Leslie Odom Jr. talks success, ‘Hamilton’ and robots

Photo by Bonnie Cash

Leslie Odom Jr. answers questions with President Daniele Struppa and University Program Board Chair Sam Schlernitzauer at An Evening With Leslie Odom Jr. Sept 25. Photo by Bonnie Cash

The Musco Center was the room where it happened for the Chapman community Sept. 25, as a Q&A with Leslie Odom Jr., who is best known for his role in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” kicked off President Daniele Struppa’s weeklong inaugural celebration.

The University Program Board hosted the sold-out event in the Musco Center, which has a capacity of 1,044. Senior Sam Schlernitzauer, University Program Board chair, said that $15,000 was budgeted for the event but did not disclose how much it cost the university to host Odom.

“We looked at a lot of different names and ultimately he was the one that stuck out to us as who we really felt Chapman would like to see,” Schlernitzauer said. “It ultimately came down to who was available and who we thought students would be really interested in.”

Unlike the events typically hosted at the Musco Center for the Arts, An Evening with Leslie Odom Jr. was free to anyone who reserved tickets online.

“We’re not here to make money, we’re here to really make memories and give students that big opportunity to say they saw a ‘Hamilton’ award-winning actor,” she said.

Students took advantage of that opportunity, as some waited in line for hours to see Odom, who played antagonist Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.”

“Because I’m such a big ‘Hamilton’ fan, I just couldn’t believe he was coming to somewhere I call home and doing a presentation,” said Maria Harfouche, a sophomore English and sociology major. “I waited in line for like three hours and got as close to the front as possible, and I was just excited for the whole night.”

Schlernitzauer and Struppa hosted a moderated Q&A with Odom and later gave students in the audience the opportunity to ask their own questions. Harfouche was able to ask Odom a question during the event.

“I asked whether it is better to be a Hamilton, going for it all the time, or a Burr, waiting for life to come to you, and he told me that you really have to find a happy medium between those two philosophies,” Harfouche said. “Sometimes in life you’re going to know when to bend, and sometimes you’re going to know when to sit still, and that really resonated with me.”

Throughout the presentation, Odom shared anecdotes on growing up, his own college experience at Carnegie Mellon University, his career and his success on Broadway.

“He was really making an effort to relate to everybody,” said Annelise Benoit, a sophomore digital arts major. “People would ask very theater-specific questions and he made it apply to everybody. Even if you’re a French major, a science major, it applies to you as well. I’m not a performer, but I can still go out there and try really hard, make my mark and be the best version of myself.”

Photo by Bonnie Cash

Odom signs junior communication studies major Julianne Roller’s book, “Hamilton: The Revolution,” and CD at the event. Photo by Bonnie Cash

Leslie Odom Jr. on…

“I saw a reading of the show before I was involved in it and I heard that (‘Hamilton’ creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda) was doing a show with hip-hop music about the Founding Fathers, and to me, that sounds sexy. That’s right up my alley, I want to see something like that. But it was also a revelation to me as well. Watching it, watching how honestly it was played, it affected me.
When I saw (the reading), I didn’t think I was going to be in it. I got an email from (Miranda) a few months after I had seen that first reading asking me if I wanted to be a part of it and asking me if I wanted to play Aaron Burr and the answer was ‘yes, yes’ – I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”

Going for greatness
“I had a wonderful education. I wouldn’t change a thing … I’d change one thing. I graduated with honors, so I did it right, some would say. I did OK in college. It wasn’t until after school, along the way, that I realized I spent a little bit too much time sitting where you’re sitting, trying to please my professors.

I went for greatness. But for me, it came at the expense of risk. It came at the expense of falling on your face. (College) is the place you should fall flat on your face and your teachers should pick you up and encourage you and say, ‘Great, try something else, try it again. I love that you went so far you tipped over. Now dust yourself off and let’s try a new approach.’

There wasn’t any of that when I was in school, and I encourage your teachers to do that, because eventually, that’s what (success) is gonna take.

If you have any kind of dream of greatness – and I hope you do – if you have any kind of inclination toward creating something special, it doesn’t come cheap. It’s gonna require a leap of faith, it’s gonna require you to do something that’s scary. So start practicing now.”

“You can’t help but for it to change you, this kind of success, which I wish for you all truly when the time is right. Because I’ll say this: If this kind of success had happened to me at your age, I’d be nuts. I’d be crazy. It’s a lot, and there are so many things to describe about it. I just have a lot more compassion for people who get famous very young. That’s a lot of attention. That’s a lot of eyeballs on you.

When you get out of here, many of you – I hope all of you – when you leave here you’re going to want to expand your angst for so many. There’s something that you wanna say, there’s a desire to. For me, it wasn’t about being known. I was not about that.

I went to New York and I went to Los Angeles. I was sort of pulling my hair out to get involved in the business. I wanted to do something. I wanted to say something from my heart in a way that would touch you, in a way that would matter, and I did it. It feels like truly, I feel profoundly satisfied.”

The robot revolution
“The main difference (between television and theater) is the live element. There’s a tightrope that you have to walk, because it’s happening for the first time. I will say this for all of you: No matter what your careers, I hope many of you are creators in some way. For live performance and for whatever your career is – biology major, history majors, math, French – it is always about making your (passion) vital. You have to make that thing you love necessary.

That’s true for all of us. For all of our professions, we have to fight for the thing that we love and make sure that a robot can’t do better. The reason why the robot revolution ties in is that the difference is, and the other thing I realized with ‘Hamilton,’ was there’s so much entertainment that you can get on your phone now. You can pull up anything on your phone for free. You can listen to the music for free on Spotify or on YouTube or wherever, and theater has to fight for itself.

If you aren’t in the art, you have to make it so that whatever you are doing on that stage for $225 a ticket is better than what I can pull up on my phone and get some laughs. With ‘Hamilton,’ I knew that if we did our jobs right, we could create an event. We could create something you could only get in that theater. I promise you, whatever you’ve seen online of the show doesn’t compare to what that live experience is like.”

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