Leslie Odom Jr. was growing up in East Oak Lane when he got a tape recorder from his parents at age 5. He sang into it for hours on end. Move forward 29 years, past his time at Philadelphia’s Masterman High and Freedom Theatre on Broad Street, past his Broadway premiere in the musical “Rent,” and his education in the celebrated drama program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. End up this coming Sunday night at the Tony Awards and there you’ll find Leslie Odom, a nominee for best actor in a musical for his performance as Aaron Burr in the sensation “Hamilton.”
“It’s a dream come true,” says Odom, whose character is the narrator and villain of the show — the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. “Hamiilton,” which opened on Broadway early this theater season after moving from an Off-Broadway production at the Public Theatre, has changed the way its audiences think about both musicals and American history.
For Odom, his third Broadway job is a career-changer, and for the past month he’s been caught up in a whirlwind ever since “Hamilton” was nominated for 16 Tony Awards — more than any other show ever. He’s one of seven cast members up for Tonys at the 70th annual awards at the Beacon Theater in New York City. (The award show will be aired live on CBS, beginning 8 p.m. Sunday.)
“It’s a dream come true,” Odom says. “You want to be in something that feels like art and in something that people care about.” Odom cared about “Hamilton” from the first time he saw it — a bare-bones workshop at Vassar a few years ago. He was an onlooker at the time, not a participant.
“I saw this thing take flight. It was just the rudiments of the show. … It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. It was so fresh and so smart and funny and exciting. I was having a visceral experience. I was connected to it.”
Odom says his sense of professionalism began at Freedom Theatre. “There was a discipline and a pride and a self-reliance. I still consider myself a Freedom actor. It gave me my first dose of craft.”
Odom will spend his July 4 holiday in Philadelphia, where he’ll host the huge Welcome America concert and fireworks show. I spoke with him by phone between matinee and evening performances of “Hamilton.” You can hear our conversation by clicking on the audio tab above this article.