This is a piece I wrote in 2016, right after Hamilton won its barrel full of Tonys. Thanks to Disney +, I’m finally set to enjoy my first view of Hamilton this month. And the opportunity prompts me to think back to when I first became aware of the play and its phenomenon, and its peripheral connection between me and and an old college friend.
This year, for the first time in many, many years, I watched the Tony Awards broadcast.
I don’t watch a lot of awards shows. Neither the Oscars nor the Emmys hold any interest for me; I record the Grammys and the American Music Awards, but I fast-forward through the looooong stretches of each that bore me to tears–left to my own devices, I can watch a three-hour Grammy or AMA show in twenty to thirty minutes, maybe forty minutes, tops. Middle-aged power pop fans are just not the target demographic of these shows.
But one of the things that did catch my interest on this year’s Grammys was the performance from the Broadway sensation Hamilton. Honest to God, I just thought it was captivating. So I tuned into this year’s Tony Awards show to try ‘n’ soak up a bit more of that Hamilton buzz; and, more specifically, my wife Brenda and I wanted to root for Leslie Odom, Jr., the actor who plays Aaron Burr in Hamilton. Now, we’ve never actually met Leslie; but–a very long time ago–we knew his Mom and his Dad.
First, a bit of background about me and The Great White Way. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about rock ‘n’ roll, punk, bubblegum, pop, and power pop. It may surprise some to learn that someone like me–whose all-time favorite musical acts are The Beatles, The Ramones,The Flashcubes, The Kinks, and The Monkees–also loves Broadway. But there were always Original Broadway Cast albums around the house when I was a kid, so I was exposed to this music, immersed in it, since even before John, Paul, George, and Ringo paid that first visit to ol’ stoneface Ed Sullivan one Sunday night in ’64. As a toddler, I would accompany my parents on shopping trips to J.M. Fields or K-Mart, and I’d randomly sing snippets o’ show tunes while sitting in the shopping cart. This could border on the awkward and embarrassing, like when I would suddenly bellow, Here’s to the son of a B–tra la! from Carnival, or re-enact the domestic quarrel scene from Gypsy, concluding that I was gettin’ my kids and gettin’ out. Hello, Child Protection? Yeah, there’s this kid in the department store, and you won’t believe what’s comin’ outta his mouth…!
West Side Story. The Music Man. Camelot. Funny Girl. Carousel. And, my favorite, Carnival. I heard all of these, and many more, and they were ultimately as much a part of my formative musical alchemy as the British Invasion and The Monkees. The lure of rock ‘n’ roll was ultimately too much competition for musical theater to withstand, but I never exactly stopped loving Broadway, either. I’ve never seen a play on Broadway, but I did see an Off-Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973, and I saw Wicked in London’s West End in 2010. I’ve seen many, many local theatrical productions, both professional and amateur; Brenda and I have even been known to attend high school musicals, and I mean high school musicals where we didn’t know any of the student performers–we were just there to enjoy the play.
This ongoing love of music and musicals also led me to a short-lived TV series called Smash. Smash ran for two seasons, from 2012 to 2013, and it was kind of a mess, really. But it had its moments, and I never missed an episode. And I noticed an actor who had a recurring role on Smash, and I called Brenda in while I watching him on the show. Hey, Bren. This actor’s name is Leslie Odom, Jr. It could be a coincidence, but damn–doesn’t he look a little like Les?
I met Les Odom in college at Brockport, in Spring of 1979, I think. Les was friends with a couple of the guys I lived with, Truck Thacker and Ray Ramos, so I saw Les here and there in our dorm suite–partying, kibbitzing, listening to music (with The O’Jays‘ live “Wildflower” a particular favorite, as I recall). Les was from Queens, so he was on the school’s charter bus to New York City during Spring Break; I was also on that charter bus, accompanying Brenda back to Staten Island, where I would be meeting her parents for the first time (and, of course, also making a side trip to see The Flashcubes play on the Bowery). That bus trip was a bacchanalia on wheels, a mobile version of dorm life, and enough fun that I only minded a little when all these downstaters kept putting down my home town when the bus passed through Syracuse. You call this a city? Man, this ain’t even big enough to be a borough!
(And this may be a case of my memory rearranging facts to suit my narrative, but I do believe it was Les who said, Naw, man–come on! It seems like a nice place. Leave CC be!)
When I graduated from college in 1980, I decided to stay in Brockport while Brenda completed her studies. We got an apartment in the village, and were surprised to discover that Les and his girlfriend, Yvette Nixon, were also living in the same small complex, Villager Apartments. We were never really tight, but we renewed our friendship nonetheless, and spent some time hanging out over the course of that summer. I have a specific, vivid memory of Yvette making dinner for us in their apartment one night, and we spent a lovely evening drinking and partying, alternating between watching Ted Kennedy’s firebrand speech at the Democratic National Convention and listening to James Brown’s Live At The Apollo LP. I remember it as a happy, happy time.
But Villager Apartments didn’t seem to remain a happy place for Les and Yvette. Brenda and I both remember them as a really cool, very nice couple, and we all got on quite well. But Villager’s manager, Pete–who lived next door to Brenda and I, and was also a friend of ours at the time–may not have shared our affection for Les and Yvette. It may have been racial (which is an easy stone to cast, even when it’s not true), or it may have been a simple matter of friction between tenants and an apartment manager. I didn’t see any of it. All I know is what Pete told me: that Les was banging on Pete’s door late one night, presumably to report a problem with Les and Yvette’s place, and Pete opened the door and pointed a gun at Les. Les shouted, No, Pete! It’s me–Les! No shots were fired, and no one was hurt, thank God. But Les and Yvette moved out not long after that. We never saw them again.
When we saw this Leslie Odom, Jr. on Smash, we knew in our hearts he had to be Les’ son. Had to be. Odom’s a common name, but the resemblance was strong enough. Now, Les was a big guy, and Leslie, Jr. didn’t seem to be as physically large–well, on TV, anyway. But Yvette was of slighter build, so it was plausible. I did the Google Stalk thing that everyone does now: Leslie Odom, Jr. was born in August of 1981 in Queens–roughly a year after we’d last seen Les and Yvette, and in Les’ home town. But no matter how much we researched, we couldn’t confirm the identities of this actor’s parents. Well, yeah, we knew his father was Leslie Odom, Sr–we are indeed that well-versed in the time-honored art of deduction–but we didn’t know his mother’s name, and we couldn’t say with absolute certainty that his Dad was the Les we used to know.
When we saw the performance from Hamilton on this year’s Grammys telecast, we noticed Leslie Odom, Jr. in a prominent role. The performance was intriguing; the idea of “a hip-hop musical” wasn’t intrinsically attractive to me, but this seemed so powerful, so well-executed, so goddamned irresistible, that it just knocked me out, man. My budget wasn’t likely to accommodate a trip to New York and Hamilton tickets any time soon, but I kept my eyes open for further TV glimpses. Everyone knew Hamilton was going to dominate the Tonys. And that meant Brenda and I were going to watch the Tonys.
The awards show itself was amazing, actually. Host James Corden was fantastic, the comedy bits and musical numbers were endlessly engaging, and–unlike the Grammys or the AMAs–I never felt like fast-forwarding through anything except the commercials. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of television. Watching the scene from Hamilton, I found myself mesmerized; the only comparison I could think of was The Beach Boys‘ masterpiece Pet Sounds; not because Hamilton is in any way reminiscent of Pet Sounds, but simply because that’s what comes to mind when something is as good as it gets, nonpareil, a summit of achievement and accomplishment. Tough to make that pronouncement based on a couple of numbers seen on a 32″ TV screen, but screw objectivity anyway. There was a giddy joy in surrendering to the moment, and letting it sweep all cynicism away.
When it came time to award the prize for Best Actor In A Musical, we knew that Leslie was up against Hamilton‘s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and we figured Miranda was a lock. But Leslie won! We whooped and hollered as if he were one of our own. And, in the conclusion of his acceptance speech, Leslie, Jr. acknowledged, “Leslie Odom, Sr., Yvette Odom, and Elizabeth Odom taught me well as well.”
And there it was. Confirmation! I’m not embarrassed to admit that Brenda and I both screeched like young teens at a One Direction show. And we’re pretty sure we saw Les–Les, Sr.–in the audience, pumping his fist in jubilation, proud of his son. It felt so damned good.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. Sometimes that harsh glow can be blinding, too much to take in; but sometimes, there really is magic in the air. That magic can manifest in music and art, and also in friendships long gone, but still remembered fondly. That glitter never rubs off. It never will.