As the actor makes her West End debut in Bartlett Sher’s Tony award-winning revival of The King and I, she talks to Mark Shenton about her journey from understudy to one of Broadway’s most captivating stars
In the competitive field of Broadway’s favourite ingenues-turned-leading ladies, Kelli O’Hara is – alongside Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth – one of its brightest and most bewitching lights. Since she first moved to New York City from her native Oklahoma nearly two decades ago, O’Hara has worked through the ranks from understudy to star. And London audiences will finally be able to see her live as she makes her West End theatre debut this summer.
She will reprise her 2015 Tony award-winning role in the Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The King and I, which opens at the London Palladium this month.
“Most of my work has been on Broadway,” she tells me ahead of her arrival in London, “and I’ve been glad to stay current and work; but it does make me very excited to work on the West End now and expand that reach.”
The King and I was her second leading role in a Rodgers and Hammerstein revival on Broadway, and both times she has had big shoes to fill – following performances by Mary Martin for South Pacific and Gertrude Lawrence for The King and I – but she defiantly made them her own.
When South Pacific premiered at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 2008, Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times that she “doesn’t stint on Nellie’s all-American eagerness. But in a superbly shaded portrait she gives the character a troubled, apprehensive guardedness as well”.
Brantley continued: “Ms O’Hara, whose lovely soprano is never merely lovely here, creates a study in ambivalence that is both subtly layered and popping with energy. Even when she’s singing that she’s in love with a wonderful guy, she seems to be wrestling with complicated feelings that have surprised her.”
And when she starred in The King and I, again at Lincoln Center, as English widow Anna Leonowens who travels to the Kingdom of Siam to be a teacher at the King’s Court to his royal children, Brantley waxed lyrical again. He called those who had the chance to see O’Hara as Anna “you lucky theatregoers”, adding: “One look at her face, agleam with intelligence and apprehension, and you suspect you’re in the hands of a guide you can trust. Then she starts to sing. And even if the familiar song she delivers (I Whistle a Happy Tune) usually makes you cringe, your confidence in her – and the Lincoln Center Theater production in which she appears – starts to soar. It will stay contentedly aloft for the next two hours and 50 minutes.”
Both productions were directed by Bartlett Sher, who also directed her in what would be her breakthrough role: in the contemporary musical masterpiece The Light in the Piazza in 2005. South Pacific subsequently came to London at the Barbican Centre before it headed out for a UK-wide tour, but without O’Hara; Samantha Womack played the role instead.
“I hated to miss that, but I had just given birth to my first child, so it was just not a good time,” O’Hara says. “I certainly was not swimsuit ready.”
Her son turns nine this month and she also has a daughter now. Having children made her ‘game-ready’ for The King and I, in which she plays a mother herself. “I think that what made me love it so much was having children of my own,” she says, “and the general theme of it is so powerful and important. When you are doing work that feels like it has a message, it is so satisfying.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work was among the earliest musical theatre she experienced when she was young. “I grew up in Oklahoma, and I didn’t have a lot of live theatre around me,” she says. “The first musical I ever knew was Oklahoma!, probably because of the film, and then Carousel and The Sound of Music. I was inspired by them… They were the soundtrack to my childhood.”
In 2007, she managed to celebrate that early exposure to musicals, and her home state, by starring as Laurie in Oklahoma! during the state’s centennial birthday celebrations. “I finally got to play it in a production there,” she says. In 2015, Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett gave her a key to the city.
But how did a performer with little schooling in musical theatre and who took an opera degree at Oklahoma City University end up on Broadway at all? “I was one of those naive, bold kids, who didn’t have a job or a place to stay in New York, but I knew I wanted to give it a try. So I packed a couple of suitcases and just went,” O’Hara says. “Things ended up falling in place together. I found a place to stay and got a couple of jobs – and the rest is history.”
Her breezy manner makes it sound like the journey was easy, but in fact, as she also admits: “I definitely paid my dues.”
She was cast as an understudy in a national tour of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde, and took over the part for the last four months of the run. Her next show after the tour finished was a revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies in 2001, directed by Matthew Warchus. “I understudied three girls, then the one playing Young Phyllis left and I moved up to do that.”
Her first featured role followed the next year. She played a supporting character in Nicholas Hytner’s production of a new musical based on the film Sweet Smell of Success, scored by Marvin Hamlisch. Only it failed to live up to its title, running for just three months. “It was a very hard time, 9/11 had happened just before, and the show was dark,” O’Hara says.
“My memories of it are so minimal and clouded. I was young and excited, but I wish I could go back and have had more presence there. I enjoyed a lot of it, but a lot of it was hard.”
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To try to enjoy the moments more when I wasn’t working – to relax and centre myself.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
I was greatly influenced as a child by Julie Andrews, but as I got older, I was also inspired by actors like Laura Linney and Audra McDonald. I must also mention my singing teacher Florence Birdwell, who also taught Kristin Chenoweth – her way of looking at life and art and words changed me and made me dig deeper from the get-go.
What is your best advice for auditions?
I think we try, and I’m very guilty of this, to be perfect. It is more risky to be different and bold and to be who you are. You are not going to get everything, so rather than trying to be the perfect thing, just show yourself.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I don’t have any other skills. I grew up on a farm, so I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was a kid.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I learnt early on not to be too dependent on rituals – what if I didn’t do one of those things before a show? But no matter what happens, you’ve still got to go out and do it.
She was involved in early versions of The Light in the Piazza – with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and a book by Craig Lucas – first in Seattle in 2003 and then the following year in Chicago, before the planned transfer to Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre. “We weren’t going to open in New York until the spring of 2005, so they let me take another job in between – Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula, the Musical on Broadway. The producers were willing to hire me and then let me leave. For me, it was a win-win. As actors, we have to work when we can.”
If Dracula turned out to be quickly forgettable, The Light in the Piazza was the opposite. “It was definitely, I think, one of my best opportunities,” she says now. “A lot of people thought it was the first thing I ever did, but I’m fine with that, because I’m extremely proud of it.”
O’Hara admits to a certain naivety when she performed in the musical: “It was at a time of my life where the good thing was not knowing all the rules, so you can just sit and enjoy it. I was feeling great and I’d not learned enough to put a lot of pressure on it. I just enjoyed it so much, and I was much more suited to that type of music than to Dracula.”
Her performances as the character Clara Johnson marked the first of her six Tony award nominations, for best featured actress in a musical, and she followed it up with another with a nod for leading actress in a musical for her role as Babe Williams in The Pajama Game.
Working on new shows like The Light in the Piazza and Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County almost a decade later tested her in different ways to the revivals she has done. “When you are building something brand new, you have a lot more pressure, especially a commercial show like Bridges of Madison County. But that’s also where the really satisfying work happens, when you can help build something,” she says.
Yet, despite another Tony nomination for O’Hara, the show, based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, ran for only three months. “I feel proud of what we did, and I’m sure the score will live on,” she says.
In between South Pacific and The Bridges of Madison County, she appeared in a musical called Nice Work If You Can Get It, which mapped old George Gershwin songs on to a newly scripted book.
In my career, after doing something that’s really dark and heavy, I try to find something that’s like a sorbet
“It was pure joy. I think about it a lot. The amount of fun we had every night in that show was unbelievable. We just laughed and laughed. That’s what I’ve always tried to do in my choices in my career – after doing something that’s really dark and heavy to try to find something that’s like a sorbet,” she says.
But revivals are never just revivals. The duty is to stay true to the original intentions but find something new in the works that speaks to today, O’Hara says. “The reason to do revivals is that we have to make them new and important for the present time. We’ve been lucky that these last revivals I’ve done have worked out, but I don’t ever take that for granted.”
Similarly, she’s not taking the upcoming transfer of The King and I to the West End for granted either, despite it being the show that finally, at the sixth time of asking, won her the coveted Tony for best performance by a leading actress in a musical.
“I’ve lived a lot since I first played the role,” she says. “It’s been a few years now and I feel I can bring new experiences I’ve had to it and try to make something new. I definitely don’t want to do it exactly like I’ve done it before… Though when I start to do it again, I’m sure I’ll fall back into some muscle memories.”
The show will also be affected by a change of cast and venue, she believes. “I think it’s going to be very different. It’s going to be an all-new cast apart from Ken [Watanabe, who is reprising the role of the king], but also Lincoln Center is a thrust stage and very open and angular. I think a proscenium stage is going to affect the staging and the way it feels – it’ll make it more presentational,” she says.
“I’m proud of what we did before and I really believe in what we built there, but I’ll be playing with new players and people who draw different things out of me. The challenge will be to stay true to what we built in the beginning and carry it through into our London performances.”
• Be yourself – it’s a waste of time trying to be someone else, they’re already taken.
• Create and write yourself. We used to be dependent on other people to create our actions, but things are changing now and we’re creating our own.
• Find the joy in it – if there’s no joy in it, it’s going to be palpable and everyone is going to feel it. You have to love it, otherwise you should go home.
When I ask O’Hara what she wishes someone had told her when she was starting out, she replies: “I’d have tried to enjoy the moments when I wasn’t working more, to relax and centre myself. I was constantly striving to achieve things. I wish I could have just trusted that something will come and enjoyed myself more.
“Nearly 20 years have passed since I started, and yet I’m only now moving to London for one of the first times ever. I wish I’d taken more trips here before, to really enjoy some travelling and make my life richer in the midst of all the work. I’ve been working a lot.”
Just a couple of months earlier, she tested herself not just on Broadway but at one of the world’s most celebrated opera houses, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. There, she sang the role of Despina – the maid who works for two sisters – in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.
The New York Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini raved about “the wonderful Kelli O’Hara, a Broadway star who brings savvy dramatic instincts, a lovely soprano voice and quite good Italian diction to the role”.
For her, it was an important departure. “I put a lot of time into opera when I was younger. I got my degree in it, so there was a gnawing ache in me to try it. It was a bucket-list thing to do, and was so special to me, I’m glad I was allowed to do it.”
After London, she already has another Broadway job lined up: next spring she will star in a new production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate for Roundabout Theatre Company. “We did a one-night performance of it in 2016 and we had so much fun and laughter – I’m very excited to be doing it. After working on a pretty dark television series [13 Reasons Why, in which she plays an anti-bullying advocate], I want to go back to the joy of singing and being a theatre animal, which is what I am.”
Born: 1976, Elk City, Oklahoma
Training: Oklahoma State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music in vocal performance/opera
Landmark productions: Broadway:
• Sweet Smell of Success (2002)
• The Light in the Piazza (2005)
• The Pajama Game (2006)
• South Pacific (2008)
• Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012)
• The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
Metropolitan Opera House:
• The Merry Widow (2014)
• Cosi Fan Tutte (2018)
Awards: Tony award for best leading actress in a musical for The King and I (2015)
Agents: Brian Mann and Bonnie Bernstein at ICM Partners
The King and I runs at the London Palladium from June 21 to September 29