Leslie Odom Jr.: Aaron Burr, Sir Broadway's Leslie Odom Jr., who played Aaron Burr in the hit musical Hamilton, joins us to talk about the show's meteoric rise and his path to Broadway as a high school student.

Leslie Odom Jr.: Aaron Burr, Sir

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OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm your host, Ophira Eisenberg, here with our puzzle guru Art Chung and our house musician Jonathan Coulton.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: We are so happy to welcome our VIP from the hit musical "Hamilton," which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr using hip-hop and rap. He stars as Aaron Burr. Please welcome Leslie Odom Jr.

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LESLIE ODOM JR.: Hello.

(APPLAUSE)

ODOM JR.: You guys are so nice. I'm so happy to be here. Thank you guys for being here.

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EISENBERG: I think they can barely believe it. Leslie, before I saw the show, I have to admit I joked about wanting to become a U.S. citizen because I didn't know much about American history. And I just love the show, and I love how in depth it got about this particular story. How much did you know about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr before starting this role?

ODOM JR.: I knew as much as that commercial taught me when I was a kid. I knew...

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: ...As much as Michael Bay put in that commercial. I knew that Aaron Burr shot him in a duel.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

ODOM JR.: I knew that he was on the $10 bill. I knew he wasn't a president. You know, I knew that little tidbit. Some people get that confused, but I didn't know much. People don't teach the nuance of this history...

EISENBERG: Right.

ODOM JR.: ...In school, and that's a shame. Hopefully, this will change that because they were interesting people.

EISENBERG: It's amazing that this is both so entertaining. What a wonderful show on so many levels. Yet, it is teaching people.

ODOM JR.: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Why do you think "Hamilton" is so unbelievably successful?

ODOM JR.: For one, it's an incredible achievement in writing from Lin-Manuel Miranda. I think it's just...

(APPLAUSE)

ODOM JR.: Yeah, I just think it's just beautifully written. It kind of came out of him like a fever dream, you know - a six-year fever dream. It just really poured out of him. We would get the pieces of music - I'd get a new piece of music in front of me and it was - I just got to tell you - this is so rare. It was finished. You know, you work on something in development. Usually there's a development process. You know, you get a song, and you know you're hearing a version of it, but by the time it makes it to the stage, it's going to be so different.

We would get stuff that we're doing exactly the way we got it on the first draft because it was perfect. I mean, that never happens. So I think that, firstly, it's an incredible piece of writing that's connecting with people. And then, secondly - and this is to wrap it up really - everybody in the room felt lucky to be there. You know, we all felt so privileged to work on it. So that's a lot of love...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

ODOM JR.: ...On that stage, you know? And that connects with people.

EISENBERG: And Lin-Manuel Miranda created the show, and he also plays the part of Alexander Hamilton. So if you as yourselves in real life challenged each other to a duel...

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Who would win?

ODOM JR.: Oh, man. I hate thinking about that.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: I do. I love Lin so much. He - you guys - as much as - he deserves your love. Like all the love that you give him, he is just - he's a koala bear. He's just the best. You know, I really do feel bad about killing him every night. I really do.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: So I would let Lin win. I would.

EISENBERG: Oh, you're too good. You are too good. So you were cast in "Rent" at the age of 17.

ODOM JR.: I was in 11th grade. I cut school, and I went to the audition. I did not go to that audition thinking I'm going to be in "Rent" anytime soon.

EISENBERG: Right.

ODOM JR.: But I was just plucked sort of from high school from, you know, the things that a 17 year old, 16 year old is thinking about into the center of my wildest dreams. So I did the show for a very short time and then I went back and finished high school and went to college and all that.

EISENBERG: So - but wait a second - you end up in "Rent," which obviously that was a groundbreaking musical, and then you still go, no, I need to go get some further education?

ODOM JR.: My parents did a good job.

EISENBERG: Oh.

ODOM JR.: They made sure - yeah, they made sure. They were like congratulations, you're in a Broadway show. And so what college are you going to go to?

EISENBERG: Right.

ODOM JR.: Because that's still the plan, just so you know. "Rent" was also the first time that I lost my voice. I had never lost my voice ever, you know, but eight shows a week and 17 - I'm screaming my head off. And that's an experience, too, the first time you sort of wake up and you're like the thing that was there yesterday is not there today. So yeah, I had to go and learn that kind of stuff.

EISENBERG: Now, you've said, though, that you've had to unlearn some of the stuff. What did you unlearn specifically?

ODOM JR.: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Or what did you need to unlearn?

ODOM JR.: I graduated from college with honors. I was a really good student. I did everything right. But you people don't care about seeing an artist on stage getting something right. We don't care about a painter painting by, you know, the numbers. We want to see passion. We want to see where it's ugly and scary, and we want to see you do the things that we're too afraid to do on stage.

And so that was the unlearning process, and "Hamilton" offers me the opportunity every single night to go to places that are scary and to be vulnerable. And we were given permission every single day to feel fail. That was - we celebrated that. If you fell on your face, it was great. OK, well, you can't go that far or, you know, let's try something else, you know? And so we have this thing that is dangerous and exciting, and it changes every single night. We make it fresh every single night. It was that kind of stuff that I had to unlearn, doing it right, being perfect.

EISENBERG: Do you think this is one of the hardest shows that you've been part of thus far?

ODOM JR.: Oh, that's for sure.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

ODOM JR.: But it's - not everything I worked on has been received like "Hamilton" has, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: I've done some turkeys. I'll tell you. Who in here watched "Smash"?

(APPLAUSE)

ODOM JR.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, I'm so sure. Oh, yeah. Who saw "Leap Of Faith" on Broadway?

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ODOM JR.: Oh, yeah, all right. We could've used you at the ticket booth. I'll tell you that.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: But it's challenging. You know, eight shows a week is hard on the body, whether you're working on a masterpiece or a not so masterpiece. So "Hamilton" is so wonderful because it gives me back more that I put into it. Whenever I give it every last drop that I have, you know, the response that I get from you guys when you see it, when I see you on the street, I get back so much more than I put into the show.

EISENBERG: I imagine, though, because it is such a difficult, challenging, amazing show, there's got to be mistakes that are happening.

ODOM JR.: All the time.

EISENBERG: All the time?

ODOM JR.: Oh, yeah. Lin makes more mistakes than anybody, and he wrote it.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: Yeah, but it's great. You know, because Lin comes from that - he's a freestyler. He lives in that improvisation place, you know? That's where he vibrates, right? So when we're doing our jobs right, we're not making up his words.

EISENBERG: Right.

ODOM JR.: There is - yeah, there's an improvisational feel. The best compliment that we get is when people say it felt like it came together right in front of you. It felt like you guys were doing that for the first time. We really tried to bring that every single night.

EISENBERG: Has there been any, like, major memorable mistakes, that...

ODOM JR.: Oh, my God. So...

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: So this one time - oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: The performance we did for the DNC - right? - so we know that's a big performance. There are donors here from - you know, they've paid a lot of money to see this show. So who's seen the show in here?

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ODOM JR.: I'm so glad. Everybody else, we'll get you in, I promise. We'll get you in.

(APPLAUSE)

ODOM JR.: So right before we turn into the tavern, right after "Aaron Burr, Sir," that scene with Lin, I turn into the tavern - you know, (singing) like I said - that song - and I'm John Laurens in the place to be - right?

OK? You all know it.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: And the guys are there - it's Daveed, Anthony and Ok - and I look, and it was like a vision or something. I mean, I was like, is this a movie? Is this "Carrie," Ok? There's a trickle of blood coming down his face. And then it's just more blood than you've ever seen coming from his head. I mean, coming from under his hat. It is - you guys...

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: I cannot overstate the blood. I can't - OK, how much blood do you think it was?

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: More blood than that.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: And what do you do? I mean, are we going to stop? Are we going to - what's happening? And so we're looking at Ok and trying to figure this out while everybody is still talking. And he can't see it. And so Ok is wiping it from his head and wiping it on the hat. It's getting worse. Honestly, I don't know if something hit him in head, and he's confused or whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: So Ok leaves the stage. You know, he's got to come back for (singing) I'm Hercules Mulligan (imitating drums), right?

So either he's going to come back on state or we're going to stop. So, you know, we know that. So he comes back, we're still kind of looking in his eyes to see if he's OK. But the blood is gone, and it turns out later - this is our Okie. God, we love him so much. I think he said he was - his mind was in a bunch of other places. And that hat that he wears, he bobby pins it in his head, right? And so he was in a rush, you know, Ok, he's in a rush. He's Hercules Mulligan for real. Like he's Hercules.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: He was in such a rush, he, like, jammed the bobby pin in his head. He did it to himself. He stuck a bobby pin in his brain.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: And that created the blood. That - is that what kind of a story you were looking for?

EISENBERG: That was great.

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ODOM JR.: You like that one? Oh, my God, so much blood.

EISENBERG: And that bobby pin is being auctioned off.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM JR.: For Broadway Cares.

EISENBERG: For Broadway Cares. How about a big hand for Leslie Odom Jr.?

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EISENBERG: So this is a little bit amazing. You're about to sing a song from "Hamilton."

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EISENBERG: And you'll be accompanied by the guitarist from "Hamilton," Robin Macatangay. Leslie, can you tell us a little something about what we are going to hear?

ODOM JR.: Yeah, you know, sometimes people ask me, how did I make Burr not the villain? And I said it really came from Lin's music because, you know, the writer that wrote a character a song like "Wait For It," a song like this one "Dear Theodosia," you know, that's not - how could that guy be a villain?

ROBIN MACATANGAY: (Playing guitar).

ODOM JR.: (Singing) Dear Theodosia, what to say to you? You have my eyes. You have your mother's name. When you came into the world, you cried, and it broke my heart. I'm dedicating every day to you. Domestic life was never quite my style. When you smile, you knock me out and fall apart. And I thought I was so smart. You will come of age with our young nation. We'll bleed and fight for you. We'll make it right for you. If we lay a strong enough foundation, we'll pass it on to you. We'll give the world to you, and you'll blow us all away, someday, someday. Yeah, you'll blow us all away, someday, someday.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Leslie Odom Jr. will be back later in the show. Thank you so much.

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