Leslie Odom Jr. Talks His New Christmas Album, Life After 'Hamilton' & More
"We tried to make an album that could hang around -- something that wasn’t trendy. The next album I think we’re going to take a crack at originals."
A few months after winning a 2016 Tony Award for his searing performance as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. found himself in London co-starring with such luminaries as Johnny Depp and Judi Dench in Kenneth Branagh’s feature film remake of Murder on the Orient Express (out Nov. 10) -- all of which left him little time to promote his second album, Simply Christmas, released on S-Curve Records last fall. So for the 2017 yuletide season, Odom is delivering a deluxe edition of the album that was released Friday (Oct. 27) with four additional songs, making for a total of 12, ranging from classics like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to “Christmas” from The Who’s Tommy given an ethereal makeover.
It may be a couple months yet until Christmas comes, but Odom has lots to celebrate. Since leaving Hamilton, he and his wife, Nicolette Robinson, became first-time parents when daughter Lucille Ruby was born in April. This fall, he’s been performing songs from his albums and Hamilton in a series of concerts around the country. And capping it off in December is a performance at New York’s Appel Room that will be filmed for PBS’s Live From Lincoln Center. Odom even lent his rising-star persona to ad campaigns for Nationwide Insurance and Fossil watches. Clearly he’s not throwing away his shot.
Billboard talked to Odom about his holiday album, influences and whether he'd ever like to play Burr again. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
One of the songs you added to Simply Christmas is a jazzy version of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music that you sing with your wife. Why?
It meant so much to me and my family. [Broadway actor] Michael McElroy had done a beautiful arrangement of that song for another project Nicolette and I were working on and because we liked singing it together so much, we would sing it around the house. Nicolette made a recording of it and would play it for Lucy while she was in her belly and I was in London, so Lucy could get to know my voice. We would sing it to her sometimes as a lullaby.
You seem to have a lot of old-school musical influences. Your self-titled first album was a collection of jazz and show tunes. Simply Christmas features classic holiday songs. What Christmas albums did you listen to when you were growing up?
I was just a fan of great music, so I love Nat King Cole’s classic Christmas as much as I love Bing Crosby’s classic Christmas as much as I love the Boyz II Men Christmas album. We tried to make an album that could hang around -- something that wasn’t trendy. The next album I think we’re going to take a crack at originals.
One of your October concerts was at the UVA campus in Charlottesville. What was that like?
It was really powerful. Later, there was another hate-filled protest, but I saw a community of people saying, “You don’t get to define us. That’s not who were are, that’s not who we’ll be.”
Was Murder on the Orient Express something that was percolating before the Tony Awards or did it come about after?
After. I left the show about a month after the Tony Awards and I spoke to Ken not long after that. I prayed for it and hoped that it would happen. Some doors were not open to me prior to Hamilton. I was doing a fair amount of television that nobody was watching. I was a working actor and I was paying my bills, but high-profile -- or even low-profile -- film was not really something that was available to me. Those doors are somewhat ajar now, so I’m going to keep pushing on them.
Since Hamilton and the Tony Awards, has there been a deluge of offers?
I wouldn’t say “deluge.” I would say “plenty of interesting opportunities.” Because Hamilton put me on the map, put all my castmates on the map and people think of us for a lot of types of projects. It’s great.
It is — musical theater actors can get pigeonholed...
That’s true. But [Hamilton] was just so rich and gave you so much to chew on that when producers and directors would come from L.A. to see us they were able to see that we could transition to television and film. Lin allowed us to show so many different sides of ourselves and so much humanity.
Would you like play Burr again?
I wouldn’t like to play him again anytime soon. It’s quite a bit of work. Eight shows a week is no joke. But I would entertain the thought of playing him again, for sure. It’s one of the greatest roles written for a man in the musical theater -- ever. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a handful of roles that are as complicated and rich, and if you add to that “is written for an actor of color,” that’s a really short list.