‘Hamilton’ star Leslie Odom Jr. gears up for big night at Tonys

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It’s potentially days away from making Broadway history.

Broadway’s “Hamilton” is nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards in 13 categories on Sunday night, giving it a shot to break the current record of 12 wins by “The Producers” (2001). The smash hip-hop musical vies for the top prize against “Bright Star,” ”School of Rock,” ”Shuffle Along” and “Waitress.”

While creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is up for Best Actor in the title role of founding father Alexander Hamilton, he’ll ironically compete for the prize against his electrifying co-star Leslie Odom Jr., who plays the show’s historic antagonist Aaron Burr, who killed Hamilton in a real-life gun duel in 1804.

“I’m the damn fool who shot him,” Odom told WTOP with a grin, quoting the show’s famous lyric.

Stage battles aside, Odom and Miranda are good friends who shared a dressing room off-Broadway. Five of their co-stars are also up for Tonys: Phillipa Soo as Eliza Schulyer Hamilton, Daveed Diggs as both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Groff as King George III, Christopher Jackson as George Washington and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler Church.

“I’ve never been nominated,” Odom said. “I’m gonna treat it a little bit like the day I got married. For my wedding day, it’s a lot of planning, a lot of money, a lot of time, energy and thought that goes into that day. Then on the day, you really have to release and enjoy yourself and be present and let other people worry about where you’re supposed to be and what time you’re supposed to be there.”

This approach is similar to his routine before each night’s performance, as Odom walks around backstage in street clothes, waiting until the very last minute before getting into costume.

“It just gives you longer to think about not going out on stage,” Odom said. “It’s a scary thing, so I’d rather actually pretend like we don’t have anything to do that night. We’re just here for a hang, and then at the last moment, somebody shoves me out on stage.”

Odom almost took this approach backstage this past Sunday at the Kennedy Center Spring Gala.

Almost.

“Look, I happen to be dressed right now. I could’ve waited until five minutes before I sang,” Odom joked before singing Marvin Gaye’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat” and “Inner City Blues.”

Occasionally, Odom escapes the limelight to soak in the phenomenon, resulting in an unforgettable experience watching the show from the audience with his wife Nicolette Robinson (“The Affair”).

“It’s dark in the theatre so you’re just around silhouettes,” he said. “I was in the VIP section, so I knew that all these people were somebodies. There was a man down the row who was a little disruptive. He’s talking to his wife, he’s singing along a little bit, it’s very strange. And there’s a woman in front of me who’s getting very frustrated. She’s turning around, ‘Don’t talk, stop talking, it’s not that hard, just don’t talk in the theatre!’ So I tapped my wife and said, ‘It’s going to get ugly at intermission.'”

He was stunned when he saw who it was.

“At intermission, the lights come up and the man is Art Garfunkel and the woman is Shonda Rhimes!” Odom said. “I’ve since formed a really close friendship with Shonda and she explained to me, ‘You don’t mess with people with their ‘Hamilton’ tickets!’ Shonda had flown her three best friends into town, they paid God knows how much for those tickets. It’s an experience you want to give people.”

That’s the feeling for a lot of folks seeking the hottest ticket in show business. For so many, it’s been worth the price of admission to see a one-of-a-kind hip-hop take on American political history.

The hit musical also earned nominations for Best New Musical, Book, Direction, Choreography, Costumes, Original Score, Scenic Design, Lighting Design and Orchestrations. It has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Grammy for Best Original Broadway Cast Recording, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

“It feels amazing,” Odom said. “It feels like this show that we all believed in is doing what we all believed it could and it exceeds our expectations almost every night with every audience we have.”

What’s the secret to Miranda’s genius?

“Oh please,” Odom said. “Lin works with an improvisational spirit, so even though we’re not making up words every night, it feels wholly new and it feels like we spin this yarn every single night. All of the culture, all of our ethos in the Richard Rodgers Theatre was given to us by Lin. He’s the visionary, so we lined up behind him two and a half years ago when we started this process and we continue to do it each night. He sets just the most beautiful tone in the space and it’s my favorite place.”

Miranda recently announced that he’s leaving “Hamilton” on July 9, the expiration date for many of the actors’ contracts. Does this mean that Odom will leave on that same date?

“We’ll see,” Odom said. “I’m still in talks right now. I’m open to staying. But it’s been a long, full journey, so if it ended for me on July 9 as well, that would be OK.”

Until then, it’s all about the Tonys this Sunday, June 12.

“We’re gonna stress up until the 12th,” he said. “But once that day gets here, I’m gonna have a ball.”

Yes, Odom is “just like his country, young scrappy and hungry, and he’s not throwing away his shot.”

Listen to the full convo with Leslie Odom Jr. below. Interview was conducted June 5 at Kennedy Center:

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)
November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

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