January 19, 2019 By Caroline Newman, news@virginia.edu Dan Addison, danaddison@virginia.edu

Leslie Odom Jr. Brings UVA to Its Feet – Again

Take a look back at the “Hamilton” star’s visit to John Paul Jones Arena, which included a question-and-answer session with UVA President Jim Ryan, a quick Bob Dylan cover and some great advice.

Even a cancelled flight couldn’t keep Leslie Odom Jr. from the University of Virginia Saturday afternoon.

The Tony and Grammy award-winning actor, in town as the 2019 UVA President’s Speaker for the Arts, told a large, excited crowd at John Paul Jones Arena that he nearly missed the occasion when weather derailed his Friday night flight from Rochester, N.Y.

He and his manager decided to make the overnight drive instead – a hefty eight hours – and arrived on Grounds this morning.

“Softball questions only,” he joked, as UVA President Jim Ryan joined him on stage for an hour-long question and answer session.

Related Story

Jim Ryan and Leslie Odom Jr. sit on a stage talking to a crowd
Ryan, left, and Odom spoke for about an hour Saturday afternoon in front of a large audience. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

In reality, Odom and Ryan hit topics both heavy and light, talking about everything from when Odom first discovered “Hamilton” – the Broadway megahit that rocketed him to stardom as Aaron Burr – to his first visit to UVA in October 2017, when he performed at UVA’s Bicentennial Launch Celebration just a few months after the Aug. 11 and 12 white supremacist rallies.

Odom opened the conversation by saying how much UVA students and the UVA community impressed him on that first trip.

“I couldn’t wait to get here because I wanted to meet you, I wanted to see who you were, face to face… and you guys showed up. You showed me who you were,” he said. “I could say the same for this invitation. I couldn’t wait to come back, to see how you are doing, how you are healing, where those conversations are now.”

Crowd watching the stage at John Paul Jones Arena
Hundreds braved the cold and rain to see the “Hamilton” star.

This time, Odom came to UVA as the latest speaker in the President’s Speaker Series for the Arts, a series that has included comedian and alumna Tina Fey and “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston.

Jody Kielbasa talking at a podium to a crowd

Jody Kielbasa, the vice provost for the arts, called the series “an opportunity for UVA to bring internationally renowned artists to speak about their lives and careers and share their stories about the impact art can have on our lives and our world.”

Before the event, Ryan asked the student body to submit questions.

Several turned in video messages, asking Odom about his experience as an African-American actor on Broadway, “Hamilton,” and the legacy he hopes to leave for those behind him.

Talking about the first time he heard “Hamilton” at an early reading in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Odom compared it to falling in love.

“My favorite quote in the world is, ‘An artist spends their entire life trying to get back to the place where their heart was first opened up,’” he said. “I didn’t understand that quote until I heard the first sixteen bars of ‘Hamilton.’”

Student a cappella groups opened the event, including the Black Voices Gospel Choir.

When a student asked him about playing Aaron Burr, a white man and Founding Father in a country that condoned slavery at the time, Odom said it was a powerful experience, hard for him to fully understand or articulate.

“As a descendent of chattel slavery in this country, to take the story and tell it how I wanted to, to wrap my arms around the throat of that story and wield it how I wanted to, there is something about that exchange that the audience is feeling, that Americans are feeling,” he said. “They are feeling that audacity and it is doing something.”

Leslie Odom Jr sitting on stage talking
Odom encouraged students to be willing to fail, and be active participants in their own careers, always seeking out new opportunities or reaching out to new people.

Odom had plenty of advice for students and aspiring artists, especially about the value of being willing to fail.

“It is really just willingness to fail that got me wherever I was trying to go,” he said. “If you are scared of failure or scared of looking ridiculous, you never get to see your real limits or find the person that is going to catch you when you fall.”

Leslie Odom Jr. at UVA

Tongue-in-cheek, Ryan asked Odom how he, as UVA’s president, could help his students fail more.

Odom laughed, then seriously encouraged students to remember that college is not just about the grades they receive.

“As a student, make it about the acquiring of knowledge, of experiences, the fun, the joy of this environment,” he said. “This is such a wonderful time in your life.”

He thrilled the audience by giving two quick performances at the end of his talk. One was  a joking rendition of his “Nationwide” commercial with Ryan, who by his own admission is not a natural singer.

Then, Odom took the mic for a soulful solo cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

Leslie Odom Jr. Standing on stage talking to crowd
Odom closed with a powerful performance of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” that brought a hush to the large crowd.

Its lyrics – such as “May your heart always be joyful, and a song always be sung, and may you stay forever young” – seemed particularly appropriate for an arena full of college students, and Odom closed with a little improvisation of his own, in reference to UVA’s matchup with Duke that night – “may the game be won.” 

It earned him the last of many laughs for the afternoon, and a huge standing ovation as he brought a UVA crowd to its feet for a second time in as many years.