Leslie Odom Jr. wasn’t always the Tony Award-winning originator of the role of Aaron Burr in the musical sensation “Hamilton.” But on his way there, he learned to ask himself tough questions to keep himself on track to achieve his dreams, and he savored the transformative moments he discovered in the presence of art.
Odom will return to the University of Virginia this weekend as the UVa President’s Speaker for the Arts. The Broadway, film and television actor, singer and author will address listeners at 3 p.m. Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Odom, who first performed for local audiences as part of UVa’s Bicentennial Launch Celebration in October 2017, said there are many reasons to make room in modern life for art.
“I think the arts can be valuable for many reasons,” Odom said. “Some people go to the arts to escape. I go to the arts for catharsis, for that spontaneous release of emotions — laughter, tears, awe, shock.”
One of the qualities Odom loves about theater is “connections,” he said. The minute one settles into a Broadway seat, the smartphone must be turned off and put away. It’s time to experience art itself — not someone else’s report on what art is, or a selfie with it. The magic of theater requires that the audience member make an effort to join the story.
“If you want to tell someone about it, you have to tell them,” he said of the theater experience. “It’s dusty. It’s from another time. It’s analog.”
These moments when art introduces itself to the heart and mind bring priceless perspectives.
“When any kind of art comes through, you’re a participant, but you’re also an observer,” Odom said. “When it’s done right, you get to be an observer as well.”
After years of seeking connections with audiences through singing and acting, Odom has shared some milestones from his artistic quest in book form.
Published in March by Feiwel & Friends, Odom’s recent book, “Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher and Never Stop Learning,” dives into stories from his life and career and asks readers a series of thought-provoking questions — all with an eye toward helping them figure out how to address transitions in their own lives.
“I go and speak at colleges and do master classes ten to fifteen times a year,” Odom said. The publishers’ original idea for the book was, “What if I wrote a book in the form of a commencement address?” Odom said. “I definitely felt I had something to offer college students, or the graduating seniors.”
After all, life brings one transition, or graduation, after another.
“I graduated into marriage, into fatherhood,” he said. “I graduated out of ‘Hamilton.’”
Each transition brings a feeling of “excitement mixed with fear,” so Odom the author “spoke to encourage people — and myself,” he said with a warm chuckle.
Odom cherishes the opportunity “Hamilton” gave him to watch an idea turn into a work of art that resonates with people from all backgrounds. Seeing other actors in the roles that he and his castmates created has its bittersweet moments.
“The people that I shared that experience with are never far from me,” Odom said. “So much of who they are is baked into these roles, and even when they’re aren’t there, they are.”
When he watches other actors play Burr — one actor in the role warmly referred to Odom as his “Burr great-grandfather” — he takes pride in the “descendants” of the original cast and the gifts they bring.
“You feel a little proud of people you see going to the same well that you went to and drinking from it,” he said gently. “They’re tapping into their own potential and their own magic.”
There’s another transformational moment Odom looks forward to experiencing. It’ll probably arrive a decade or so from now, maybe longer, once the rights to presenting productions of “Hamilton” make their way out into the world.
“I want to sit in a middle school and watch them do ‘Hamilton,’” Odom said. “I want to see some children do ‘Hamilton.’ I want to see what they will bring to it.”
How will all the toiling and dreaming the “Hamilton” casts and creative teams have invested be embraced by audiences of the future? “I’m very grateful to be part of something that’ll have that trajectory,” Odom said.
Time likely will assign “Hamilton” another setting beyond the story’s place in the Revolution, revealing through time and perspective the ways in which the musical also captured its own time in the early 21st century.
“There was a time when ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Rent’ were controversial and sexy,” Odom said. “You have to work to find the contemporary message now.”
Of course, there’s also the fun of wondering how future generations — or even the next one — will relate to “Hamilton.”
“I hope my daughter doesn’t think it was the lamest thing ever,” he said with a laugh.
For young artists, actors and musicians — and anyone diving into a passion, whether it’s math or science or writing the next musical that’ll thrill audiences the way “Hamilton” has — Odom has “the simplest advice,” he said.
“I try to keep it simple, because that’s all you need,” Odom said. “I just kept loving it. I just kept walking toward the thing that lit me up.
“You just keep loving it, and eventually, the thing will love you back. A space will be carved out for you to do the thing you love.”