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NEW YORK – Few performers have won an acting Tony for work in a show that closed after Tony nominations were announced due to poor ticket sales, as opposed to the expiration of a preordained limited engagement. The most recent exceptions to this rule were Julie White, who won best actress in a play for The Little Dog Laughed (2006), and John Lithgow, who won best actor in a musical for Sweet Smell of Success (2002), the latter of which featured an up-and-coming young actress by the name of Kelli O’Hara.
Over the years since Sweet Smell of Success, O’Hara has become one of the biggest names on Broadway, scoring five Tony nominations along the way — for The Light in the Piazza (2005), The Pajama Game (2006), South Pacific (2008), Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012) and, this year, for The Bridges of Madison County. To her great disappointment, the one in which she invested the most time, heart and soul, Bridges, closed just days after she received her nom. It failed to receive one in the category of best musical, which represented its last best hope of generating some sustainable interest at the box office.
Consequently, the 38-year-old now finds herself in the same aforementioned situation as White and Lithgow, as well as Angela Lansbury, the last person to win the best actress in a musical Tony under these circumstances, for the revival of Gypsy, way back in 1975. The only others who have won in that category for closed shows: Mary Martin for Peter Pan (1955); Dolores Gray for Carnival in Flanders (1954), which closed after just six performances, the shortest run ever recognized with an acting Tony; plus Patricia Routledge for Darling of the Day and Leslie Uggam for Hallelujah, Baby, who tied in 1968.
O’Hara’s chief competition this year is Jessie Mueller, the 31-year-old rising star who plays Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. (Interestingly, Mueller succeeded O’Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get It when O’Hara left the production to appear in Far from Heaven, and it was largely through Mueller’s stint in Nice Work that she came to the attention of the producers of Beautiful.) O’Hara gave and Mueller continues to give great performances in their roles — that much is really beyond dispute — but Mueller has one distinct advantage over O’Hara: her show was and is a hit. And that is the main reason why most knowledgeable pundits are betting on Mueller to win at the 68th Tony Awards on Sunday night.
O’Hara, however, has a few things going for her over Mueller, which should also not be forgotten: she is a bit older; she has been around a bit longer; she has done a bit more work; she has scored an impressive five noms in just nine years but not yet won once, which seems unfair — and she has a lot of friends and fans in the relatively small New York theater community, as I was reminded at a luncheon at Becco that was thrown in her honor on Wednesday. That last consideration, as much as any, can really factor into the outcomes of close contests with unusual dynamics. (See: White, Julie and Lithgow, John.)
Just how highly do people think of O’Hara? Consider just a few of the people who attended Wednesday’s luncheon — which was hosted by Stacey Mindich (the producer of Bridges, among many other top shows) and Lidia Bastianich (the Italian celebrity chef who coached O’Hara about Italian cooking in advance of Bridges) — and who have no affiliation with Bridges: Celia Keenan-Bolger (another 2014 Tony nominee, who originated off-Broadway the role that O’Hara later played on Broadway in Light in the Piazza); Debra Messing (a star of 2014 best play Tony nominee Outside Mullingar) and her boyfriend, Will Chase (ABC’s Nashville); Michael McKean (a star of 2014 best play Tony nominee All the Way); and Paula Wagner (a producer of 2014 best play Tony nominee Mothers and Sons).
Also consider the following excerpts from toasts that were made about her, in front of this room, by her collaborators. It was patently clear that these people weren’t just paying lip service to O’Hara, but were outright gushing from the heart.
Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music of Bridges specifically for O’Hara: “It is criminal — it is terrible — that a person could come to New York City tonight and not go see Kelli O’Hara do a show. It is, as far as I’m concerned, six times as criminal that they can’t see our show, but any show, really. I feel like what a Broadway star is supposed to be is Kelli O’Hara. Marsha [Norman, who wrote the show’s book] and I had the privilege of writing for that creature — that rare, beautiful, fantastic thing — and every night she would walk out on stage and we’d say, ‘Ah, look, the show’s fine, we’re in good hands, there’s a star up there!’ I mean, I hate that I can’t watch her sing my songs, but, honestly, I’d go see her sing anything — not Dracula, but other than that — and I would be deliriously happy. So I just feel lucky to be in the orbit of Kelli O’Hara — that I got to write for her, but, more importantly, that I got to listen to her and that I got to sit in a rehearsal room with her and watch that process. That was really cool … I’ll keep celebrating her every chance I get.”
Steven Pasquale, her Bridges costar: “I was never worried for one single second, the entire time, because the person playing [opposite me] was Kelli O’Hara, who imbues whatever she does with such truth that the audience has no choice but to go along on the journey, no matter what is being said, or done or sung, and feel all the feelings that her character is feeling. I wish upon all young actors the experience that I have had, which is to stand on a stage with, pound for pound, I think, the greatest singer ever, and have her sing, full-voice, at you — but the scene work and the story don’t get sacrificed one iota. That never happens! When the singing is that good, people struggle with helping to tell the story, but Kelli does not. She is as good an actor when she’s singing — better than any other human being ever — as she is when she’s playing a scene. So, in summary, she’s a world-class actor, and a world-class singer, in the perfect ingenue package. She’s a great mother, a great wife, a great friend. She is a spectacular human being. And, most importantly, for me, she’s a great, old-fashioned, saucy, sassy broad.”
Bart Sher, her Bridges director, as read by his wife: “Kelli O’Hara, she with the finest skills that include the most perfectly trained voice with the most timbre and tone, and the most elegant and gifted body that is alternatively graceful and full of stature and equally silly and comic, and a countenance of the most unsurpassed beauty, and presence and grace, matched by uncompromising intelligence and a ruthless and honorable soul that endlessly searches to make wonderful character … skill, matching deep humanness, matching relentless ambition for great work … a vision of grace and kindness … a great artist … easy to celebrate. She is my muse and she makes the effort to strive, with all our hearts, to make great and lasting works, worth every second. When she stands on a stage, she is a shining light, with all our hearts and our hopes flashing through her every syllable.”
And, finally, consider O’Hara’s own remarks at the close of the gathering (which you can watch her deliver in the exclusive video that appears at the bottom of this post):
“As people leave, I don’t want to not have said something of thanks. I’m not giving some sort of acceptance speech here (laughs). I feel like, no matter what happens [on Sunday], this year is enough.… Of course, we want the recognition, and we want all of this, but this is kind of the capper right here. I mean, these are the closest people in my life, among some of you wonderful industry people, as well. And I want you all to know — and especially Stacey, who helped to build this thing for me — that I was given a gift with this show, not just professionally in any way. I went deep, deep into this character in a way that I never knew possible, and learned more about myself and about my family back home, the history of people and what the women in my life have done in their lives, and what it means to be a mother who loves her children and a wife who loves her husband, and had all of these things validated for me. And then to sing in a way that I’ve never gotten to sing and have always wanted to and always thought I could? So lunches like these feel awkward to me — in a beautiful way — because a couple of times people were talking and, for a second, I thought, ‘Who are we talking about?’ And then I would realize that they were saying something about me — which is just so much, because I’ve already been given the gifts that I need. Do I want what everybody wants? [The Tony.] Yes. Because I am a competitive and ambitious person, and I work hard and have worked hard for the 15 years that I’ve lived here. But, in the midst of that working, I found my life — I found my husband, and I had my children, and I brought my best friends along with me and I found my new ones. In other words, I’m just super grateful. And, if this is the [only] day that I get to say thank you for all of that, then that is the best I can ever imagine. It’s just so much for me. And I’m gonna keep doing what I do because I love it so much.… So this is kind of the reward — it’s definitely the reward. So thank you for being here. And I’ll be around — I’m not going anywhere.”
No guest list or speeches alone will win someone a Tony, no matter how worthy and/or overdue that person may be — but a guest list and speeches like these could hint at a broader measure of support that pundits are failing to appreciate. In any case, whether or not O’Hara ends up winning this year for Bridges, she should find comfort in knowing how much her life and work have meant to so many people.
(I wish the Tony telecast’s producers were among them: whether or not you’re supporting O’Hara, I think you’ll agree that it’s a travesty that she hasn’t been asked to perform on this year’s show, something that I learned today from someone with knowledge of the show’s lineup. I would put her rendition of “To Build a Home” up against anything I’ve heard on Broadway ever, and I think that a lot of people would have enjoyed seeing her perform it live one more time.)
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