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IOWA CITY - Before stepping on stage Monday at Hancher Auditorium, Leslie Odom Jr. learned the University of Iowa Lecture Committee hosting his appearance had received some calls or letters asking why 'that guy” was coming - that guy who was 'so mean to Mike Pence.”
Odom - after walking the audience through the journey that landed him a lead role in the Broadway blockbuster 'Hamilton” and singing several pieces from the show - shared this information with the full house, to widespread chuckles.
'First of all, I am not that guy,” Odom said in reference to some unscripted words one 'Hamilton” actor had for Vice President Pence after learning he was in the 'Hamilton” audience shortly after the November election.
'I had left the show - I did not make the speech to Mike Pence,” Odom said. 'But I honestly don't think that I would have. And here's why. Here's why. Because I think that ‘Hamilton' - I think that three-hour experience - is all you have to say.”
He added that he would hate for 'Hamilton” to become a partisan play that only a certain type of person could see.
Odom made his remarks in response to an audience question about what he thinks the musical's effect on the national conversation has been.
'I hope that ‘Hamilton,' now traveling all over the country and all over the world, I just hope it reminds you of where we've come from, and where we are, and the potential for where we can go,” Odom said.
Odom recalled for the audience the moments several years ago that he first heard the beginnings of Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'Hamilton” in a black box theater in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
'Five minutes in, I'm in the tank for this thing - completely,” he said. 'Every new song held a surprise. I remember exactly where I was when I heard ‘Satisfied' or ‘Wait for It' or ‘Dear Theodosia.' More importantly, I remember the way the songs made me feel.”
The show's fourth song - 'The Story of Tonight” - 'undid me,” Odom said.
'I had never seen a song like that,” he said. 'I had never seen four men of color on a stage singing a song about brotherhood and friendship in my life. And so, for me, that was the revolution.”
Odom said he didn't walk out of the theater thinking he would star in the show. But he went on to play Aaron Burr in the musical that depicts the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton through a diverse cast and array of music styles.
Odom would won one of the show's 11 Tony Awards - 'Hamilton” received a record 16 nominations. The show also earned the 2016 Grammy for best musical theater and the year's Pulitzer Prize for drama.
But Odom shared some 'truth” with the Iowa City audience too.
'This business that I'm in is tough,” he said, conceding business right now is tough for a lot of people.
'Eventually, all you college students, eventually you start a path and you have to reckon with why on earth you've chosen this path,” Odom said. 'That's true of anything worth having, by the way … You have to ask yourself, why am I doing this?”
He's found the answer for himself.
'It's about connection,” Odom said. 'That's why I do this. That's why I love it. … I am addicted to the connection with the audience. I'm addicted to the connection with the people I'm on stage with.”
The musician Monday interspersed stories of his childhood performance of Martin Luther King Jr. and his first experience seeing the Broadway show 'Rent” with performances of his own songs and hits from Hamilton.
And he cast a different light on Burr, who went down as a villain for his role in Hamilton's death. He portrayed him as complex and true.
'Hamilton required all of us at every moment,” Odom said. 'Every honest emotion and spontaneous thought and inspiration was valued and in play.”
And so walking away last summer was hard. It was a risk. But Odom encouraged those in the audience to be willing to do tough, risky things.
'Maybe I'll never work again. Maybe I should have stayed in the show forever,” he said. 'Maybe the best is behind me. Maybe not, though.”
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