Though it was New York City where he really blossomed as an actor, Leslie Odom Jr. considers himself lucky to have come of age in Philadelphia.
The Tony and Grammy-winning actor, best known for his Broadway role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, first discovered his love for musicals at a record store by the Freedom Theater on North Broad.
He was 16 at the time, and had recently found an outlet for his loud, questioning voice — which regularly caused his teachers to label him a “handful” — in song. He’d competed in, and won, several oratorical competitions held at the theater itself. But the item that inspired him to pursue it as a profession was found at the shop next door, Odom Jr. writes in his debut book, Failing Up (Feiwel & Friends, 2018).
At the record store, he bought the original cast recording of Rent, dedicating a solid $19.99 to the purchase. Later, for the same price (thanks to a student rush ticket), he went to see the show on tour at the Merriam Theater — and fell in love with it.
So when auditions came around for the musical’s off-Broadway run, Odom Jr. gave it his best, showing off his Philadanco training and his natural singing talent.
And there, at Philly’s Shampoo Nightclub, he was discovered.
Now, his part in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus acts as inspiration to a future generation of performers. But, as you discover reading his book, Odom Jr.’s two-decade road to success from North Broad to Broadway wasn’t exactly smooth.
Failing Up, which was released this week, carries the subtitle “How to Take Risks, Aim Higher and Never Stop Learning.” The tome is tiny in both size and length, but contains a colossal amount of heart and introspection.
It’s not so much that Odom Jr. makes groundbreaking, profound revelations — because he doesn’t. What he does instead is show how his own risk-taking and willingness to continue learning were essential to his successful career.
Hard as it is to picture him this way, the talented man who today graces front covers was once a burnt-out Carnegie Mellon grad squandering his potential in Hollywood. He writes about spending half his time on his couch, and the other half in superficial, “tokenized” roles where he was hired for his heritage instead of his talent.
Over the course of a couple hundred pages, Odom Jr. owns up to making many mistakes. He also describes his unabashed admiration for his wife, writes with outspoken reverence of his mentors, discusses his attachment to astrology and basically strips away the trappings of celebrity.
It all comes together to make a very refreshing read. He might not be the next great motivational speaker, but he’s the person you’d want to go to for reassuring advice.
Reading Failing Up feels like leaning on Odom Jr.’s shoulder. At its conclusion, you’ll only be upset that you’re not his friend.
You can catch Odom Jr. in person Wednesday night, March 28, at UArts’ Levitt Auditorium on South Broad. Tickets are $25 per person, and include a copy of the book.