all of it. We signed with S-Curve Records and we put out two projects. They both went to number one on the Billboard Jazz charts, and here we are.
Tavis: I’ve asked this question of so many others, but it’s impossible to put out a Christmas album if you’re not singing it in the summer or some other time of year [laugh]. So what was your trick for getting in the spirit? We saw that wonderful footage of you in the studio, but it seems weird to be singing Christmas stuff in the dead of summer.
Odom, Jr.: It’s true. No, I made them decorate the studio and I also revisited the holiday albums that I loved growing up. So it’s Nat, of course, it’s Nat King Cole and it’s Natalie, of course. But it’s also, you know, Boyz II Men who I think made a classic Christmas record, and just really analyzing what is it that I love about these records? What is it about them that made me want to bring them home with me and keep them around, you know, make them part of the traditions?
Tavis: We played a bit of the “Christmas Waltz” when we started the conversation. I’m always fascinated because there’s so many great Christmas songs how every artist who does a Christmas project decides what he or she wants to put on theirs. Tell me more about that process.
Odom, Jr.: Well, I made a list and if you decided…
Tavis: Checked it twice…
Odom, Jr.: Checked it two times [laugh]. But, you know, if you wanted to make a Christmas album today, your phone would start blowing up with “Tavis, you gotta sing this one”. So, you know, requests and suggestions started flowing in from the record company and my producer and stuff. You whittle it down to what you feel like, for me, anyway, I wanted to make something that felt honest and fresh and classic, you know.
But it was trickier than we thought it would be because singing Christmas songs around the house is very different than when you hear them coming out of very expensive speakers. You know, when the microscope is on them, you want to make sure that they’re sincere. You know, Christmas music can be saccharine or it can be corny, and I didn’t want to put out a project like that.
Tavis: Let me put you on the spot. Tell me which of these tracks came easiest for you, which is to say, you got in the studio and you just — one or two takes, it just flowed and it was, “Oh, my God, I can’t do any better than that. It was easy”. Which one was the most challenging to get it the way you wanted it?
Odom, Jr.: Great question. The first and the last one came out easiest, so that…
Tavis: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”?
Odom, Jr.: Yeah.
Tavis: And “Ave Maria”.
Odom, Jr.: Yeah.
Tavis: I can see that latter would be easy for you. I can see that, yeah.
Odom, Jr.: Yeah. Those two, just because I knew exactly— those are two of my favorite songs — I knew sort of exactly how I wanted to do them. So it was just about getting like the honest take of it. You know, just dropping down and getting real honest. So maybe three or four takes of those and then probably the trickiest one was…
Tavis: One you had to work on, yeah [laugh], as he looks at the CD and studies it, yeah.
Odom, Jr.: Oh, I’ll tell you. “Please Come Home for Christmas”. We had Kuk Harrell, my friend, Kuk, produced the vocals on that. Kuk produces, you know, all Rhianna’s vocals, Jessie J. I mean, you know, Kuk is a magician, what he can do with a singer. Because it’s very vulnerable with a singer. You know, when you trust somebody else to give you notes and to push you, Kuk is a great coach.
You know what I mean? He really dials in and makes you better. So “Please Come Home for Christmas”, we spent a few hours because that’s not my wheelhouse, so to speak. You know, that’s not really how I sing all the time. I like to sing sort of light and pretty and Kuk was like, “No, this ain’t light and pretty. Like you gotta give more.” So, yeah, that was probably the hardest.
Tavis: I’m glad you phrased that because I was just — I mean, you are a prescient because I was just about to ask you how you — I’ve said so many times. Every artist, if they’re honest, starts out copying somebody. The world is full of too many copies and not enough originals.
I was just watching for the umpteenth time the movie, “Ray”, the other night. You remember that scene where they’re in the studio and they’ve just signed Ray. Ahmet Ertegun is talking to Ray. He’s like “I don’t want another Charles Brown. I don’t want another Nat King Cole. I want a Ray Charles. That’s why we signed you.”
So that every artist starts out copying somebody until you come into your own and develop your own song stylings. So I’m glad you gave me that phrase, “light and pretty”, because it just has a lilt to it when you sing. How did you develop that? Just tell me about the process of developing your own sound.
Odom, Jr.: Billy Porter. You know, Billy, Tony…
Odom, Jr.: Tony and Grammy Award-winning Tony Porter. He’s been a mentor and a teacher friend of mine. Billy analyzed it for me, you know, because he sings very differently than I do. And he pointed out, he said, “You know, it’s really the singers you grow up listening to.”
So when I grew up, you know, in the 90s and stuff, the microphone technology had advanced to a certain point where the singes that I was listening to were whispering essentially. You know what I mean? Into the microphone. Janet Jackson and Brandi, you know.
Even the R&B singers of my day sing a lot differently than, you know, when you were essentially almost microphoneless, you know, back in the day. So I think that’s where it comes from, you know. Like music was an intimate experience that, you know, we had the advances in like headphone technology and stuff. It’s really an intimate experience.
So music, yeah, for me was like, you know, I sort of was about crafting it as small as it could be and putting the microphone right here. So Billy was all about expanding — my work with him over the years has all been about expanding my voice.
A lot of our fights would be about, you know, like, “Billy, I’m not you. I can’t do it like you. I can’t sing like you. You’re amazing, but I can’t do that.” Billy would always be, “I don’t want you to do it like me. I’m trying to help you find the sixth gear inside of you. I’m trying to help you find your squall, you know, the maximum potential in there.”
I thank God that he did because I call it my 10, you know, on the scale of 1 to 10, Billy helped me find my 10. You know, “Hamilton” is like I come out. I came out onstage on 10. I look for opportunities now to go to that place because it’s so scary and dangerous and fun. But for a while, it was very — you know, that was not where I wanted to go.
Tavis: Let me shift from the music to the acting now because obviously in “Hamilton”, you’re doing both. The “Orient Express”? How’d that happen? The Sean Connery role is the role that you play, yeah?
Odom, Jr.: Yeah. I got one of those calls. I got a call from Ken Branagh that said — or I got an email about the project that said, “I was the only one that Ken was really considering for the part.” He’d seen “Hamilton” and he was considering me. But all I had to do was make a tape. I still had to make a tape and then I had to have a conversation with him.
I put the tape off for weeks because I was like I’d never really had an experience like that with somebody. Okay, so now what is he expecting to see on that tape? You know, how good does this thing have to be? So I was nervous about it, but I finally made the tape.
You know, the chance as I’m moving into film where I had the desire to move into more film work, to work with somebody who’s traversed film and stage and television, you know, both sides of the camera so well. I mean, who’s done it better than Ken? You know, Denzel — there’s only a few people that have really made that transition. So to learn from him was what I was after.
Tavis: How do you balance this? Because Denzel’s a great actor. I’ve heard him sing, so you don’t want to, yeah [laugh]. Sorry, D. But you’re a triple threat, quite frankly, but certainly with the singing and the acting is concerned. So you want to do more acting. You want to do more film work. I hear you say that, but how do you balance that? Or does it have to be balanced?
Odom, Jr.: Well, you know, for me the thing that I don’t have to wait for, I don’t have to wait for an incoming call to make music, you know. If nothing else is happening, if nothing else is popping, we’re gonna be in the studio making music. We’re gonna be out, you know, doing concerts.
And then, every now and again, I get a call to be a part of something really great. We have, you know, a great year planned next year. But, yeah, the film work is the most interesting because, I’ll tell you this. The thing that I am most interested in doing is all the stuff that no one would have had me do before “Hamilton”, as you can imagine.
You know, I did a fair amount of television and theater work before “Hamilton”. Those, thank goodness, after a lot of knocking, those doors were opened. Nobody was checking for me in film. Nobody was checking for me in music. So, you know, now it’s just about doing the things that we couldn’t do three years ago.
Tavis: Do you expect that you will go back to theater at some point? And is that so far off that you can’t even see it or is it something that is more immediate than I think it might be?
Odom, Jr.: Well, theater is a real sacrifice, you know. Like you said, you know, you’re chained to that theater. You know, the thing about an “Orient Express” or this album even, you make the thing, you sort of go in, you make it for an intense two or three months, and then you’re free [laugh].
You get to sort of — you know, theater is like we had to show up and make that thing every night, which that’s the beauty of it, but that’s what’s taxing. It’s taxing. So it has to be worth it. It has to be something that’s worth it and you’d be hard-pressed for fans of the genre, for fans of the theater, especially the musical theater.
Straight plays is a little different. There’s more roles. You know, you got more opportunities. But you’d be hard-pressed to think of five roles that have existed in the entire musical theater can that are as rich and ask as much of a performer as Aaron Burr did.
So I can’t go backwards, can’t go backwards. You know, I would love to do more musical theater, but it has to be something that’s gonna challenge me. It has to be something that’s worthy or I’ll go make my music.
Tavis: Like I said, it’s gonna be a while [laugh].
Odom, Jr.: It might be a while.
Tavis: That’s a long way of saying it might be a minute. Let me close in the minute and a half I have left by asking — and I’m gonna be a bit presumptuous here. But if I were a performer, there are a number of stages in this country that I would just die to perform on.
Who’s gonna turn down Carnegie Hall, if they ever invite you to Carnegie? There are a number of stages, but here in L.A., for us, playing Disney Hall is a pretty big deal, and you get a chance to do that.
Odom, Jr.: You said it. I mean, you know, I think back to that guy three or four years ago who just had nothing going. You know what I mean? Now we get, you know, a sold-out solo engagement at Disney Concert Hall. It’s a dream come true.
Tavis: There you have it. As if he didn’t have enough stuff already to do, the Christmas project is called “Simply Christmas”. It’s a deluxe edition, so you added some stuff to this since it first came out.
Odom, Jr.: We did, yeah.
Tavis: “Simply Christmas” deluxe edition. Leslie Odom, Jr. You can see him in “Murder on the Orient Express”. Disney Hall, already sold out, so if you can get the hook-up [laugh], if you can get the hook-up…
Odom, Jr.: I’ll see you there.
Tavis: December 8 at Disney Hall. In the 20 seconds I have left, we always refer to you as we should as Leslie Odom, Jr. Tell me quickly about Leslie Odom, Sr.
Odom, Jr.: He a fool [laugh]. He’s a riot and a fool and, you know, just like my first inspiration and my first teacher, him and my mom.
Tavis: I love it. Proud of you, man. Honored to have you on, Leslie.
Odom, Jr.: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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