Leslie Odom Jr. is an amazing talent to all who have seen his brilliant performance as Aaron Burr in HAMILTON, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (director, writer, lyricist, performer), prodigiously successful, iconic, monumentally creative musical on Broadway. HAMILTON is beyond exceptional, beyond the finest conventional musicals. It is nonpareil. It must be seen to be believed. And its prices reflect the buzz that has been created by HAMILTON fans. You will have to pay a minimum of $1000 for a seat anywhere in the Richard Rodgers Theater for the next few months. Some figures as of this date are even around $2000; all is resale. You can check after August 2016 to perhaps get a ticket in a less ionospheric price range. And on resale in March through June, the tickets are around $300 and up.
So when Carol Ward, Executive Director of the Morris-Jumel Mansion told me that Leslie Odom Jr. was the Guest of Honor at the Morris Jumel Mansion’s Culture and Arts Festival and would be performing a few songs, I was very interested. I enjoy the mansion which I’ve visited and the Saturday events looked to be a lot of fun. (taking nothing away from Leslie Odom Jr.)
Due to an unusual sequence of events, I was very fortunate to be present at the Vassar reading of Hamilton Mixtape in 2013 (before the show “was” HAMILTON). I remember warbling to Ron Chernow (he doesn’t know me from a pussy-willow), after the reading that he would sell a lot of books because the show was going to take off. (He wrote the biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired Miranda’s work.) Fired-up, I made sure to see the production at the Public Theatre. It was then I saw Leslie Odom Jr. in the role of Burr. He was electrifying, thrilling. The cast was solidified at that point and their teamwork and acting were fantastic. I saw the production a second time at the Public. I saw it a third time when it transferred to Broadway. After each viewing, it was unbelievable. The show was sheer, incredible joy. The actors who were great were even better. It was an impossibility, but they were topping themselves. So, you want to know if Leslie Odom Jr. is good in the role of Burr? I’m speechless, gobsmacked. Yes, he’s that great.
Odom Jr. as Burr narrates the life and times of Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda-OMG), and rings out his friendship with the man he eventually killed in a duel. Burr’s seemingly cruel act may have been a “blessing” in disguise for Hamilton. The fatal gunshot skyrocketed Hamilton’s sinking reputation to the heavens, while plummeting his own to the abyss of historical infamy. However, thanks to Odom Jr.’s empathetic, human portrayal and Lin-Manual Miranda’s nuanced, compassionate rendering of Burr, the third U.S. Vice President is given a reprieve. Burr is actually a very cool guy, but like all of us, he had some issues.
Now, what does Leslie Odom Jr. who portrays the enigmatic founding father Burr have to do with the Morris-Jumel Mansion? Well, as it turns out, Odom Jr. is appreciative of the Morris-Jumel and like Lin-Manuel Miranda, is pleased to step onto the grounds of the oldest house in Manhattan that is celebrating its 250th year. One reason is because of its amazing historical, political, and cultural pedigree. George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton had a cabinet dinner in the lovely dining room of the mansion. And when the Morris-Jumel was purchased by Stephen Jumel, who left the mansion to his wife Eliza after he died, Aaron Burr and Eliza Jumel became enamored of one another and married in 1833.
The wealthy Eliza Jumel outfitted her home grandly. Most probably she appointed her husband’s bedroom in colors that fit his dynamic personality. Today, if you visit Aaron Burr’s bedroom you see that the complementary tapestries, linens, and furniture match in striking red tones. The visit will give you a chance to reflect on who Burr was and wanted to be.
There is something about revisiting a lovely old house with period furnishings where you know that vital historical personalities like Washington, Hamilton, Burr, and Eliza Jumel visited, lived, walked the floorboards, peered out the windows, and admired the grounds and view from the second highest point in Manhattan. For that reason, Leslie Odom Jr. and Lin-Manuel Miranda have graciously devoted their time and talents to performing at the Morris-Jumel in support of this most intriguing NYC museum. They understand the mansion’s importance in our history and have a direct and felt relationship with magnifying our comprehension of the individuals (Hamilton, Burr, Washington, etc.), who are synonymous with our country’s greatness. After having become intimately acquainted with Burr and Hamilton by portraying them each evening, how can they not?
If and when you see HAMILTON or if you read Ron Chernow’s definitive biography Hamilton, or Gore Vidal’s intriguing and seminal work, Burr, you will have a greater appreciation of these founding fathers. In Burr, Vidal specifically discusses the marriage and relationship between Aaron Burr and Eliza Jumel. Vidal most probably visited the Morris-Jumel and was inspired by the history he found there. But then so was Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda marched right into Burr’s bedroom, sat in the wing chair, and wrote some of the songs that Leslie Odom Jr./Burr sings. Miranda was anointed by what he felt and experienced in the room where Burr slept. During the festivities, Carol Ward encouraged the audience to check out Burr’s bedroom where Miranda wrote. She quipped, “It’s the room where it happened.” “The Room Where it Happened” is an ingenious and pivotal song (written by Miranda), which represents a turning point in Burr’s life; it is performed to perfection by Odom Jr.
The Culture and Arts Festival at the Morris-Jumel Mansion is a yearly event which is held to support the mansion/museum. This fascinating old house is located in the historically land-marked section of Washington Heights’ Jumel Terrace. It is surrounded by Queen-Anne, Romanesque and Neo-Renaissance style row houses and a uniquely inspired development on Sylvan Terrace. If you take a docent led tour of the house and environs, you will learn about the architecture, cultural and political history of the mansion as well as the pedigree of some of the row houses which were once home to celebrities like Paul Robeson, Miles Davis, and Cicely Tyson.
On the day of the festival, there were docent led tours, a silent auction, yoga in the “Octagon” with Chelsea Best, historical ghost stories for kids in the colonial kitchen, and more. The mansion’s environs sport lovely gardens. In one section artists brought their crafts, paintings, jewelry and textiles, most of these hand-made, to display and sell. The performance schedule was also representative of artists from NYC. Performers included Grace Read and Jason Giummule, Underworld Productions Opera, Mariachi Flor de Toloache, Yael Acher “Kat” Modiano, Bobby Gonzalez, Bill Popp, The Gardner Trio: Karen Waltuch, Sarah Zun, Eleanor Norton, and The Harlem Swing Dance Society.
Carol Ward, the Executive Director, made the opening remarks and introduced Leslie Odom Jr. who sang one song from his CD, “Cheer up Charlie,” and “Theodosia” from HAMILTON. After he performed, he took time out to sign autographs, speak to fans, and take photos. He was on a tight schedule because he had to go to the Richard Rogers Theater and step right into his role as Aaron Burr for the matinee performance of HAMILTON. His presence at the Morris-Jumel indicates his level of commitment to support the mansion, having taken the time out to be there. Everyone was thrilled. Afterward a live auction for two HAMILTON tickets was conducted and they were sold to the highest bidder. The price was very reasonable. Both went for $1200 which was a true bargain considering there were no fees and fees on fees and fees on fees on fees. So two HAMILTON tickets went for about the price of one. I did bid and I am annoyed that I chickened out and didn’t go higher. What was I thinking?
During the entire afternoon, Margaret Oppenheimer was on hand for her book signing and for Q & As about Eliza Jumel, the reason why all of us were present that day and the reason why there is a mansion/museum. Margaret Oppenheimer has written The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic. She has researched Eliza Jumel extensively and is very knowledgeable about Eliza Jumel’s art collection of over 240 European paintings.
On Thursday, November 12, Margaret Oppenheimer is giving a free talk about Eliza Jumel’s art collection at 6:30 PM at the Mid-Manhattan Library (Fifth Avenue between 40th and 41st St.). Eliza Jumel was a maverick in her day, considering the status of women as chattel. Her financial acumen and tactics for thwarting undeserving relatives out of an estate is an object lesson, for men and women.
As Carol Ward and others like to say about the Morris-Jumel Mansion, there is always something going on. This Sunday, there is a concert. The uptown ensemble Concert in the Heights will play selections from the catalogues of the great Jean Sibelius, Carl Nielsen, Alexander Glazunov and Paul Dukas—all of them born 150 years ago. Every week events are posted on their site. You can also rent out the mansion for weddings, photos, tea parties, meetings, and films. And of course, one never knows who will show up at the mansion. In the 1970s Queen Elizabeth I came to see its beauties. And if you visit at certain times, you may even see the ghost of Eliza Jumel walking on the balcony. But not Aaron Burr. He is at the Richard Rogers Theatre most evenings, portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B013JLBPGE][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00N45NDA2][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B015BWE0S4][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0143034758][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0375708731]