To those who know Leslie Odom Jr. for his Tony Award-winning turn in the world-conquering musical “Hamilton,” the dashing singer-actor might seem some kind of overnight success.
The truth is, Odom, now 35, spent years striving to make a name for himself in a very tough business before landing the role of a lifetime as Aaron Burr, the politician who famously (and fatally) shoots the title hero in “Hamilton.”
At 17, Odom became the youngest-ever actor hired for the Broadway production of “Rent"; he went on to play numerous roles in theater around the country, as well as in film and TV, including a key part in the series “Smash” just before “Hamilton” (created by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda) broke big.
His career brought him to San Diego a dozen years ago for a part in what would become La Jolla Playhouse’s most celebrated show ever; he returned last fall, fresh off his Tony triumph, to perform at the Old Globe Theatre’s annual gala.
Now Odom, who has released a pair of solo albums, comes to town again for two nights of performances as part of the San Diego Symphony’s Bayside Summer Nights concert series. Beyond the star’s vocal pyrotechnics, there will be actual fireworks both nights, which suits Odom just fine.
“I don’t know what it is about fireworks - they make us all into 9-year-olds,” he said by phone on Tuesday, just before he was to perform in the Boston Pops’ annual Independence Day celebration. “It’s really beautiful how fireworks can reduce us all to childhood wonder. There are very few things in life like that. Fireworks and roller coasters do that to me.”
Now newly resettled in Los Angeles with his wife, Nicolette, and their 10-week-old daughter, Lucy, Odom is working on a book titled “Failing Up: How to Rise Above, Do Better, and Never Stop Learning.”
He’ll also appear in director Kenneth Branagh’s reboot of the movie “Murder on the Orient Express,” due this fall, and he continues to do frequent live shows. (Odom left “Hamilton” a year ago this week.)
Odom recently chatted with the Union-Tribune about his pair of Bayside Summer Nights shows, his path to success and what comes next:
We’re looking forward to seeing you back in San Diego; what can you tell us about the first time you came to town?
I came in to replace Tituss Burgess, the Emmy Award nominee who’s on (the Netflix series) “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” now - he started in “Jersey Boys” at La Jolla Playhouse and left four or five days after they opened to go into another show. So I was there for the entire run of “Jersey Boys” (playing multiple supporting roles).
I got to see the birth of that phenomenon, which was pretty cool - and like nothing I had ever seen up until “Hamilton.” I was really watching something connect with people in a visceral, very real way.
(And) it’s a beautiful town. My family doesn’t always travel with me, because it’s tricky to travel with a baby. But the fact that it’s San Diego, and the fact that I’m performing with the orchestra was sort of too good to pass up. So my family’s coming with me this time, which is really nice. We’ll definitely get to the beach and probably have a nice couple of meals before we head back.
Speaking of the Playhouse, you also worked with artistic director Christopher Ashley when he directed you in “Leap of Faith” on Broadway. Did you happen to see him at the Tonys a few weeks ago?
I saw him two minutes after he won his Tony (for directing the Playhouse-launched “Come From Away”). So I was able to give him a big hug, take a picture with him. It was really nice.
He’s been working hard for a long time. I’ve never worked with a kinder or more good-natured director than Chris. He can give you any note, any adjustment, and do it in a way that is gracious and doesn’t make your defenses go up.
I’ve seen him give really sensitive actors really pointed and direct notes in a way that didn’t involve ego, and still managed to be kind. He’s a really good man.
Leslie Odom Jr.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: San Diego Symphony Bayside Summer Nights at Embarcadero Marina Park South, 200 Marina Park Way, downtown
Tickets: About $23-$91
It seems as though you’ve been doing live performances non-stop (to borrow from “Hamilton”) over the past year or so. What do you most enjoy about those shows?
It creates freedom all over my life, because I don’t have to do eight shows a week. I get to be Burr for 15 minutes - I don’t have to be Burr for 15 months! (Laughs.) It’s a real treat.
And performing with the orchestra - the cost of that can be very prohibitive for an artist, so it’s not something you get to do often. It’s a real gift.
Can you give us a sense of what you might perform here?
We don’t believe in leaving an audience disappointed. So we’ll definitely do “Hamilton” stuff. We do stuff from other shows I’ve done on Broadway. We do stuff from the albums. Sometimes the orchestra suggests stuff.
Most likely at this moment, people are coming because they want to hear their favorite “Hamilton” tunes. We don’t disappoint in that way, but we do want to introduce them to the other things I do as a singer as well, that they might enjoy just as much.
Before you took on the role of Aaron Burr, he was known mostly as kind of a one-dimensional historical villain. Was bringing complexity to that character - investing him with traits that people maybe never expected - one of the more gratifying aspects of “Hamilton” for you?
For sure. I love a challenge right at the outset, and that was my challenge. It was a formidable one. You’re dealing with character, but you’re also dealing with what people come into the theater knowing about the performers. And so there’s a great deal of very warranted love and affection for Lin. Not (just) Hamilton, but Lin.
And I had to shoot our hero eight shows a week! (Laughs) And so I knew there were going to be at least a great deal of nasty looks coming my way.
I just wanted to make it hard to write (Burr) off. I wanted to imbue the role and the performance with as much humanity and beauty and pettiness and silliness as I could - just to make him a fully functioning, living, breathing human being. So it would make people hopefully see themselves in him; to put themselves in his position and ask themselves, “What would I have done?”
I don’t know if I was always successful, but I think now and again I was able to do that. And that was the goal always.
Do you still follow the show - have you seen it on tour or on Broadway lately?
I haven’t been able to, but I’m in Los Angeles, and they’re coming to L.A. for a long stint, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to see the L.A. company. I have a bunch of friends who are performing in the road company now. So I’m looking forward to seeing the show.
Some distance was good, too. I would like to see it with fresh eyes as well. I’m a fan of the thing, so I also would like to see it and take the emotional journey like everybody else.
How did your book project come about?
The agency and publishers were interested to see if there was a project that could work for us in the literary space. They came to me with the idea, because they know how excited I get when I’m talking to a group of young people. Especially college-age people - that’s my favorite kind of room to speak to. I think because it was just such a wonderful and formative time in my life, so it’s always a pleasure to revisit that time, to touch that time again in my life.
And it’s always my great joy to speak to someone and help them through the difficult moments. Because there are many, especially if you embark on a career like this.
I didn’t think there was anything I’d have to offer the literary space. But they really had given care and thought to the kind of book that I might write. And they nailed it.
If there’s one lesson you’ve learned that you’d particularly like to pass along, what would it be?
I think the main thing is that you don’t get any prizes these days for waiting around. You are expected to have your own things cooking; you’re expected to have your own things in development.
The good news about that is it’s never in vain. It always leads you to the next place. It always pushes you a little farther.
And that is not something that I knew. It took me a long time to learn that. But once I really got it, it changed my life.