An unprecedented 16 Tony nominations got showered on Hamilton in 2016, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson about early America’s foremost economist, Alexander Hamilton, who, back in the day when it was fashionable (1804), dueled to the death with Vice President Aaron Burr.
Miranda got his Tony due for creating the show, but what he didn’t get was the Best Actor award (and him in the title role, too!). That went to Leslie Odom, Jr., playing the ferocious adversary who got off the lucky shot—well, maybe not so lucky. It made Burr a hissable figure the rest of his days. Indicted twice (once for the duel, then for treason), he spiraled downward.
Not so his theatrical avatar. Odom returns Sept. 27 to Broadway in a role that he has always wanted to do: Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson, a charismatic, itinerant preacher coming home to rural Georgia to reclaim—and integrate—Big Bethel, an old barn of a church.
A couple of crackerjack co-stars—Kara Young and Jay O. Sanders—are involved on opposite sides of this scam. Purlie gets his fiancee, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Young), to pass for a deceased cousin promised an inheritance from the white landowner, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Sanders). There are a few more rounds of this before the Ol’ Cap’n has a stroke, standing up.
Odom shares his final bow with his leading lady, and this is more than just chivalry. “Kara’s a genius,” Odom tells Observer. “I’ve been on stage with Daveed Diggs and Philippa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry, so I know what it’s like to work with a genius. I have the best seat in the house because I get to watch Kara continue to discover and invent, It’s a privilege and a pleasure.”
Purlie Victorious—short for Purlie Victorious (A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch)—is getting its first New York revival since the play originally lifted off in 1961, when it starred Ossie Davis (the show’s author), and his wife, Ruby Dee. There was a musical—shortened to Purlie—in between, in 1970. Both brought unexpected comedy to the ebbing Jim Crow era.
This current revival, at the Music Box Theater, is directed by the ubiquitous Kenny Leon and produced by Jeffrey Richards, whose mother, Helen Stern Richards, stage-managed the original 1961-62 Davis-Dee edition.
From Aaron Burr to Purlie Victorious is an epic change of pace. But Odom is glad and grateful to be aboard. “Purlie was the first thing I thought of doing after Hamilton,” he says. It seems that it was an early calling: “I was introduced to Purlie Victorious in high school. There was a Black theater company in Philadelphia, where I’m from, and they were doing the musical version. That’s how the piece came into my life. I saw it first as a musical, and then I read the play. In fact, I learned that final speech of Purlie’s and, sometimes, did that at other auditions.”
Seven years have passed since he left Hamilton, and he has spent them seeing where his newfound fame as a Best Actor Tony-winner would take him. He has made three recording albums (including a Christmas album). He has made 11 television appearances (Abbott Elementary, Smash, Person of Interest and The Good Wife). He has done at least 10 films (Murder on the Orient Express, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, The Many Saints of Newark and Harriet with Cynthia Erivo).
He came away from One Night in Miami with two Academy Awards nominations—one for Best Supporting Actor, playing Sam Cooke, and the other for Best Song, “Speak Now.” The latter earned him a Golden Globe. His next movie is scheduled to open locally on Oct. 6—The Exorcist: Believer, a reboot of the Exorcist franchise in which he seeks out Ellen Burstyn to find out what can be done with his own possessed daughter. And did I mention his first project after Hamilton was his autobiography? The title reflects his attitude about the business, Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning.
“Not every single thing that I’ve done has worked,” he says of his many post-Hamilton endeavors. “The important thing is that I‘ve just been growing and learning. It’s a vulnerable thing, learning publicly and failing publicly. There has been quite a bit of that.”
But, he adds, “I do feel, with Purlie Victorious, things are really coming together for me. A big success like Hamilton can kinda turn your life upside down—in wonderful ways and in challenging ways. I had to do some soul-searching to figure out what it is exactly I want to do.”
Odom was a Broadway baby at 17, entering the ensemble of Rent and playing the roles of “Paul, a cop, and others,” but he was happy to be there. “That was the show that brought me to the theater, me and a generation of other performers. I have to tell you, in many ways 25 or so years later, I am still just trying to be a part of a work that makes me feel the way Rent did. I’m trying to be a part of things that make me feel that way and makes an audience feel that way.”
In 2010, he got his second show, Leap of Faith, and one whole role all to himself. He boarded the musical when it started out in the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles and rode it when it transferred two years later to the St. James Theater on Broadway, where, sadly, it put in just 23 deeply felt performances.
At this low point, Lin-Manuel Miranda entered Odom’s life , inviting him to join Karen Olivo and him in a pre-Rent Jonathan Larson musical called tick . . .tick . . . BOOM! presented in City Center’s Encores! Off-Center. “By that time, Lin and I had probably known each other for a year, and we’d been workshopping Hamilton already. We thought tick . . .tick . . . BOOM! was about a chance for us to create an alternative universe for Alexander and Aaron. So much that we were going to create in Hamilton was about the nuance and specificity and depth of our friendship.”
Odom contends that theater is both exhausting and exhilarating, but “it does this wonderful thing—this is an equation I’ve only found in the theater. You never give more than you get in the theater. Of course, at times, you feel wrung out, but, because of what you get from your castmates every night and what the audience gives you every night, it is somehow always more. I keep trying to give more, to beat that equation, but the more I give, the more I receive.”
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