"Philly gave me everything. It gave me my eyes. It gave me my taste. What I value and [the things] that are important to me as an artist, I got from Philly," says Odom, 36, a native of East Oak Lane. Failing Up touches on just about everything one would need to know about taking risks and understanding the underrated power of failure.
Odom — who will speak at the University of the Arts on Wednesday — provides a crash course in trailblazing for creative young people in the formative stage of their careers that's more practical than a "one-size-fits-all" approach to success. Best known for his Tony Award-winning performance as Aaron Burr in Broadway's Hamilton, Odom has found a way to give back to his hometown community through storytelling. In Failing Up, he urges people to "fight for what's fair" when negotiating deals and to "point to real numbers" that show the power of the black dollar.
My intention was to help someone. That's what this whole thing is about. It's a cycle. People pour into you so that eventually, you'll pour into someone else.
No, definitely not. That's very kind of her to say. As you know, I mention in the book that I was the worst in the class. So "Aunt Joan" — as some people call her — is being very kind when she says that. I wasn't great. There were kids that had been training longer; they were more talented than I. But I just loved it. I was so grateful to be there. I was honored to be the worst in the class.
You want to be well and you want to be whole. Not everybody is lucky enough to have parents that stick around or stay together. There are just a lot of things that can change your circumstances. My family didn't feel remarkable in any way, just a very average family. There's something about the arts, too — this creative pursuit that has reinforced the importance of integrated life. I want my family close because time is not promised. I want to love on [my friends and family] while they're here.
Well, at this point Rent is a period piece. In a lot of ways, Hamilton felt like it touched people in the same way. It's not the same themes or motifs, but it did feel like I was getting a chance to revisit that time in my life. In a more contemporary way, in a more modern way, [Hamilton] touched people in the same way that Rent did.
That's the music I was nurtured on. Billy Porter, who I worked with at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, helped me see that I could sing in the theater the way I grew up singing. It was like a lightbulb moment for me when I heard Billy sing "Beauty School Dropout" in Grease. This is not in the book, but someone played that song for me during my first year at Carnegie Mellon, and it changed my life. It freaked me out because it had never occurred to me that you could sing Grease the way we sang in church. It had never occurred to me that I could bring the brilliant sound of Philly — like Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and Bilal — into the theater.
Oh, yes! I think that especially starting out, the word no is all you really have. You have to mean it. You have to be willing to walk away. Whenever I'm fighting for my worth, whether it's more money or whether I'm fighting for time off for something important, like my wife's birthday or an important family event that I have to go to … if you're not willing to walk away, there is no negotiation. If someone feels that they can have you for whatever they offer you, you'll lose every single time. You have to negotiate with integrity. You have to own your "yes" and your "no." Almost every time I get a job, people aren't coming in at the number [I] want. We negotiate several times a week.
If I'm being honest, man, although we still have a long way to go, things are so different today even from when I graduated from college. And things are different for the kids that are coming out of school now. There's more opportunity. There's more equity. There's more fairness than there ever has been because we have things to point to now, like the success of Black Panther and Get Out and the success of Shonda Rhimes. So when you can point to real numbers, [like] Hamilton, to show "this is what we can do, if given the opportunity," you can get more dough in your pocket.
To point to something greater. To use a moment when I'm in the light to not glorify myself. I want to point to something higher. I want to point to love and to be a vessel of love.