Not My Job: We Quiz 'Hamilton' Star Leslie Odom Jr. On Ben Franklin

Nov 9, 2019
Originally published on November 9, 2019 10:29 am

Leslie Odom Jr. originated the role of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and we were curious to know: How much does he know about founding fathers who weren't in the hit Broadway musical? We'll ask him three questions about Benjamin Franklin. Click the audio link above to hear him take our quiz.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now the game where people who have been very wise learn what it's like to make a little mistake. Leslie Odom Jr. has been a successful working actor since the age of 17. A few years ago, he got what every actor dreams of, an offer of a lead role on a TV series. But he turned it down because instead, he wanted to work on this new, off-Broadway musical. That musical turned out to be "Hamilton," in which Leslie originated the role of Aaron Burr. We welcome him to the room where this is happening.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Leslie Odom Jr., welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.

LESLIE ODOM JR: Thank You So Much.

SAGAL: "Hamilton," of course, is a phenomenon like I've never seen after a lifetime of, like, enjoying the theater. How often do you get approached on the street by people who come up and immediately start, like, doing a number from the show with you?

ODOM: Well, Daveed put it better than anyone I'd ever heard. He said outside the stage door on 46th Street, you were a Beatle for a block.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: It was like once you cross 8th Avenue, it gets a little less. He said that to say it depends on where I am.

SAGAL: Right.

ODOM: You know, if I happened to be in a place but there are a lot of theater people, I'm going to get recognized. And the people are always lovely. But if I'm sort of, like, in a place where it's not a theater town really, you know, I'm more likely to be recognized from, like, a Nationwide commercial.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Sure. Did you guys know when you started working on the show with Lin-Manuel - I'm not even sure where it was, where it was first put on its feet - did you have any idea what it would become eventually?

ODOM: I knew what I felt about it. I knew that it touched and moved me. But I didn't know that it would connect with America. You know, I didn't know that, like, that it would reach people so far and wide. I couldn't have known that.

SAGAL: Yeah. I mean - And what was it like when all of a sudden that happened, when the crowd started showing up in front of the theater and waiting for you outside the theater? When all of a sudden - for example, a parade of celebrities came to see your show. I remember Beyonce came.

ODOM: Yeah it was - it was a trip. It was living a dream. I think that the trifecta, I think, for art, you know, in my book anyways, like something that is culturally relevant, artistically fulfilling and commercially successful.

SAGAL: Yeah.

ODOM: You very, very rarely get all three of those things. You're lucky if you get one or two of them.

SAGAL: Yeah.

ODOM: And "Hamilton" was all three. So it was...

SAGAL: Did they tell you when celebrities were in the audience? Oh, by the way, Beyonce's here tonight. So don't screw it up.

ODOM: Yeah. There were two lists of people. There was the list of people that didn't mind knowing, and there was the list of people that didn't want to know. And I was on the - I did not want it know.

SAGAL: You did not want to know. What were you afraid would happen if you found out?

ODOM: It just put my focus in the wrong place. You know, it became about vanity for me and, like, you know, am I sucking in my stomach and, like, you know...

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: ...Are my high notes - instead of, you know, instead of being in the story.

SAGAL: Have you ever been back to see it since you left the show?

ODOM: Oh, yeah. I saw it in Puerto Rico. I saw Lin do it in Puerto Rico. I saw it in Chicago. I saw it in LA. I've seen it a couple of times. And...

SAGAL: And do you become one of those very annoying people who have - I've seen it with - who just sit there and sing along the whole time?

ODOM: Yeah. Yeah, I'm sorry about that.

SAGAL: It's all right.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: We have to ask you. We heard you saw Shonda Rhimes almost fight Art Garfunkel in the audience at "Hamilton."

ADAM FELBER: Here we go (laughter).

JORDAN CARLOS: What?

SAGAL: Is this true?

ODOM: It wasn't quite a fight. It was not quite a fight. Shonda is more classy than that. But she - oh, man...

CARLOS: Explain.

SAGAL: Please.

ODOM: Art is a legend. Art is a legend. He was being rather disruptive. You know, he was talking. And he was unwrapping candy as, you know, our older audience members can sometimes do. And Shonda is serious about her "Hamilton." When she comes to make time for "Hamilton," she's very fierce. She was bringing people at that time. And I happened to be watching the show that night. And yeah, Shonda, you know, let Art Garfunkel know that he needed to be quiet while she was watching her "Hamilton."

CARLOS: So the guy who wrote "Sound Of Silence" wouldn't...

SAGAL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: Yeah, yeah.

SAGAL: Technically he sang it. The other guy wrote it. But wait a minute, you said...

FELBER: He was going, hello, Tic Tacs, my old friend.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Hang on. Hang on. You said something interesting. You said that you happened to be in the audience that night.

ODOM: Right.

SAGAL: So do you mean that you were taking the night off from performing, and you chose to spend that night off watching the show?

ODOM: I wanted to see the show. I had never seen the show, and I heard it was so great.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: I had heard so much about it. And so I - yeah, I had a ticket - they made me buy a ticket, by the way.

FELBER: What?

SAGAL: Did they really?

CARLOS: Stand by. Hold on.

SAGAL: They're like, oh, Mr. Odum, how nice to see you. That will be $4,000.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I should say congratulations that you are, of course, not just a Broadway star, you are a Tony-winning Broadway star. And among the people you beat out for your Tony was Lin-Manuel Miranda. Did that like - was that OK with him? Did it add a little piquancy to the next night's duel? What happened?

ODOM: Well, Lin won two other Tonys that same night.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: So I think he's OK.

SAGAL: Yeah, I think he's all right.

ODOM: He was always so generous and gracious. Part of the reason why so many of us were recognized on Tony night is because of Lin's generosity. You know, he doesn't hoard the great materials just for himself.

SAGAL: He probably just said, well, that's great. Enjoy it, Leslie. I'll just go home and polish my MacArthur grant. You just...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Leslie Odom Jr., we have invited you here to play a game we're calling...

BILL KURTIS: Ben Franklin, you dog, you.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So you played Aaron Burr. But the question is, what do you know about one of the founding fathers who didn't make the cut in the musical "Hamilton," specifically Benjamin Franklin? We're going to ask you three questions about the sage of Philadelphia. Answer correctly, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners. Bill, who is Leslie Odom Jr. playing for?

KURTIS: Sarah Wood of Los Angeles, Calif.

SAGAL: All right. Ready to play?

ODOM: I'm ready.

SAGAL: All right. First up, Franklin nearly died at the age of 42 when what happened? A, he electrocuted himself trying to cook a turkey with lightning, B, he was demonstrating his latest invention, stiletto heels, and tripped down a stairway, or C, he was visiting his girlfriend when her husband, George Washington, came home.

ODOM: (Laughter).

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: Well, it is a well-known fact that Franklin was, like, all about Thanksgiving. And so I think he was trying to cook that turkey.

SAGAL: Yes, he was, Leslie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: That's exactly what he was doing.

FAITH SALIE: Wow.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: He set up this whole thing. He was going to fry the turkey. And instead, it fried himself. But he was fine. Benjamin Franklin, of course, was a polymath. He was an inventor. He was also a visionary. He once wrote an essay defending doing what? A, singing along while in the audience of shows...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: ...B, farting, or C, blarping.

ODOM: What's the last one?

SAGAL: Blarping.

ODOM: Oh. Well, just as we know about his love of Thanksgiving, we also know that the guy loved to toot.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: So, farting is my...

SAGAL: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: The fact...

(APPLAUSE)

FELBER: He wrote a scientific treatise on it.

SAGAL: He did.

SALIE: Really?

SAGAL: It was called - the essay which he submitted to a scholarly journal in Europe was called Fart Proudly.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: You know so much about this I'm beginning to think there's, like, a whole third act of "Hamilton" that got cut.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right. You could be as perfect in this as you are in everything else, so let's see. Franklin lived in London as the U.S. ambassador. We know that. When people recently renovated his former home in London, what did they find? A, his abandoned invention, a wooden microwave oven, B, 1,200 human bones, or C, 400 volumes of erotic engravings stuck in a sock drawer.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: The man loved Thanksgiving.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: He loved to fart. And he was a big, old freak.

(LAUGHTER)

ODOM: They found the erotic writings.

SAGAL: He was a big, old freak, but that's not what they found. They found 1,200 human bones.

SALIE: Oh.

ODOM: Gross. He's a serial killer.

SAGAL: He was a - who knew? He seemed so friendly. Bill, how did Leslie Odom Jr. do on our quiz?

KURTIS: He won with two out of three.

SAGAL: Congratulations.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: How does this feel next to winning the Tony?

ODOM: Hands down this wins.

SAGAL: There you are.

FELBER: Hey.

CARLOS: Oh, that is so not true.

SAGAL: You are, sir, a superb actor. Leslie Odom Jr. is an actor, author and musician. His new album "Mr" is available now. Leslie Odom, thank you so much for being with us.

ODOM: Thank you guys.

SAGAL: What a pleasure to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASHINGTON ON YOUR SIDE")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA AND VARIOUS: (Singing) It must be nice. It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill takes one small step for a man and makes one delicious snack for E.T. It's the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.