Tonys: 'The King and I' Nominees Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher on Their Collaborative Partnership

Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher - H 2015
Paul Kolnik

Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher - H 2015

The six-time Tony-nominated actress and her frequent director discuss their work on projects past, present and future.

It all started with an entrance.

Bartlett Sher and Kelli O’Hara were working on an early production of The Light in the Piazza at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2004, and the golden-haired O’Hara was playing the supporting role of boisterous (brunette) Italian, Franca. The moment she crossed the stage floor during rehearsal, Sher spotted something special.

“The Kelli that I had been around had been calm, and she came in wildly sexy and totally different — I was completely amazed,” Sher remembers. “There was so much daring and so much intelligence and so much freedom.”

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Sher would go on to make his Broadway debut directing The Light in the Piazza on Broadway in 2005, with O’Hara taking over the more central role of the gentle, innocent Clara, earning both of them their first Tony Award nominations. A decade later, the pair has racked up four collaborations. In addition to Piazza, that list includes another new musical, The Bridges of Madison County, and acclaimed revivals of two classics from the Rodgers and Hammerstein vaults, starting with South Pacific in 2008, and continuing this season with The King and I.

The Lincoln Center Theater production's nine Tony nominations include lead actress in a musical for O'Hara, direction for Sher, lead actor for Ken Watanabe and featured actress for Ruthie Ann Miles, as well as nods for Christopher Gattelli's choreography and the entire design team.

“Was it love at first sight?” O’Hara asks her director, repeating this reporter’s question.

“Yes, of course it was,” he assures her. “She just has all those gifts that you can't get in one person.”

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O’Hara blushes at the praise. “He’s so nice to me,” she says with a slight smile, sitting across from Sher in her dressing room at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where The King and I is playing to packed houses and standing ovations. O’Hara returns the compliment, largely crediting Sher for her musical-theater education, given that her initial training was in opera and not acting.

“I want to believe that I'm Audra McDonald or Meryl Streep and walked out when I was 19 and changed the world, but that’s not who I am,” she says. “I came here needing a lot more. And because of the way Bart works, I've literally had a grad degree and a doctorate all within the confines of doing shows with him.”

O’Hara had to audition “several times” for South Pacific, which won Sher the Tony and earned O’Hara her third nomination. But the tables turned when she was the one recruited to approach Sher about their following project, The Bridges of Madison County, which Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman had written with O’Hara in mind.

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However, both agree that Clara in Piazza was the most difficult part they’ve conquered together. “I had a lot of blocks,” O’Hara says of transitioning from playing Franca in the earlier production. Sher recalls a difficult moment as he was re-staging a number for Broadway.

“She had just started figuring it out, and I started changing it all and it was very intense,” the director recalls.  

“I was insecure about not making it work,” O’Hara adds. “We both have these insecurities of wanting things to be right and truthful. When we're hashing it out, it's usually out of uncertainty. It takes a while.”

From the beginning, their process always starts with questions and exploration — the only difference between now and then is they jump into the hard questions much faster. “Bart’s famous for — you ask him, should I do it this way or should I go that way? And he says, yes,” O’Hara explains.

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With The King and I, the initial discussion revolved around education of women in developing countries. Sher mentions that Nicholas Kristof’s series of New York Times editorials on the subject were essential to approaching the work. Based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, the musical is centered on a British schoolteacher who comes into a foreign kingdom to teach the ruler’s wives and children.

“We could put it on the level of gender politics, but it's really on the level of human rights,” Sher says. “It's about the American musical, which is seen as an entertainment art form, addressing stories that give you both great entertainment and amazing music, as well as ideas that actually affect our lives.”

In both of their collaborations on Rodgers and Hammerstein works, Sher and O’Hara aimed to unearth the larger social commentary. Sher says on the surface Nellie Forbush in South Pacific was the character closest to O’Hara, considering their Midwestern upbringings, while O’Hara notes that Nellie’s racist attitudes toward Emile de Becque’s children in the World War II-set show tend to be overlooked in many productions. She also points to other aspects of the show on which Sher focused attention.

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“We know how South Pacific was done — it was like ‘going off to war, tons of fun,” and Bart slowed that down," O'Hara explains. "All those kids are going to go out and die.”

For The King and I, Sher discovered lines that were cut before the show’s 1951 Broadway premiere, reinstating some of them. There's an exchange between Anna and the King’s first wife, Lady Thiang, in which Anna attempts to persuade her that women are equal to men. “There were a lot of interesting impulses on the part of these very extraordinary writers in 1951 that maybe they couldn't quite figure out how to make sense of it all,” suggests Sher.

While O’Hara and Sher’s collaboration up until this point has been dominated by period-centric musical works, the actress would love to go in the complete opposite direction for their next project together.

“I wonder sometimes if you and I just did the most contemporary play in a freakin' living room,” she ventures.

“Anything without music!” Sher agrees of potential future projects. “Shakespeare or Chekhov. I would kind of love to do Tartuffe and have her play the wife. She could do all those things.”