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“I think I’m reincarnated or something,” chuckles Kelli O’Hara, one of the greatest leading ladies in Broadway history, as we sit down in her dressing room at Studio 54, where she is starring in Kiss Me, Kate through June 30, to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. O’Hara, 43, is drawn to period pieces like Kate — as well as The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, South Pacific, Nice Work If You Can Get It and The King and I, which account for five of her six Tony nominations, and the last of which brought her a Tony win — not only because she loves the sort of music that they allow her to sing, but because she feels more at home performing in them than she does in most contemporary pieces, The Bridges of Madison County being a notable exception. “Sometimes I have pangs for a different time that I was never a part of,” O’Hara quietly confesses, “and I feel like I must have been there.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
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O’Hara was born in Tulsa and raised throughout Oklahoma, the daughter of a farmer who became a lawyer and a mother who was a school teacher. She began singing in church, and got her first taste of musical theater in one of the many schools in one of the many towns in which she grew up. In a way, though, her path was set when she was just five and met 1981’s Miss America, of all people, who told her about a voice teacher named Florence Birdwell, who, years later, was the reason O’Hara enrolled at Oklahoma City University. There, as Birdwell’s student, O’Hara came into her own. “She didn’t care what anybody thought,” O’Hara says of Birdwell, who is now 94. “I had never met anybody like that. And she read me like a book. She knew exactly my failures, my inadequacies, everything, and she said, ‘I’m either going to rip that open and tear that down and we’ll have something at the end of it, or I’m not going to deal with it. I don’t have time.’ And for some reason, I really responded to that.”
Over the course of O’Hara’s four years at OCU, her ambitions changed. She initially imagined herself becoming an opera singer, and pursued her degree in that field; she won the state’s Met competition, and even came to New York to consider graduate schools in which she could continue her study of opera. But along the way, thanks in no small part to Birdwell, she realized something: “I didn’t want to just concentrate on a beautiful sound, I want to wrench my heart out a little bit,” she says. “Singing came to me naturally. She made me want to be an actress.”
After graduating in 1998, O’Hara moved with three friends to New York in pursuit of that dream. “The only person I knew was Kristin Chenoweth,” she says, referring to the fellow OCU alum and Birdwell pupil who had graduated four years earlier and was already beginning to make her mark in the Big Apple. Before O’Hara graduated, Chenoweth had asked her agents to audition Birdwell’s students; they did, and O’Hara was one of two they signed. O’Hara, armed with representation but not much else, gave herself a deadline of two years to find work or else return to the Sooner State — but she landed her very first audition, and made her Broadway debut in 2000.
In 2002, O’Hara was given an unexpected opportunity to lead a Broadway show for the first time. Sweet Smell of Success was short-lived, but she soon followed it with another show that proved her breakout, The Light in the Piazza. Piazza‘s journey began in Seattle, and by the time it got to Lincoln Center, O’Hara had been elevated from a small part to a key featured one after winning the confidence of a new director who came aboard: Barlett Sher. Starring opposite Matthew Morrison as a young woman mentally stunted by a childhood accident, O’Hara shined and landed her first Tony nom in 2005; she left the show after eight months — “a really hard choice” — to star in The Pajama Game, for which, a year later, she received her second nom.
O’Hara, in 2008, reunited with Sher at Lincoln Center on South Pacific, not wanting to play just another ingenue, but “an ingenue who was wrong.” She starred in the show while pregnant, garnering Tony nom No. 3; in 2012, she was pregnant onstage again in Nice Work If You Can Get It, en route to Tony nom No. 4.
The year 2014 brought O’Hara her fifth Tony nom, for The Bridges of Madison County, but not without plenty of heartache. Jason Robert Brown wrote for her the original score, in the grand tradition of the scores of Broadway’s golden age, and Sher came on to direct. Belting out numbers like “To Build a Home,” O’Hara wowed critics and audiences as never before — but, due to weak ticket sales (not helped by the Tony Awards nominating committee identifying only four finalists for best musical, even though it could have included a fifth), the show closed after just 100 performances, breaking her heart. “It actually did change me,” O’Hara says, still emotional five years later. “It changed me as an artist.”
A small balm, at least, came just a few months later, when O’Hara was offered the opportunity to apply her opera degree and perform at the Met for the first time — a realization of a dream deferred — in The Merry Widow, opposite no less a talent than Renee Fleming. “It finally came back around,” she laughs. And in the spring of 2015, O’Hara reteamed with Sher for a fourth time, at Lincoln Center for a third, on a revival of The King and I, partly modeling her character, a schoolteacher, on Birdwell. “That felt easy to play,” she admits, “and I think she made me a better person.” On June 7, 2015, O’Hara, a Tony nominee for her sixth time in a span of 11 years, during which no eligible performance of hers was not nominated, finally won, eliciting a massive standing ovation from the Broadway community that packed Radio City Music Hall. “I just didn’t expect it,” she insists. “I was feeling a little bit like, ‘I’ve gotta stop doing this to myself.'” The victory meant a lot to her, she acknowledges: “It burst a sense of stress in me.”
Now, in Kiss Me, Kate, her first Broadway production since then, playing Lilli, an actress who plays the character Katharine in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, she is garnering raves yet again, not least for her roof-raising interpretations of Cole Porter staples like “So in Love.” “What we have here is a pretty classic production,” O’Hara says, albeit one in which she and her collaborators have tried to eliminate or at least highlight sexism and misogyny for 21st century audiences.
While #MeToo claims have been widespread in Hollywood, few have emerged from Broadway. “I don’t have big ones to tell,” O’Hara says. “I have a lot of small ones.” She continues, “I’ve made some big decisions in my life not to work with people like that — producers — and to not do things that might have been great artistically or whatever, because I don’t want to work with certain people. And that’s just my choice. And that’s exactly why I’m here today — you asked me why I’m doing this show — because I want to work with nice people, good people. I made a choice, and I’ll say this vocally: I chose between a decent producer and an indecent one on the shows of my choice this year. And I made the right decision.”
O’Hara, now one of Broadway’s biggest stars, feels that if there is a common misconception about her, it is that she has just been handed her success. “People assume that I have everything so easy all the time,” she vents, “that everything comes to me just easily. Honestly, I can’t tell you how hard I’ve worked in my life for every single thing I’ve gotten. I’ve had people accuse me of sleeping my way to the top — never done that once — because, I guess, I don’t know, because of the way I look. I think I also assume people think that I’m not very smart, because that’s also, in general, what you might think [she points at her blonde hair].” She adds, “I would want people to know that I have a little bit more depth than what they might think.”
Moreover, O’Hara is not immune from frustration about the fact that theater performers generally work much harder and longer, for less pay and fame, than screen actors. She has done some screen acting — for example, small parts on NBC’s Peter Pan Live!, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and the web series The Accidental Wolf, for which she received an Emmy nom last year for best actress in a shortform comedy or drama series — but she has come to realize that superstardom on Broadway doesn’t necessarily amount to a hill of beans in Hollywood. “I’m not going to say ‘woe is me,’ because I dreamed of doing this and here I am,” she states, “but yes, it’s very frustrating that I work so hard and I have a hard time supporting myself sometimes, I’ll be honest. But we’re still expected to wear pretty dresses and look like we’re stars or whatever.”
O’Hara elaborates, “I have some commercial shows where I’m making a really great living — thank you, many producers — and I do concerts. But when I’m then in a LORT [League of Resident Theatres] contract [which governs not-for-profit professional regional theaters across America], when I’m not doing concerts or anything on the side, we have a hard time sometimes. That makes you want to go do some television and film.”
Fortunately, though, there is no need to fear that O’Hara will be changing professions anytime soon. “I need to feel deeply and heavily all the time,” she says with a smile, “and that’s what this does for me.”
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