BWW Interviews: Leslie Odom, Jr. Talks Tick, Tick...Boom
The role of Michael in Encores!' Off-Center revival of Tick, Tick...Boom, running through Sunday at New York City Center, is a homecoming of sorts for Leslie Odom, Jr. When he was 17, the actor made his Broadway debut in the ensemble of Jonathan Larson's masterpiece Rent, his first professional job after cutting his teeth in community theater. "It was my first time singing Jonathan Larson's music," he recalled in a phone interview. "Jonathan meant so much to me and my generation as a composer. He made our music work in a major way. He was speaking to us. He made our music work in this medium."
Sometimes called a "portrait of the artist as a young man," Tick, Tick...Boom chronicles a semi-fictionalized week in Larson's own life, examining his roles as a composer, New Yorker, lover, son and friend as he approaches his 30th birthday. The musical memoir was originally staged as a one-man "rock monologue," but following Larson's death at 35, it was expanded into a more traditional three-actor musical by fellow Pulitzer-winner David Auburn. This six-performance run is its first major New York revival since the original production closed in early 2002.
Odom is making his Encores! debut with Tick, Tick...Boom, and acknowledged that the brief rehearsal period made for an intense experience. "You have to come in with as much as you can do already done," he said. "I came in with the music learned." But for all that preparation, some elements can only come together when the team is all in one room and working together. "We will stand flat-footed on that stage and tell as much truth as we can in the time we're given," he said. The rapid pace of performing on television trained him well for learning a role quickly, he added. "There's no rehearsal. You come in, you run it, you throw yourself in and go!"
As much as performing in another Jonathan Larson musical is a homecoming for Odom, it's a "passion project" for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who takes on the leading role of Jon. "It's 15 years that he's wanted to do this show, [so] he handpicked Karen [Olivo, who plays Susan] and myself to be there for him through this process." Olivo and Miranda co-starred in In The Heights, and Odom has been working with Miranda on the development of the Tony-winning composer's upcoming hip-hop musical Hamilton--which Miranda has said would not have been possible had Jonathan Larson not blazed the trail for contemporary music on Broadway.
In a recent essay for the New York Times, Miranda described how significant Larson's work was for his own development as a composer and writer. And as a young artist in his own right, Odom feels a similar connection to the themes of the rock musical: "Writers put their heart, their life, their philosophy, their mission into their work," he said. "I see that working on Lin's stuff. I get to know Lin in a certain way working on his material. So it's a real treat for me to get to know a different side of Jonathan from inside his work."
Tick, Tick...Boom takes place in 1990, but even with all the changes an (almost) quarter-century can bring, Odom feels that the musical's themes of struggling artists making tough choices about their lives and careers are as relevant now as they were in the early 90s or the early 2000s, when it premiered.
"There is such a direct line between Lin and Jonathan," Odom said, noting that Miranda has stated that he would not be a writer if Larson had not proved that modern music had a place in theater. Olivo, meanwhile, opted to leave acting for a while--much as her character, Susan, chooses to give up dancing for security in the show. "There are still people doing that!" Odom said.
And Michael's journey in the musical--giving up acting to take on a creative role in an advertising agency--hits close to home for Odom. "Michael's dilemma has become mine," he said, noting that he has had to choose between low-paying theater opportunities or high-paying TV spots that, he acknowledged, won't necessarily be as emotionally fulfilling. "I'm not going corporate, but I understand it," he said.
Does that apply to his recent role on the NBC-TV series Smash? The show was canceled last spring after a two-season run, and Odom is grateful for the national exposure it provided. "It put me in people's living rooms for a time," he said. "I get stopped a few times per week on the street about Smash." Having Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman write a song geared toward Odom's strengths-"Start Tomorrow Tonight"--was a highlight of his experience on the show, he added.
But still, Odom said that he was "disappointed" in the show's decline and fall. "Everyone wanted to make something great," he said, and sighed. "There's nothing you can do. Theater is collaborative. A wonderful piece of theater is a miracle, because anything along the way can ruin it. It's so delicate! And TV is even moreso." As an actor, he said, his time on Smash taught him about accepting limitations and (at least occasionally) surrendering. "You pray and you work hard to be involved in those things that are phenomenons," he said. "But they're rare." Still, he is grateful for the opportunities Smash provided, and for the doors the show has opened for him. "I wouldn't trade it for the world."
So how does it feel to perform with friends in a show that has such an intense connection for on-the-rise performers? "It's like flying," Odom describes performing in Tick, Tick...Boom. "At the end of the show, we sing, 'Cages or wings--which do you prefer?' Singing this music is choosing wings," he said. "Singing this music feels like flying."