Leslie Odom Jr. closes the curtain on Bryan Series 2017

Leslie Odom Jr. performs a live version of the song “The Room Where it Happens” from the hit musical Hamilton.// Photo by Fernando Jiménez/The Guilfordian

“We are all in the presence of greatness,” said President Jane Fernandes on Nov. 15 as she introduced the last Bryan Series speaker of the fall semester. “He had his Broadway debut when he was only 17 … and is the winner of a Tony Award … and a Grammy Award. … Please help me welcome him.”

As Leslie Odom Jr. appeared from behind a black curtain and joined Fernandes on stage, the crowd started applauding. The New York native is best known for playing Aaron Burr in the blockbuster musical, “Hamilton,” but had much more to share with the Guilford community besides his experience in a Broadway hit.

“I love this campus,” said Odom Jr. earlier that day in a small session held at Sternberger Auditorium. “You guys are asking such great questions.”

Wearing all black and always smiling, the actor answered questions from students who attended the session. He reminded them that it is okay to not become successful right away.

“Things didn’t happen for me until I was 30,” he said. “I was pretty successful in LA … but I was so tired of working so hard.”

Odom Jr. spent most of his time in Los Angeles just waiting by the phone in his apartment, hoping that one day things would change for him, an experience he shared with his alter ego in the musical, Aaron Burr. The wait finally came to an end when Odom Jr. received the best advice of his life.

“My mentor once said, ‘What you’re doing is you’re waiting for your phone to ring. What did you do today for yourself?’ I’m never waiting for my phone to ring ever again.”

Attendees questioned Odom Jr. about the access that black performers have today in the entertainment industry.

“It’s better than ever,” he said. “There’s a lot more work. It’s not perfect, but it is getting better. (Because) we have the key now. We tell the story however we like.”

Odom Jr.’s energy and positivity throughout the event was contagious and important for students.

“I thought that it was incredibly exciting to be in the same room as him, to listen to someone that I have so much respect for and to be a few feet away from him,” said senior Ellie Pershing. “I thought that his answers were really well thought out, and he’s very well-spoken, (and) he also had a way to connect with the audience.

“It didn’t feel like he was just someone from Hollywood coming in to put on a show for us. He was actually trying to connect with the students in the room and trying to tell us a little bit about his life and answer our questions as best as he could, so I thought he was really awesome.”

A few hours later at the Greensboro Coliseum, Odom Jr. reiterated what he said in the student session.

“Things didn’t start for me until I gave myself permission to fail,” he said. “(And) the universe is talking to us all the time if we’re willing to listen.”

After reading two chapters of his upcoming book, Odom Jr. invited his band to join him on stage and perform a few songs for the audience. He started off with the acclaimed “Wait for it,” from the “Hamilton” soundtrack. He then moved on to sing “Mona Lisa” and “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole, one of his major inspirations. He also performed Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and followed with two other “Hamilton” hits, “Dear Theodosia” and the fast-paced tune, “The Room Where It Happens.”

Odom Jr. left the stage briefly, but returned for more questions, this time from the Coliseum audience. He spoke about the importance of having musicals and other art forms such as “Hamilton.”

“(‘Hamilton’) was my brush with the American dream,” he said. “It can’t happen in every country, but it can happen in this country … It reminds us of the power of theater. … When you see the production (on stage), it is very bare. It reminds us of when we were little kids … Theater is everything we want it to be … And we believed in Lin(-Manuel Miranda) so much, we made you believe in us.”

After the Q&A, Odom Jr. sang one more song, this time, “Without You,” from his first Broadway debut, “Rent.” It was the perfect ending for his performance. Its message of love added to Odom Jr.’s own message of positivity, which is only a reflection of the person he is.

“(Leslie) was incredibly kind the entire time and was beyond my dreams of what he was going to be like,” said Bryan Series intern and senior Juliana Avery. “I loved Leslie before, and I love him even more now. This is my second year interning for the Bryan Series, and this is by far my favorite event that we have ever had. He was exceptional. A combination of his talk … his presence, his purpose, his connection, all of that was incredible.”

The actor was also an inspiration for those who are constantly pushed to achieve perfection.

“It was definitely something that I needed to hear at this moment, especially this semester,” said junior Jeniffer Gonzalez. “I’ve been struggling a lot with trying to keep up with homework … because I have been sick. But hearing him say that failure is an option is a great refresher because … a lot of people are expecting you to be the best that you can, but hearing him say that is like, ‘okay, I haven’t completely lost my life yet.’”

Odom Jr.’s final remarks reminded the audience of the importance to hold onto the people we used to be and embrace that youthful excitement throughout the rest of our lives.

“Our job is to preserve that sunshine in our face,” he said smiling.