Leslie Odom Jr. shattered the ceiling he built when he heard Billy Porter perform “Beauty School Dropout” from Grease in his classroom at Carnegie University. It was a revelation to Odom as a little black kid who was studying theater because he didn’t have to become someone else to do the thing that he loves most. In Odom’s University Lecture Series speech Tuesday night, he encouraged college students to take risks, fail and create the best path possible.
The RSVP limit was met at 621 students who signed up for tickets online. He filled the Marshall Student Center Ballroom to its capacity. The hour-long event entailed a Q&A session and a performance of three songs. The first song was “Without You” from his first Broadway musical Rent, and the last two songs were “Wait For It” and “Dear Theodosia” from his time in the musical Hamilton.
Odom said he relates himself to his Broadway character, Aaron Burr, in the same way the creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, created the role for him. Odom never thought of Burr as a standard villain, whereas he considered it to be more complicated than that.
“I will forgo being liked; I'll settle for being understood,” Odom said. “I want people to empathize with my version of Burr and understand what it felt like to watch this kid (Hamilton) come in and lap him.”
In the same way that Miranda felt connected to Hamilton, Odom said he believed he got close to the role of Burr by studying him. The audience validated Odom’s statement with nods when he said whether people admit it or not, there will be a lot more Burrs in the audience than Hamiltons.
According to Odom, talent is not enough to get you where you want to be without the combination of perseverance and hard work.
“Some people are born with height, or athletic abilities or they even come out of the womb solving puzzles — that’s talent,” Odom said. “What you do with that — with the hard work you put on top of your gifting — that’s what separates you.”
Odom compared musicals to a ride that everyone knows the ending of, but continues to get on anyway for the journey. Act 1 of most musicals is full of love and hope, according to Odom, but people forget the heartbreak at the end. With Hamilton and Burr, Odom described the musical as a cautionary tale because it ends in tragedy.
The audience’s heart was caught by Odom with a collective awe when he incorporated Hamilton lyrics in response to the contrasting morals of the main characters.
“It's not about if you are a Burr or a Hamilton, it's about in this moment are you going to do what it takes,” Odom said. “Is this your moment to not throw away your shot or is this your moment to wait for it?”
In regards to his education, Odom said he did not believe he did enough in his college experience because he did not take risks. Odom wished his professors did not discourage failure and encouraged students to “fail smarter.”
Odom’s newly released book, Failing Up, founded its name based on the expression failing up the corporate ladder. In the book, Odom discusses being open to risks and failure because he did not think his life would have changed if he never gave himself the permission.
“You must be willing to fail in pursuit of an ideal so that you can fail your way up,” Odom said.
Odom’s final remarks encouraged students to find things they are passionate about and to surround themselves with people with similar aspirations.
“If you love it enough and for long enough, eventually you can wrestle it to the ground and it will love you back,” Odom said. “It may not love you back in the way you expect, but exactly the way you need.”