The soundtrack of the musical “Hamilton” blared from the speakers as students streamed into De Neve Commons Lecture Auditorium, eagerly awaiting The New York Times’ Get With The Times, a conversation between New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor and “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr.
Within minutes, the audience burst into song, singing and rapping along to the award-winning musical’s lyrics. Nearly 400 people in the audience joined together to belt, “I am not throwing away my shot!”
Wednesday night’s Get With The Times event is the first in an online video streaming series started by The New York Times to engage college students in a conversation about arts, politics and modern life. The event was streamed at watch parties at campuses located across the country, in which students participated by commenting in real-time via Facebook live.
Although the event was originally supposed to be filmed at The New York Times office in Manhattan, Odom, who played the role of Aaron Burr in the musical, suggested filming the event at UCLA. He felt it was important to have the conversation in front of a live audience, said Megan Kaesshaefer, the project manager for the event. Odom’s wife is also a UCLA alumna and the campus is close to his Los Angeles home.
Students began lining up for the 6 p.m. event an hour early, including first-year political science student Maripau Paz. Paz has been a fan of musicals since she was little.
“When ‘Hamilton’ came out, I was a really big fan of it and I fell in love with the music, and therefore I fell in love with Leslie Odom Jr.,” Paz said. “Finding out that he was here for free was insane because I know that seeing him live is a huge privilege, so I just had to come.”
Odom and Alcindor talked about a variety of topics, ranging from Odom’s philosophy on life, to his time in “Hamilton” and his view on the current political climate. Odom stressed the importance of having good intentions throughout life and pursuing them firmly, citing his own strong dreams as a reason he ended up performing in “Hamilton.” His persistence and focus have continued to guide him even after leaving the show in 2016.
“We had to leave at some point and there are new wonderful people doing those parts, but it does leave a sort of hole in your life,” Odom said during his conversation with Alcindor. “I don’t know now what, but I can focus on my intention again, the kind of work that I want to do, why I want to do it.”
Alcindor also brought up the question of politics, asking about the function of a show like “Hamilton” in the current political climate. After Odom left the production, the show made headlines when Brandon Victor Dixon made a curtain speech directed at attendee Vice President Mike Pence. Alcindor said Odom himself has also voiced some political ideas, which she used to segue into a discussion of current events.
“If you could still walk away from those three hours and think that I am somehow inferior to you … that (‘Hamilton’ creator) Lin-Manuel Miranda is somehow inferior to you because his ancestors weren’t born here, possibly, then I don’t know what else to say to a person like that,” Odom said in response to a question about what the country can take away from the musical today.
After the conversation, Odom took questions from the live audience as well as those watching the Facebook live stream. One student asked about Odom’s experience as a black man in theater and how he was able to reconcile the exclusive nature of Broadway audiences.
“There were nights when I’d look down in the audience and there’s no brown faces in this audience and I know some brown faces would be digging this right now,” Odom said.
Odom finished the night by performing the song “Seriously,” which UCLA alumna Sara Bareilles wrote as part of a series of songs attempting to provide insight into the minds of leading figures of the 2016 election. The song, performed for radio program “This American Life” is written from the perspective of Barack Obama.
Though Odom is known for his role as Aaron Burr, Alcindor said she was happy he detailed other essential steps in his life, such as his college experience.
“I really wanted Leslie to explain, and he did, why he became an actor … but also why it was important for him to walk away from Hamilton and pursue other things,” Alcindor said. “I hope that students took away that you can do all those things, you can make a living, but not to give up what you love to do.”