The finest musical theater performer of her generation, Tony winner (and six-time nominee) Kelli O’Hara is taking a day off from her Tony-winning run in The King and I to come to Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre for an intimate one-night engagement, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. Earlier that same day, she will teach a master class to a lucky group of Harvard students.
As she nears the end of her run in The King and I (you have until April 17th to see her), O’Hara spoke with me about her transition from ingénue to leading lady, making magic with Harry Connick Jr., and her solid gold collaborations with director Bartlett Sher.
Why is it important to you to go out and do concerts in the midst of your King and I run?
Well, I mean for many, many reasons on both sides. One side is that you do a wonderful show like The King and I, that I’m so grateful for, but you need a little break to remind yourself of what other songs you’re able to sing. [laughs] And to stretch your voice. But also, I especially love these concert/master class combos at universities because they really feed me. They remind me of when I was starting out. Just to be so hopeful. Not that I’m not, but it’s always good to see that; remembering when you had all those dreams and how beautiful it all was. These kids always inspire me, so it’s a great thing for me to do.
Can you explain the whole concert/master class combo?
The way they usually work is that I’m going to meet with a bunch of the students, and I’m probably going to have a lot of the student body there as far as in the arts program watching. And then I’ll probably work with five to 10 students who’ve been prepared, and they will sing for me. I did this in college; I was one of the kids who got to sing for someone who came from New York or somewhere, and I’ll never forget it. It really inspired me to have a different opinion, you know, listening to me, give me a few new things, and that’s what I want to do for these kids. We’ll go through songs; I’ll coach them on their choices in front of the whole class and really try to make some changes in that short amount of time. And then my band will arrive and we’ll do a sound check and I’ll do a concert that night. And then I’ll fly out that night because I have a concert the next night! [laughs] It’s a crazy weekend.
What a thrill it will be for those kids who are going to get to do that with you.
Oh, I hope so. There’s also a bit of pressure there, a good kind of pressure, like the kind that makes you proud of what you do and makes you want to share it with people.
I have to tell you that I have loved everything you’ve done since the first time I saw you in The Light in the Piazza. Well, the first time I saw you was Dracula, but the first time I fell in love with you was Piazza.
[laughs] Well, thank you. Most people started with Piazza. That was when I was finally finding my way, finding where I could fit in this business. It was a big blessing and it was a good turn for me. I’m really grateful for it.
It was so gorgeous and just perfect in every single way.
You went from playing an ingénue in Piazza to literally having the best chemistry—and the hottest ticket—on Broadway with Harry Connick Jr. in The Pajama Game. What was that transition like?
The fact that it worked out as well as it did is something that I’ll always breathe a big sigh of relief about. Leaving Piazza was really, really hard and I think eyebrows were raised quite a bit for me to leave such a brand-new, gorgeous thing I had been working on for literally five years. And to leave it to do a revival, you know, at another nonprofit, go down in pay, stuff like that, it was like, “Why are you doing this?” And I’ll tell you exactly why I was doing it: I knew when I did Piazza that I was at the end of my ingénue run in my heart and in my physical body. I knew that I had to leave because it’s either “try to be the ingénue until you’re 45 and really start to fail,” or “reinvent yourself and change.” And with Piazza I was playing not only the ingénue, but I was playing the ingénue times 1000 with Clara: Yes, she was a young woman, but she was a young woman with the mind of a child. I loved every ounce of her and I loved every bit of that kind of challenge. It was very, very challenging at that time in my life. I’m sure I could play her better now if I looked different because I’m calmer and I’m more peaceful about what it means to be performing on the stage. At the time, I was really, really anxious to start planting my feet and start being a woman. I knew that if I went to do The Pajama Game and if it went well that I would have graduated into a different kind of role, and that’s exactly what happened. I never would have been asked to do South Pacific if I hadn’t gone to do The Pajama Game. It’s difficult in this business to change it up, and I had an opportunity to do so, so I did it.
Thank God for that! Who knew that The Pajama Game would be so sexy and exciting after all those years?
[laughs] Exactly! I mean, Harry and I, and we talk about this a lot, we didn’t go after this idea that we would try to create some sort of crazy chemistry. It’s just that once we started having fun, and because he’s so unafraid of music and what to do with music, it was really the fun we were having with the music more than anything that was driving it. Especially “There Once Was a Man.” Kathleen [Marshall] choreographed it so that we were definitely using our bodies together, but also we were improvising. He was teaching me to do it. He was doing it and then I didn’t want him to one-up me, so I would try and fail miserably sometimes, and we would laugh. I’m learning that what creates chemistry isn’t always what you think. Sometimes feeling not so comfortable with a cast mate can also come off as chemistry. It’s an amazing thing. We had a blast every single night on that stage. We just loved it. It was really kind of a fun time.
I love that your transformation from ingénue into what people think of as a leading lady was not an accident, it was something that you very seriously thought about. That’s so interesting. So often when people talk about the paths of their careers they say, “Oh, it just worked out” or, “Yeah, that’s just what happened.”
Yeah. I think it might for some people, but if you think about leading ladies, really think about them, most of them are of the brassy type. Most of them came out through playing ballsy, belter-y roles. Leading ladies are not often ingénues in the beginning. It’s just not written that way. Until Adam [Guettel] wrote Margaret [in The Light in the Piazza] for Vicki [Victoria Clark] or Jason [Robert Brown] had written The Bridges of Madison County for me, and maybe Lerner and Loewe wrote Eliza [in My Fair Lady], although Eliza had to come up through the idea that she didn’t know much and had to be taught, so you’re not really dealing with women that come up from ingénue and become leading ladies. You either have to decide to be one and, in fact, deciding to be one, and maybe I’m reinventing history because I want to believe this, but I really truly knew that I had to. If I wanted to do the kind of things I wanted to do, I had to sing things that weren’t exactly comfortable for me. I’m definitely not an alto. I’m not a belter. Singing The Pajama Game, South Pacific, Bells are Ringing, all those shows, that’s not my comfort zone, but those are the women I wanted to play. So you wait around, and you ask for a writer to write something to match the way you sing, but it also gives you some balls. And then finally it started to happen, and that’s when it gets really fun. I think it wouldn’t have just happened because the next show I would have done would have been another sort of sweet ingénue girl, but I would have been going into my 30s, and pretty soon it doesn’t really work out. And then it’s not really working, and then it’s not believable, and then you’re not performing on stage the way you feel in your life. And it feels imbalanced. So I knew that I had to. It was very hard. It took me a long time to make that decision. I just somehow knew that if I didn’t make that change that I wouldn’t change my track, you know?
Is The Bridges of Madison County more in your vocal comfort zone than something like South Pacific?
Yeah, Bridges is exactly the way I sing. If you notice, and we laugh about it, but if you notice, there are a lot of notes that aren’t there because I don’t like them that much. [laughs] I mean, I like to sing anything and I loved, loved singing South Pacific, and it became something that fit me, but I had to make it fit me. I changed the way it’s usually sung, and when I realized that would be okay then of course I loved the music. I’m either really low or really high [in South Pacific], and I have that range, but I have an opera degree; I love to sing high, I love to sing in that upper register. And so Jason [Robert Brown] in Bridges, if you listen to it, it’s all low and it’s all high. He really takes me into that place where I was wanting to go all the time. It was an absolute gift.
That show was gorgeous. I was so upset when it didn’t really catch on.
Your collaborations with [director] Bartlett Sher have been talked about a lot, but what does that collaboration mean to you? Why do you think it works so well?
I think sometimes when you start with something that’s pretty heavy or a big journey it solidifies something between you that’s important and can’t really be changed. Bart was in on some of the first dealings of Piazza. The great thing was that I had been there before he was, so the fear or any kind of insecurity or doubt with the director that actors can have, that I had often had, wasn’t really there with him, because the first time I did Piazza with him around, he was the artistic director of the Intiman—but he wasn’t directing our show, he was just there. So we were doing our show, and he was there, and he had some opinions about it, and he was lovely. By the time he took over to direct it at the Goodman, he was more a friend. And then, clearly, as he began directing he became one of the biggest mentors of my life. But as a peer and as a person who I was really comfortable with and trusted to lead me and not scared [of]. That’s a big difference when you talk about collaboration. I love to collaborate with people, but I’ve collaborated in ways where I’m the student and they’re the teacher, or I’m the teacher and they’re the student. There’s a big difference when you collaborate with somebody when you’re both. I would definitely call him my teacher always, but I think that he allows me to discover and be, and I’m not afraid to be. So much of building a show, whether it’s a revival or a new show, is the trust. That is just so important. And you know, it’s not that I don’t want to work with other directors, I love it, but if something feels like it’s not broke, I don’t want to fix it. I want to work with him a lot. I just enjoy him. We raise our kids together, we’re friends.
Yeah, please don’t fix it!
No, no! I always call it a dysfunctional family that’s going really well, you know what I mean? We fight, then we get over it, and we learned from it. It’s great.
How have things changed for you since you won the Tony?
You know, I don’t know. [laughs]
Does it put more pressure on you?
No. Well, no. I mean, I don’t know. Everyday feels a little differently. I try not to put any pressure on myself about it. I try not to let it be of any consequence, really. It felt really, really wonderful to win. If I sat around and thought about it, I could think a lot of things that might not be healthy about it, like, “Did I just win because this,” or, “I won because I’m awesome.” You can’t really do that to yourself; you can’t go in either direction. You just have to say, “That was an amazing thing that happened, and I never thought it would.” I think you can turn things like that into something else. You can really campaign, “I just won the Tony, now make me a big star!” I felt more kind of like, “Oh wow, that’s amazing, now I’m going to do my job and I feel really good about it.” You know what I mean? It does give me a lot of pride in doing my job. But it doesn’t change me and it hasn’t changed my life, really, as far as what’s going to happen, and so I feel at peace about it. I’m really, really grateful for it. And that’s about all.
Thank you very, very much. Thank you.
What’s next for you?
You know, I’ve made the really difficult decision, once again, to not take an eight-show-a-week schedule for a minute. I don’t know how long that is. It’s not forever. And I would love to do things like short runs of something or concert versions of something, it’s just that right in the middle of all this, which is the most amazing 10 years of my life, I also had two children and got married. I love being a mom and being a wife and having a family, and I can race around like that for my ego forever; we all know that, as actors and performers, we could do this forever. We can actually beg for it. And I had to make a very hard decision, which is hard for your ego and your psyche, to say no to a great role, and I did that last year because I feel like the idea of going back into rehearsal right now, once again, and opening a brand-new show and going through the whole press of selling your show and doing all that stuff, it’s like saying to my kids that I don’t have time for them once again. And I’ve been doing this for a while, so now that they’re two and six, I’ve scheduled a lot of concerts throughout the summer because that, for me, feeds my soul. It’s my job and it’s a good financial thing, but it’s also a very good thing for my creative soul. I’ve got my Carnegie Hall concert coming up in October, and I want to make a new album. I’m going to be doing a little bit of television, filming a project that I’ve been working on. And that’s about it. I’m not planning a big show again for a minute. I say a minute because I have no idea how long.
It’s important to enjoy your kids while they’re at that age.
Well that’s it. I feel like time is passing me by with them and I don’t want to miss it, you know?
Well, congratulations on everything, and congratulations on Carnegie Hall, that’s major!
Thank you! I’m excited.
Enjoy your time in Boston. Your one short day.
[laughs] My one day. I will, I love Boston. I’m looking forward to coming.
AN EVENING WITH KELLI O’HARA. 2.28 @ 7 PM. SANDERS THEATRE, 45 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. CELEBRITYSERIES.ORG