A Conversation with Broadway's Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O'Hara won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Anna Leonowens in Lincoln Center Theater's revival of The King and I. It was also the sixth Tony nomination for this extraordinary leading lady who was named "Broadway's golden girl and luminous star" by New York Times' critic Stephen Holden.
A native of Oklahoma, she received a degree in opera from Oklahoma City University and after winning the State Metropolitan Opera Competition, she moved to New York City to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. She made her Broadway debut in Jekyll & Hyde in 2002 and has never looked back. A veteran of ten Broadway shows, she has also performed in regional and Off-Broadway productions, at Carnegie Hall and at the Kennedy Center Honors, on PBS holiday telecasts and in movies, on television and on cast album recordings.
When you look at her body of work since 2002, it is easy to see why Kelli O'Hara has earned her place in the spotlight not only for her many talents, grace and generosity, but also for her prodigious work ethic and dedication to the American theatre. Stay Thirsty Magazine was truly privileged to have this Conversation with Broadway's Kelli O'Hara at her home in New York City.
STAY THIRSTY: In your acceptance speech at the 2015 Tony Awards for winning Best Lead Actress in a Musical for The King and I, you told your parents, who were in the audience and had been with you for your five previous nominations, that they didn't have to pretend that it was okay this time. What does finally winning the Tony Award mean to you, your family and your career?
KELLI O'HARA: Winning the Tony meant so much to me, but I can say, without a doubt, that my parents, friends and family back home wanted it for me even more than I did. It was almost more rewarding in that respect than any other...knowing I had made them happy. They have supported me every step of the way and will continue to do so. Being able to thank them publicly was my favorite part!
STAY THIRSTY: When you were approached to star in The King and I, were you concerned about reviving such an iconic Broadway show that has been revived so many times? Did you think it could be made interesting to a 2015 audience?
KELLI O'HARA: Well, I can't be the judge of whether or not the show is interesting to an audience. I have never seen a production of The King and I myself, and I will not, unfortunately, ever see this production while I am in it. What I do know is that there are many things that make it relevant in 2015. We have a female running for president in our country this year. In our show, we are focusing on gender equality as well as political compromise, finding understanding through geographical, religious and historical differences, and we focus on the importance of educating woman. We pull out all these important subjects while floating on the beauty of the largest orchestra on Broadway playing one of Rogers and Hammerstein's greatest scores. It feels pretty great!
STAY THIRSTY: Does your costuming in The King and I help you better appreciate the times and the circumstances of the women of that era? Did you choose your dress for the award ceremony as a modern-day representation?
KELLI O'HARA: Anna Leonowens was up against so much. The hoop and corset alone symbolize so much to me; restrictions in movement, inability to let people get too close, stiff posture, power, etc. But if you notice our costume designer, Catherine Zuber's, choice of colors, I completely stick out when I arrive in the color blue. By the last scene, my red dress belongs in Siam. Costumes are almost a final collaborator for me. They guide me in many ways.
For the Tony's, my tea-length Oscar de le Renta gown was, indeed, a play on a modern hoop skirt. Thank you for noticing.
STAY THIRSTY: You have put together an incredible body of Broadway successes. How do you make your choices on what shows to do and not do?
KELLI O'HARA: I usually try to do something totally opposite from the show before. Looking back, I have often gone from a new piece to a revival and back again and often a drama then a comedy. I just always want to keep it interesting, and I want the character to speak to me at the time. When doing a show for a long run, it's very important to play a character that can teach me something.
STAY THIRSTY: You were nominated for Tony Awards for your roles in The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, South Pacific, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Bridges of Madison County and The King and I. Do you prefer working in revivals or in new material? Is it more difficult for you to create your own identity in a revival where famous actresses have come before you or to plow new ground in an original play or musical?
KELLI O'HARA: I realize that revivals and new pieces are very different for an audience, and so I do like to do both in order to change up the experience. But as far as the characters go, I don't approach them any differently and I love them both. Even if I have seen a show before I do it, I don't revisit it when I decide to play the role. I approach it like it's brand new. I only refer to the script and how to build something for myself for a particular time. If I worry about how it has been played before, then there is no reason for me to revive it. I can only do what I can do. I just want to tell the story.
STAY THIRSTY: You have had some long relationships during your career: ten years with Lincoln Center; three award-winning shows with Director Bartlett Sher; two award-winning shows with Director Kathleen Marshall; and, decades with your Oklahoma voice teacher, Florence Birdwell. How important is loyalty and consistency for you in your work and in your personal life?
KELLI O'HARA: I think relationships are everything. When professional relationships become personal relationships, you get to spend all your time with people you love, you trust and who bring out the best in you. As an artist, this is the only way to grow, in my opinion. For me, this will never be a solo ride.
STAY THIRSTY: You married into a Tony Award-winning Broadway family and now you have won a Tony yourself. In your acceptance speech at the Tony Awards, you said that you owe your husband, Greg Naughton, everything. What advice do you have for young actresses just starting out on Broadway on how to balance marriage, children and career? Do you consider yourself a good example of how women can succeed in all three areas?
KELLI O'HARA: I hope I am a good example. That's all I can do. My advice would be to keep priorities straight. It's very easy for to lose yourself to this business, but having other things in life is so important. My marriage and my children are the most important part of my life. But I love what I get to do for a living. We can all coexist as long as I share my love for it with them. And, honestly, privacy is important to us. It keeps what we have special.
STAY THIRSTY: On your Twitter page you refer to yourself in the following order: Wife, Mother, Singer, Actress, Songwriter and Friend. And, in an interview you gave earlier this year, you emphasized the importance of being "mom" to your children. When you look at yourself in the mirror who is the woman you see and how do you want others to see you?
KELLI O'HARA: That is what I see: a wife, a mother, a singer, an actress, etc. That is what I want others to see as well. I don't want to be something I am not.
STAY THIRSTY: Explain your fascination with THE WORM and why did you post a dressing room video of you doing it on Twitter?
KELLI O'HARA: I have no fascination with the worm. It was just something I said I could do in a Broadway.com interview to be funny. But I got so excited at the Tony's, that I just blurted it out. Of course, I couldn't lay down on the stage at Radio City and do it, so I posted it a few days later to be true to my word. I was pretty excited!
STAY THIRSTY: At the Tony Awards, you made reference to your voice teacher Florence Birdwell who was also the teacher for the show's co-host, former Tony Award-winner and your close friend Kristen Chenoweth. And, not only did you and Kristen attend Oklahoma City University but you were both members of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority. When you and she were just starting out in New York, did you have any idea that your careers would lead to such success for you both? Did you feel that destiny was at play?
KELLI O'HARA: Kristen was already paving the way. She was in NYC making her mark while I was still at OCU [Oklahoma City University], so she was a big inspiration for me. When I finally moved to NYC, she arranged for some of Mrs. Birdwell's students to audition for her agent at the time. That is how I got my first agent. Being on this ride together this season was amazing to me. I never would have dreamed it.
STAY THIRSTY: During the Tony Award program there was an emphasis on the importance of music and theater education. You recently joined the Artistic Advisory Committee of Manhattan School of Music for their launch in 2016 of a degree program in Musical Theater. How important was voice and acting education and training in your success today? What do you hope to instill in young people coming to Manhattan School of Music about your industry and their future in it?
KELLI O'HARA: When I was a junior in college, my parents brought me to NYC for the first time. It was a trip to visit the graduate opera program at MSM [Manhattan School of Music]. I realized some time later that I wouldn't pursue my masters at the time and just moved to NYC to start working in theatre. I went to acting school because I desperately missed that. I think the biggest thing I miss now is the study of our craft. Some jobs have been absolute educations and wonderfully satisfying. But this is not always the case. To have the opportunity to be in this city, among the professional aspects of this business, but also be studying your craft, it's the best of both worlds. There is so much time to work, but it seems the deep study can be fleeting. Going deep into that study can set you up for a lifetime of learning. I hope that is what this program at MSM can do.
STAY THIRSTY: The Artistic Advisory Committee of Manhattan School of Music's Musical Theater program also includes other Broadway Tony Award-winning veterans from director Susan Stroman to actress Bebe Neuwirth to actor James Naughton (also your father-in-law) to choreographer and director Tommy Tune, and many others. How important will it be for students in the program to interact with these highly accomplished people? How important was it for you to spend time with Broadway veterans when you were just starting out?
KELLI O'HARA: We all need inspiration, examples and leaders. As I have mentioned, this is never a solo ride. We all need help and those of us who have received it want to give back.
STAY THIRSTY: Do you expect that women will be playing an increasingly central role in the creation and production of Broadway shows in the coming years?
KELLI O'HARA: I absolutely do because they already are. It's exciting!
STAY THIRSTY: What project is next on your agenda?
KELLI O'HARA: No agenda. Just joy. Wife. Mother. Singer. Actor. Friend.