With its original cast, the Broadway production of Hamilton, featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, and R&B to tell the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton (played by show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), was a full-blown cultural phenomenon with a long list of accolades and countless fans. Now, the electric and thrilling stage show, filmed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016, is available for all audiences to stream at Disney+ — whether you’ve listened to the soundtrack on repeat, seen a performance on a local tour, been lucky enough to catch the original line-up, or you’re checking it out for the first time.
During the virtual press day for the movie, actor/singer Leslie Odom, Jr., who played Aaron Burr, talked about revisiting the show now, what it’s like to have this great gift that is permanently recorded for everyone to see, what he did to ensure that he wouldn’t forget any of his stanzas during a performance, being the most well-rehearsed film cast of all time, and whether he’d reprise his role in the inevitable feature film version of Hamilton. He also talked about working with first-time feature directors Sia and Regina King, how The Many Saints of Newark adds another layer to the storytelling in the world of The Sopranos, the legacy of Smash, and his recently released album of original music.
Collider: I got to see Hamilton at the Pantages in Hollywood, but I never got to see the original cast, which makes this movie even more exciting. After this show had the impact that it’s had, what’s it like to experience it all again, especially after a fair amount of time has passed? Can you watch it objectively, at all?
LESLIE ODOM, JR.: I think so, more than I’ve ever been able to because I’m not in it anymore. It’s almost like watching somebody else perform it. There were moments where I was like, “I don’t remember that.” I don’t remember much. I’m more objective than I’ve ever been about it, which is why it was all the more meaningful. I should also say, I’m no fan of myself, at all. Truly, nobody is more critical of me. I’ve never met anybody that is more critical of me than I. So, if I can watch something and I can stand it, that usually means people are going to think it’s pretty good. I really think it’s a glorious preservation of the show. So much work went into that show, I know it intimately, with [Lin-Manuel Miranda]’s work as a writer, Tommy [Kail]’s work as a director, Andy [Blankenbuehler] and his choreography, Alex Lacamoire as the orchestrator, and the costumes, the lighting, and every single cast member, it’s just a real gift that they’ve given us, in preserving the work, in this way. Theater is ephemeral. That’s part of the deal. When you sign up for theater, it’s slipping away, as you’re doing it. It is not anything that you can hold onto. It’s leaving, every single moment. And so, the fact that we get to have this thing that is more permanent than anything that we did on the stage, and that we have this as a testament to all that hard work, is a great gift.
Was there ever a performance where you had a mishap or you forgot something, or someone else did, and what do you do, in those moments? Do you just try not to break the performance or crack up?
ODOM: You definitely try not to crack up. For me, I had quite a bit of the heavy lifting to do in that show, keeping it moving, so I never wanted to let my castmates down. I was way less worried about somebody letting me down than I was about letting them down. At the Public Theater, I forgot one of my little stanzas. I do a bunch of stanzas in the show that have the same melody and the same rhythmic elements to them, and I forgot one, one time. It freaked me out so bad that I had them tape it up. Depending on what entrance I was making in the show, they taped the lyrics in the wings, so that I would look at the lyrics before I entered, every single time until we closed, because I never wanted to be in that situation again.
One of the things that impressed me the most with this show is the different rhythms of the songs, the complicated staging and choreography, and how all of it has to work together so perfectly. If something is off, it’s like dominoes that fall over.
ODOM: Lin said, “We may be the most well-rehearsed film cast, of all time.” For me, after over 500 performances — and if you add the rehearsal process to that and you add the workshops to that, we might be at a thousand — there could be a thousand times that I’ve done this scene or this song before. So, by the time they were capturing this thing, we really knew these songs, these moments, and these relationships, on a cellular level, and in a way that you don’t normally have on a film set.
When it comes to the eventual feature film adaptation of Hamilton, would you want to reprise your role again, or would you rather see someone else’s take on it?
ODOM: I’m always happy to be an audience member. One of the things that I got really excited about, when the show felt like it was really gonna make a mark and stand the test of time because it had such an impact, culturally, I was like, “Okay, for sure, this will eventually be done at elementary schools and I cannot wait for the day that I get to go to an elementary school and sit in my seat and watch little kids do this show, or whatever version of this show that they do.” Watching little kids do West Side Story, or Oklahoma, or Much Ado About Nothing, it’s very moving. And I remember being one of those kids, in elementary school, doing The Miracle Worker, and how those experiences shaped me, as a young man and as an artist. I can’t wait to watch kids take this on. So, I would be happy to be an audience member and watch somebody really take this on, and I would share my notes about what I learned. Or if some director thought that I could possibly have more to say, in this role or any role, of course, I would do it, as long as I have something more to say. Leaving the show when I did, I definitely felt like, at that time, I had said all that I wanted to say with this role.
You also have two projects coming out, from first-time feature directors, having worked with Sia on Music and with Regina King on One Night in Miami. What were they like to work and collaborate with, as directors? What stood out to you about their approach, their vision, and their work?
ODOM: I’ve met less than a handful of people like Sia. She creates pretty quickly because she doesn’t judge her channel. She’s an open channel for inspiration, so it just comes through her so quickly. Most people have a judge that sits on your shoulder going, “Not like that.” Sia doesn’t seem to have that. It was exhilarating working with her, and challenging trying to get on her level. You have to first try to understand, and then really believe yourself in that world because she only takes big swings. There’s nothing normal about anything that Sia is trying to do. And working with Regina was a life-changing experience in film, where I just felt like all of me was used. I was used as an actor, as a musician, as a real collaborator, and as a real mind on that film. She depended on us for all of those things, to make our day and to make sure that we got the thing in the can in the amount of time that we had. So, it was a real game changer for me, working with Regina. I just love her.
It’s also cool that you’re in The Many Saints of Newark. Would you say that The Sopranos prequel film answers or asks any new questions about the series?
ODOM: Well, so much of that series was about his time on the couch with the doc, and about going back and trying to get a handle on the people and the events that shape you and the things that made you who you are, so that Tony could be better – a better husband, a better father, a better mob boss, a better waste management manager. This just adds another delicious layer to that storytelling. Now, we go back and we meet young Tony, in this pivotal summer in his life. We get to meet his mom and his dad, 20 or 25 years before we meet any of them, in the series. We get to meet his young cohorts. For people that were fans of David Chase’s storytelling in the series, it’s a really interesting and delicious layer to the story to go to the foundation level and look at it from there.
Do you still have people ask you about Smash? What is that show’s legacy within the Broadway world?
ODOM: What has stood the test of time with Smash is mostly that amazing music that Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote. Those songs that they wrote have stood the test of time. People remember those songs, and they remember those women. They remember Megan [Hilty] and Kat [McPhee], and those performances and how polarizing they were. But at the end of the day, they’re just both two powerhouse performers and people fell in love with them, on that show. That’s the main thing that stands out. A lot of the silliness has fallen away. It comes back if you revisit the show. For a while, it was not necessarily something that you wanted to be associated with so closely, but over time, that stuff has fallen away and there’s really only love left. People really have love for those women and that music.
You’ve recorded standards, you’ve done holiday tunes, and now you have an album of original songs. Do you feel like you were working up to this collection of original material, and that it took some of these other things to give you that to say?
ODOM: 100 percent. Hamilton was my wildest dream. Honest to God, I was in the middle of that show and people were like, “What’s your dream role? What’s your dream project? And I was like, “Guys, I’m doing it. This is it.” So, with that in the rearview, it forces you to dream a new dream. That’s all you’re seeing. You’re just seeing me, in real-time, going, “What can I do next? I’m still here. What should I do next?” After the album of standards and the Christmas album, the next challenge was to put out an album of all original music. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, up until that point. I’m super proud of it. But all you see me doing now is going, “Okay, what are we gonna do now?”
Hamilton is available to stream at Disney+ right now.