Leslie Odom Jr.: 'I Want To Sing To The Moment That You're In' The Hamilton actor speaks with Mary Louise Kelly about the Tony Awards, breaking through in his 30s and releasing his first album for the second time.
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Leslie Odom Jr.: 'I Want To Sing To The Moment That You're In'

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Leslie Odom Jr.: 'I Want To Sing To The Moment That You're In'

Leslie Odom Jr.: 'I Want To Sing To The Moment That You're In'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes with an actor - an actor who got so discouraged a couple of years back trying to break through on stage and on TV that he started applying for jobs as a hotel clerk.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: I had booked a big pilot in LA. The pilot didn't get picked up. And the phone wasn't ringing, and I had bills to pay.

KELLY: Leslie Odom Jr. did not end up working at hotel desk. Instead, he earned a lead role in what has become a Broadway sensation, the musical "Hamilton." Eight times a week, Odom takes the stage as Aaron Burr. His task every night - to humanize the man history pretty much remembers just for the duel that killed his rival, Alexander Hamilton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAIT FOR IT")

ODOM JR.: (As Aaron Burr, singing) Hamilton doesn't hesitate. He exhibits no restraint. Takes and he takes and he takes and he keeps winning anyway, changes the game. Plays and he raises the stakes, and if there's a reason...

KELLY: "Hamilton" has made Leslie Odom Jr. - the entire cast, really - the theater equivalent of rock stars. And when I asked Odom how his life has changed...

ODOM JR.: If there's sort of a low hum in your life of anxiety or worry or just wonder - am I good enough? Is this what I'm meant to be doing? This experience has answered that and answered that and answered that.

KELLY: Oh, yeah. Odom is up for a Tony Award on Sunday. He's up against his friend, "Hamilton" creator and co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda. He also has a record deal - an album that he had self-released with the help of a kickstarter campaign a couple of years ago. He's remade it with some new songs and the backing of a record label. Odom's pitch, to create the album Nat King Cole would've made today. He sings classic tunes, "Autumn Leaves," "Look For The Silver Lining" and...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY KNOWS YOU WHEN YOU'RE DOWN AND OUT")

ODOM JR.: (Singing) Nobody knows you when you're down and out...

KELLY: Here you are at a moment where a lot of people know you. Does it feel funny singing this song now?

ODOM JR.: Oh, no. I couldn't wait to sing that song. You really are able to shine a light, in the healthiest way, on something once you're on the other side of it. And so what goes up must come down. I'm not going to be in "Hamilton" forever. Everything I work on won't have this kind of success. And so to remember applying for the hotel clerk, to hold that up at the same time as a moment like this feels right. It's both sides now.

KELLY: Walk me back to when you were a kid. Was there a specific moment when it dawned on you - wow, I can sing.

ODOM JR.: (Laughter) I think it was - my parents got me a karaoke machine...

KELLY: Oh, boy.

ODOM JR.: ...When I was about - yeah, when I was about 9 years old. Even before that, they got me a tape recorder that I used to walk around my life with. And there was something about just recording and then hearing myself back. I grew up listening. I grew up pressing record and then pressing play.

KELLY: Do you remember, by the way, what you used to sing on the karaoke machine? What was the song you did?

ODOM JR.: Oh, well, the first song I ever learned was "This Little Light of Mine." (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. It was a lot higher pitched, I'm sure.

KELLY: Right (laughter) back when you were 9.

ODOM JR.: Yeah.

KELLY: And I read you used to sing in church too. This was back at Canaan Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

ODOM JR.: That's it, yeah. The pastor would - I had to get used to not being shy because he would point me out wherever I was, in any pew. And he would (laughter) - if he was inspired, if he looked in my eyes and he sort of found a place in the sermon where it would make sense, he would call me up to sing something. And so I got used to singing on the spot.

KELLY: Just in the middle of the sermon he would...

ODOM JR.: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...Call you up?

ODOM JR.: We had a thing. We had a dance for sure.

KELLY: I guess that gets you over stage fright pretty young.

ODOM JR.: It does, yeah. And nothing - oh, my God, nothing's - nothing makes me more nervous than singing in church, nothing.

KELLY: (Laughter) Really? It's worse than Broadway?

ODOM JR.: Oh...

KELLY: (Laughter).

ODOM JR.: ...Much worse, much worse because people's souls are on the line. I mean, it's - you know, yeah, you feel like you are really - you're being called upon to deliver - what? - some sort of message, some sort of food for people. And it's - yeah, it makes me very nervous.

KELLY: All right, so fast forward to now, no longer a 9-year-old kid but I was struck by something you said about one of the songs you chose to put on this album. This is "The Party's Over," and you said, I can imagine singing it one day to my daughter maybe when I have a 12-year-old someday, when she has her first broken heart. That's what spoke to me because I do have a 12-year-old. And man, we're coming up to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PARTY'S OVER")

ODOM JR.: (Singing) The party's over. It's time to call it a day. They've burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away. It's time to wind up the masquerade.

It felt like, I was singing to my 12-year-old daughter the night she gets home after her first broken heart. She went out to the dance. We took the pictures and everything. And boys do what boys do. He left her at the dance to go hang out with his friends and, you know, he didn't take her feelings into consideration. And she came home, and she's crying. And you kind of wipe her tears away, and you sing a little song to her.

KELLY: That's going to be one lucky little girl one day.

ODOM JR.: (Laughter).

KELLY: I wish you had been there to sing to me when I came home from my first 12-year-old dance.

ODOM JR.: Me too, but that's one of the reasons why we recorded the thing too. A friend of mine told me - Dontae Winslow, he's an independent artist. And I'm like, you know, Dontae, why do you - this is years ago. I said, but is it worth it? You know, is it worth begging for money on Kickstart or Indiegogo or doing these gigs where you're not getting paid and stuff?

You know, what is it - what are we in it for? Why are we doing this? And he said because if what he makes can bless one person, if it touches one person, it was worth it. It changed my life. I never thought about it again. If that song that you just played - if one little girl puts that on, it was worth it.

KELLY: I wonder if there's one song on this record that gets stuck in your head that you catch yourself whistling as you walk around town.

ODOM JR.: Well, now it's just going to be "The Party's Over" just because you just played it...

KELLY: (Laughter).

ODOM JR.: ...But "Autumn Leaves" has been a favorite song of mine for 20 years. So in the studio, we kept trying to find a version of it that felt right. We had to put it down for a second because I said, listen, if this song isn't working, it's not the song's fault. "Autumn Leaves" is a perfect tune. So I really like the version that we found. I love that song.

KELLY: That's singer and actor Leslie Odom Jr. His self-titled album is out today. And we wish you luck on Sunday with the Tony's.

ODOM JR.: Oh, my goodness, fingers crossed. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUTUMN LEAVES")

ODOM JR.: (Singing) The summer kisses, the sunburned hands I used to hold. Since you went away...

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