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Being Aaron Burr

"In material like this, I hope that there is a danger in what we're doing. I hope we are on a razor's edge." Leslie Odom Jr. gets into character as Aaron Burr on the <em>Hamilton</em> set.
Josh Lehrer
"In material like this, I hope that there is a danger in what we're doing. I hope we are on a razor's edge." Leslie Odom Jr. gets into character as Aaron Burr on the Hamilton set.

This conversation is also available as a podcast. Download it from Pop Culture Happy Hour.

Late in the summer of 2013, Leslie Odom Jr. walked into a room. A lifelong performer who'd won arts scholarships as a teenager in Philadelphia, studied drama at Carnegie Mellon and sung in his first Broadway ensemble before he was out of high school, he knew some of what to expect as he took his seat.

Like the creator of the show being workshopped that day at Vassar College, Odom was a child of the era in which hip-hop became America's pop music, and came of age attuned to its grammar. He was a fan of In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda's previous musical and in Odom's mind a clear descendant of Rent and Def Poetry Jam, towering totems of his own youth. He'd heard a little about the new show, too — a video of Miranda rapping an early excerpt to a crowd that included a freshly elected President Obama had since made the rounds. But on that day, sitting in the stands of an unadorned black-box theater, watching actors in plain clothes trace the broad outlines of an incomplete script, he witnessed something for which he felt thoroughly unprepared.

It was a song performed by the actor playing Aaron Burr — another politician who served as Thomas Jefferson's vice president but is now best remembered for murdering the man on the $10 bill. The music instantly stood out, even from the boom-bap cadences that were Miranda's calling card; this was a closer cousin of R&B or gospel, with the pulse of dancehall thumping beneath it like a syncopated heartbeat. Up to this point, the Burr character had pivoted between player and bard, frequently stepping out of the action to offer comment on the larger story. Now, it felt as though the audience had pierced his omniscience and caught him in a private moment, meditating on the fragility of human life.

"When he finished that song," Odom says, voice ringing with the moment's impact, "I said, 'Wow — I've never heard a song quite like that on Broadway.' I just knew that whoever was going to get to sing 'Wait For It' eight shows a week was going to be a lucky actor. I knew that."

In hindsight, that anecdote takes on a certain mythic quality. There is so much to say, so much already said, about the tornado that has swirled around Hamilton since it opened this year — first in a thrice-extended run at the Public Theater, then onward to Broadway's Richard Rodgers (where the sidewalk-jamming mob at the stage door has become this generation's TRL), and finally in earbuds everywhere with a Billboard-anointed cast recording. That the entire plot is sung-through has made the soundtrack album an imaginative gateway for thousands of people, this author included, who have yet to see the show with their own eyes. So when I spoke to the man who has become our Aaron Burr, who sings the part of Alexander Hamilton's killer in a way that feels intuitive and definitive and necessary, it was tempting to read his first encounter with the character as an origin story, the hero laying eyes on destiny.

For Odom, nothing about the journey has felt like a given. Even after he was invited to read for the Burr role, and even after nearly two years walking its paces in front of test audiences, the prospect always loomed that the show wouldn't make it to Broadway — or that it would, without him. "And so it was a tricky thing," he reflects, "giving yourself to it, but sort of protecting yourself the whole way."

What is certain these many months into the Hamilton phenomenon is that Odom and Burr are now bonded, across centuries and against the odds. Fan art abounds, the late statesman envisaged with the actor's soft features, dark skin and quiet carriage. And even down the line, as touring companies and student singing groups catch the scent, "Wait For It" will likely always belong to Odom, the way certain standards always trace the Sinatra or Aretha blueprint. Before the sun sets on a star-making year, I asked Leslie Odom Jr. to explain, in his own words, how he got here.

Daoud Tyler-Ameen: Talk to me about singing for the theater, because Hamilton has reminded me that it's a very specific skill. You're a recording artist as well — you put out a solo jazz album last year. When you're on Broadway doing a huge number like "Wait For It" or "The Room Where It Happens," does it demand something different of you as a singer?

Leslie Odom Jr.: I think everything in the theater is about extremes. It's, "Turn the volume up," emotionally. When I show up at the Rodgers, there's a demand for a range of expressiveness that, at a cabaret show, is not demanded in the same way.

Do you need the audience to like you in the same way?

Absolutely not. God, no. Now, you do need them to either love you or hate you. Ambivalence is death in the theater. I won't say the name, but the worst show I've ever seen in New York, I went to see twice. When a friend of mine said they hadn't seen it, I was like, "Well, I have to take you. You're going to hate this thing so much." That, to me, is more interesting than walking out of the theater like, "God. What a waste of two hours." It's about polarization. You're trying to stir up something in your audience.

Leslie Odom, Jr. (center) as Aaron Burr in <em>Hamilton.</em>
/ Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
Leslie Odom, Jr. (center) as Aaron Burr in Hamilton.

Well, the way that manifests in Hamilton, where you're both this historical villain and the narrator — actually, could I get you to sing one line? Or is that a no-no on a show day?

No, sure.

So this is the Act I finale; the Revolutionary War is over. Alexander Hamilton is starting work on The Federalist Papers and wants help. Burr thinks it's too controversial and is having none of it. So, Hamilton challenges him: "For once in your life, take a stand with pride. I don't understand how you stand to the side." And Burr responds ...

"... I'll keep all my plans close to my chest. I'll wait here and see which way the wind will blow. I'm taking my time watching the afterbirth of a nation, watching the tension grow." I'm not warmed up; that was probably terrible and out of key.

You sound great. That moment is kind of incredible to me, because all through that conversation, you've been trying to keep your cool — speaking on beat, but not really engaging with the beat. And then it takes just the right provocation, and the whole timbre of your voice changes. Suddenly there is this operatic declaration, and by the end you're back in storyteller mode, talking about the beginnings of this country. How does that happen? In a moment like that, how is the decision made about what you'll do with your voice?

What a fantastic and complicated question — and I can answer it in a really simple way. It was of the utmost importance that I was not you during this process: that I did not ask the same questions that you ask, or analyze it in the way that you analyze it. I believe that when art is done in its highest form, most of the good stuff is happening subconsciously. There are things that happen consciously, for sure, and I did plenty of research. You know, I come from a conservatory background, from the conservatory training.

You went to Carnegie Mellon, the drama school there.

And it takes about a decade to let all of that stuff go and get back to your belly. When you come out of school — and I graduated with honors. I was a good student; I was a good boy. I got A's, and I did all the papers right. And that's not what you want to see, as an audience member. You do not want to see somebody that's up there trying to do it right, trying to do it perfectly.

And so it was my job — again, consciously and subconsciously — to discover the bread crumbs that Lin had left along the way. Hopefully, I illuminated things for him that he didn't know he'd done. "Hey Lin, did you realize that this thing is just like this other thing you wrote? And this melody kind of repeats itself, but if I sing it a little differently ... " After I'd done all the research about Burr and learned what Lin had written and what they'd decided with the orchestrations, then my job is to not judge myself, and get beyond any fear that I have about doing something weird, or any trepidation about, "Are they going to like this?" And just to go from my belly.

The recording of the cast album was like that: It just wouldn't serve the material if I went in there and sang something the way that I'd planned it. What I tried to do on the day that we recorded the album — this thing that's going to be there forever — is, "Well, this is how I'm responding to the material today."

You were on Charlie Rose this summer, and one of the first things you talked about was watching Def Poetry Jam — as, what, a teenager?

Yeah. I was, like, 17, 18.

And you explained that what was so compelling to you was that the performers seemed to need to communicate. You said, and I love this phrase, "There's blood in the pen. They need you to get it." Do you remember the first time you felt that way? That entertainment meant more than just being entertained?

Well ... I didn't, really, for a long time. I think I spent most of my childhood, and my early years as a performer, in student mode. And I think that's OK — I mean, it led me to where I am. I have a great foundation, a great training foundation. But it took me a long time to let the training go.

What does that mean? "Let the training go"?

Well, because in material like this, I hope that there is a danger in what we're doing. I hope that we are on a razor's edge. One of the best compliments that we got was, one of our dressers, Jeannie, when her husband came, she said he spent the whole car ride home talking about how dangerous the show was. There's a point where Anthony [Ramos] throws a chair across the stage — and he said, "Do you realize if that guy didn't catch the chair, somebody could die! In the audience, somebody could get hurt!" Again, the biggest drag for me is if I go see an evening of theater and there's not one moment that takes my breath away.

So it was late that I realized that I needed to let the training go. And what happened was, I was out in L.A., doing a lot of TV. And booking work, working pretty consistently — because I knew how to sort of call upon a thing and do it right, and that can get you jobs. But I got very sad, because one day I realized that other people's work was inspiring me, and my own was not. And one of the biggest things that Lin offered me with this show was the chance to be the artist that I've always loved.

You know, kind of the thing in hip-hop is you have to write your own rhymes. In this situation, I wasn't going to have the opportunity to have written the words, so the very most that I could do was connect this thing to my instinct. I didn't know if I would succeed, but I knew that I had the opportunity to become the kind of artist that had always inspired me — and that is just somebody who is raw and honest and vulnerable and scary. Those are my favorite kind of artists, you know? When I go see a concert and I feel like I'm seeing something that is happening for the first and maybe the last time. So, yeah, somewhere in my 20s I realized that that's what my job was, and that I really needed to figure out how to get there.

This speaks, to me, to the collaborative nature of theater. It's actually an interesting counterpart to hip-hop, because hip-hop in its beginnings was inherently a live medium, with a really strong group ethic. And now, like any form of popular music, you can make it in your bedroom without ever having to talk to another person. Theater is really, resolutely, not like that — like, if you just have one person throwing a chair with no one to catch it, there's nothing to that. It seems like the danger aspect that you're talking about is also based in trust.

Oh, yeah. I mean, from its creation, the point of theater is catharsis. The point is for us to all gather in the square together, and laugh together and cry together and feel whatever spontaneous emotion erupts from us as a group. The construct of our society is that we have to show up to work and be these good boys and good girls, and play by the rules and all this stuff. Theater is the place where I don't want to see you play by the rules. That's what we do all day. What we come here for, the reason we're here, is to see you throw a chair at somebody. I want to see you break the dishes.

In that way, it feels very close to the way I grew up in church. We didn't go to see theater growing up, but church, in its own way, had a degree of theater to it. There was a message that was prepared, that was going to be spoken aloud. There's music and dance sometimes.

And you have to see all those same people the following week. It's not like being a touring band, where you can say, "That was a terrible show, but who knows if I'll ever see those people again."

It's like a repertory company! That's a good point. It's the same community getting up each week, and it's the same need: It's worship. It's ministry. When I'm doing my job right at the Rodgers, it feels very close to that. I am there to be a conduit for whatever Lin's intentions were, what he has to say about who this country belongs to — and then I'm also there to be a guide, to usher these people into their catharsis, to usher them closer to whatever they need to feel for that day. That's all of our jobs, but as the narrator, I take that part of my job very seriously.

The Broadway cast of <em>Hamilton</em>, including Leslie Odom, Jr. (at far right) on stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
/ Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of Hamilton, including Leslie Odom, Jr. (at far right) on stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

One of the most talked-about aspects of Hamilton early on was the casting: All of the founding fathers and their families are played by people of color. You and Daveed Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson and is a career rapper, have both said publicly that doing this show is the first time you've really felt like a part of the early American story. What does performance do for you, in that sense, that traditional education maybe can't?

I think it's empathy. It is literally stepping in somebody else's shoes for a couple hours, walking around in them and seeing how it might have felt to be them. It's playing pretend. And the same thing happens for the audience, because they're watching people that look like them, or that they connect to — whether it's me, or it's Lin, or it's Daveed, or it's Renée [Elise Goldsberry], or it's Philippa [Soo], they are able to feel what that person is feeling.

Empathy is just ... it's the first step in bringing two people from opposite sides of the table a little closer to each other. So, the show has made me a better friend, a better husband, a better, you know, artist. It's started a tremendous amount of growth in me. And that was another reason why I had to stay a part of it, because I could see those seeds flowering right from the first reading that I did. How do you walk away from that? I mean, this thing is making me a better me.

I know you saw an early version of the show, before you were in the show. And you saw the guy playing Aaron Burr.


Did you envy him?

Um, I ... I didn't envy him. I wasn't thinking that I would play Aaron Burr, ever. I was just so carried away by this thing, which was presented with such simplicity — they were just at music stands, you know? It was presented in such a way that we were all kind of in it together in that theater, just loving this thing.

This is weird to say, but the way that you talk about the show sometimes reminds me of the way I hear new parents talk about their children, in terms of that wonderment of seeing the world with new eyes.

Yeah. I think that's exactly what it felt like. Or it felt like falling in love, just in that you are giving yourself to this thing a little more each time.

I have to ask about the two songs that are kind of your big solo moments: "Wait For It," which is about Burr standing on the sidelines while his peers are chasing glory, and "The Room Where It Happens," where he finally dives into the fray and starts changing history. The more I listen to these two songs, the more they seem like allegories for performance. Maybe it's just something in your voice — the mixture of awe and longing and lust for the thing that makes you feel like a whole person. When people are born performers, that really is what it's like when they can't perform.

That's really well said. And those two things were never lost on me in the creation of this. The room where this thing happened, the room that this show was created in, was the most loving, creative gentle space that I've ever been a part of. Nothing was "wrong"; you could fall flat on your face and try again tomorrow. So, yes, singing "The Room Where It Happens," it was very easy for me to connect that to my actual life.

And even "Wait For It" — you know, when we would do these early readings, there was no timeline for me. I was not aware of when Hamilton would happen off-Broadway. I was not aware of when it would happen on Broadway. And there's so much rejection that I've felt over the years: Most jobs, I do not get, even if I've been a part of the development and stuff. So, this thing, I was falling in love with it, and I didn't know if I was going to end up being the guy. And so, over the course of the last two and a half years or so, I had to keep my schedule free — which meant turning down work, you know, for no guarantee.

But I knew that every time I do this show, I sing a song called "Wait For It." I knew what this opportunity could be. So I would sing that song to minister to myself. It did feel like it was meant for me. Those messages were meant for me to hear, and now they're meant for me to deliver to somebody else who needs them.

Lin has remarked a couple of times that those are two of the best songs he's ever written, and he doesn't get to sing them. But he's also said, and this is a direct quote, "The company is happier when everyone has food to eat."

Lin was incredibly generous with this material. And not only Lin — [choreographer] Andy Blankenbuehler and [director] Thomas Kail, our lighting designer, our set designer, our costume designer. They wanted everybody to shine. "What do you need? Do you need more dancers? You need less light? Whatever you need to get this thing across."

Because it's not always about what you're doing when you're in your light. It's not always about clearing space so that you can do something extraordinary. Sometimes the most extraordinary thing you can do is nothing. The biggest political statement you can make is to stand there at the center of the stage and be naked. Just let us look at ourselves in your eyes.

We have the chance in theater to be our highest selves. It doesn't always have to be the way it actually is; we can imagine it in a more perfect way. "This is the potential. This is what friendship and relationships could look like if we wanted them to."

It must be bittersweet. Even the best theater experiences, you get a sense of the danger and the hard work involved, but you also feel it ending one moment at a time.

It's true. But that's the thing that keeps you coming back, right? I go see the Ailey Company every single year when they're at City Center because nothing inspires me quite like dance. It's just such a pure physical expression, distilled down even further from what we're doing at the Rodgers. And they are superheroes, because that amazing thing that I just saw, that superhuman feat, they did it. There's no wires. There's no special effects. It just happened.

Hamilton has legacy as a running theme, and one of the messages of the show is that legacies are hard to protect or control. Do you think about your own legacy, going forward? We have the cast album, but one of the quirks of theater is that there's no definitive document.

I think about it in this way: Because I am so connected to the people that got me started, the people that helped me, I am very conscious of how I pass that on. I am very conscious of how I continue the line. People like Michael McElroy and Billy Porter were angels in my life, who gave me early opportunities and early advice. I wouldn't be here without words of encouragement like that. And not to mention the teachers that I had coming up in Philadelphia. I know that their legacies burn bright in me: I talk about them always, and I thank them still. So I am very aware of my responsibility to do that for somebody else.

I think that I won't fully understand what we're doing at the Rodgers until I have a second away from it. But every now and again, somebody will say something to me about the show, or my performance, that reminds me of what somebody else did for me with their performance. I see that light in their eyes that was in my eyes after I saw Def Poetry Jam, or that's in my eyes after I see Audra Mae perform, or Bilal perform. Ledisi -- I've seen Ledisi do some things that I'll never forget. So, that is your legacy. Your legacy lives in the hearts and the minds of people that see these performances. I have a little bit of a sense of it now. I might have more of a sense of it after it's all done.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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