When Kelli O’Hara returned to Broadway, it was quietly—not on stage as the Tony Award-winning star that she is in a reopening or new production or revival, but as an audience member at Pass Over, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s acclaimed play about two Black men under various kinds of siege. Now living in Connecticut, O’Hara had returned to Manhattan to sing—“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” beautifully—at the event marking the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks the next day.
“It was very surreal. I walked into the theater, which feels like home to me, sat among a very eager audience,” O’Hara told The Daily Beast. “What I really loved about the play is what it represents of the last year and a half in terms of the conversation and work that has been done. It felt like a lot of evolution. Watching the play was both like going back to something familiar, and also seeing some change which made me happy.”
At tonight’s much-delayed Tony Awards, O’Hara says she will sing a song with Norm Lewis (she declines to say what). O’Hara won her own Tony for The King and I (2015), and has six other Tony nominations to her name (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; and Kiss Me, Kate, 2019), as well as an Emmy nomination for her role in web series The Accidental Wolf.
In 2019, she was honored by the Drama League for her “distinguished achievement in musical theatre.” She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2014, and will soon star in a Met co-commissioned operatic production of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours as Laura, the depressed 1950s housewife that Julianne Moore played in Stephen Daldry’s 2002 movie adaptation.
O’Hara told The Daily Beast she will now only take on Broadway roles if the production is truly diverse. As in many industries, the nature and impact of racism in theater came under an intense spotlight following the murder of George Floyd.
“The change on Broadway has to be lasting,” O’Hara said. “Anyone who thinks it can’t be is making a lot of lives cease to exist. Do I think it can happen overnight? Well, obviously it’s not. Do I think that it should and will change? I have to believe that, because we can’t go on like this. I don’t want to be in an industry that brings people pain. I came to this industry to be of service, to make people think, to make things better. If I know that it is not the way it is feeling for my colleagues, or for people watching or receiving what I am doing, then I don’t want to be in it. I want to be in an industry that is waking up, and being present in reality, in the moment, in our humanity. I don’t want to be in an industry pretending something else, which is I guess what we have been doing.”
So, she will actively evaluate the productions herself before getting involved? “Yes, and those conversations started immediately. I guess I have been dependent on people making some choices for me, but it should have always been in my voice. ‘What does this cast look like?’ “What does this crew look like?’ ‘What do the producers and creative table look like?’ The conversations we’re having are really important. It doesn’t feel as hard as some people want to make it. Let’s be more creative and open-minded in our thinking, and less afraid of change and difference.
“I’ve done a lot of revivals in my career, and so people might see me as representing one kind of thing. We as actors sometimes take the work we can get. We are not always building from the ground up, or stepping in. I want to represent something new. What opened up in the last year and a half is just the beginning of a long road, so this industry and art form is useful to all humanity. I want to use my own voice in a way not to be destructive, but uplifting and building.”
When it comes to #MeToo instances of sexual abuse and harassment, “I think Broadway has a lot to uncover,” she said. “There is a lot of talk about what’s gone on and what remains uncovered and not exposed. A lot that people don’t talk about it, or don’t want to talk about it. But at least that trickle [of stories] from Hollywood set things in motion for a lot of people on Broadway to wake up. We take for granted that we are people who are resilient, and so you get through things. You think, ‘I’m going to be alright standing on my own two feet.’ Then one day you look back, and think, ‘I am really pissed.’
“There is still a lot of reckoning to be done, and believe you me, even if it is not loud or in every news article, it’s changing people in their daily lives—in the way we make decisions and choices. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean women.”
To say that the whole industry is hostile to evolution is unfair, O’ Hara told The Daily Beast, “but to say it’s a completely fair and wonderful place all the time is also untrue.”
On Tuesday O'Hara begins a short residency at 54 Below, to October 3, singing (again unnamed) songs she says that may surprise those who continue to pigeonhole her as the fresh-faced ingenue. Talks are also underway, she reveals to The Daily Beast, to find a theater, on Broadway or off, for the stage adaptation of 1962 movie Days of Wine and Roses that she and fellow actor Brian d’Arcy James—who she met while performing on Broadway in Sweet Smell of Success in 2002—have been working on for a number of years.
Based on the film which follows a couple’s life-destroying descent into alcoholism, the musical will star O’Hara and d’Arcy James, with a book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, the team behind The Light in the Piazza. Days of Wine and Roses is “extraordinarily artsy and fantastic and dark,” promised O’Hara. “We worked on it during the pandemic figuring out what to do to it.” O’Hara said discussions were presently underway on where to stage the production, on or off Broadway, and what sort of house would be most appropriate for it.
“It’s one of those things, whether commercial or not, that feels like we should be doing,” she said. “The surprise of this woman suffering from alcoholism was appealing to me.”
Likely preceding that, O’Hara will play Laura in the Met Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra’s production of The Hours. Composed by Kevin Puts, with a libretto by Greg Pierce, it will receive its world premiere in Philadelphia in March 2022, and then the Met that fall. O’Hara said Laura presented an intriguing operatic challenge as she appears so quietly unhappy and her struggles so internal. “One thing opera can do is take voicelessness and voice it, we’re singing what our thoughts are. Because of her nervousness and neuroses, musicalizing Laura’s story will be powerful,” she says.
O’Hara hopes tonight’s Tony Awards will represent “something hopeful and encouraging for what the future looks like. I know the reopening of Broadway is controversial for different groups of people. It feels nerve-wracking for me. I’m very excited for Broadway to reopen. I am very excited for that artistry to come again. What we do is not what everybody loves, but it does feel purposeful. I hope this particular night is one of widespread celebration.” At 54 Below, she wants the songs “to have a bit of oomph, and bring us back to life. Some of them will be my story on Broadway, but I didn’t want to be same old, same old. Some of the songs may be a little whack. I don’t care of some people think I shouldn’t sing those songs. I want to sing them!”
Her rendition at the World Trade Center site two weeks ago of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” punctuating the solemn reading of the names of family members who had died, was universally praised on social media.
“First, I felt so honored to be asked, and it also gave me an opportunity to do what I love to do in a purposeful way—to be of service,” O’Hara said. She watched the speakers of of the names go up the lecterns. “It was obvious they were carrying a lot of emotion with them. I had a brief conversation with one of them. Then when I walked up on stage I saw for the first time the families holding pictures of their loved ones, and the Presidents who were there.
“I just sort of gulped. I always have a good amount of nerves or adrenaline before a performance. But that day, I did need a minute to steady myself and go into performance mode and get through it. You just want to be of service, and not be a show-boater, but something fitting the moment. It wasn’t about me. I thought the song, which the organizers chose, was very fitting. It acknowledges the situation, while also giving advice and hope about moving forward. Gathering down there like we did, you want the families and loved ones to remember how people came together, and that they are not alone. I am not sure it did any good, but you want to do some good.”
“I was born to do theater. I love it. I don’t know why. Nobody around me did”
Broadway is back, so the rah-rah clarion call of the moment goes, and O’Hara hopes that theatergoers and its actors and staff accept the new world of mandatory vaccination and mask-wearing as “the new normal,” as she puts it. “I don’t mind. I love change and evolution—we must do whatever we have to do to bring art and creativity and conversation to our country. People who love theater need it, live for it, and find ways to make it. And we will. It’s not going to stop. It’s going to be here, whatever the change. We’re still going to be doing it.”
Preparing for her Studio 54 show, her fully vaccinated musical director had received a positive COVID diagnosis, meaning the crafting of the show has been “very seat of the pants, the show must go on.”
As to whether she feels safe as a performer, O’Hara told The Daily Beast, “There are lots of reasons to feel unsafe—when you know some states have open-carry laws. If this is what the new reality is—that I know people have to show their vaccination cards and wear a mask—at this point, do I stay home and not do anything, or say, ‘I am going to see this play, and sit next to this person, and while knowing there are breakthrough cases, know that because I have had the vaccination that I won’t be too sick.’ I think this is the way we should go forward.”
When compared to the British government’s subsidizing of the arts (itself much criticized), O’Hara says she wishes there was more official funding for the arts in America, “but this is a much wider country. The differences here are so vast you can tell the divisiveness is getting so much worse. I’m from Oklahoma, smack in the middle of the country. I was born to do theater. I love it. I don’t know why. Nobody around me did. If you weren’t playing sports, then there was not much going on. If you went to London, children were reading different types of literature, learning about theater, and speaking with different vocabularies.
“It’s about what your priorities are, and you can’t make people have different priorities. You can only try to do the best you can for those who want to seek it, and hope it stretches farther and farther. I had to move away from home to do it, and I’ve lived away from home for 25 years.”
O’Hara notes that a scholarship in her name in Oklahoma for aspiring fine arts students has on average only two applicants a year. “I think people don’t think fine arts or things like that are worthy. One of the reasons to have the scholarship in the first place, and speak to them about my career, is to say, ‘If this is what you love to do, it’s not unworthy.’”
As a little girl in Elk City, Oklahoma, O’Hara grew up “with the American song book: Ella (Fitzgerald), Nat (King Cole), Frank Sinatra. My mother loved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. We watched all the Julie Andrews musicals and Shirley Jones. I need to go back there somewhere, a salon in a downtown brownstone in the 1940s. My two siblings don’t have an interest in it at all, but have been very supportive of me. I can’t explain the pull for me.”
At 5, O’Hara heard of a music teacher, Florence Birdwell, who had given voice lessons to Susan Powell, a Miss America from her home town. “She was my mentor until the day she died in February of this year,” said O’Hara (Birdwell also taught Kristin Chenoweth). “When I was young I found out she sang opera,” recalled O’Hara. “I loved singing. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ It was almost like fate. Mrs. Birdwell completely ripped my soul open, and built me back up. It made all the difference in the world. I wouldn’t be here at all if I hadn’t met her.”
The last time O’Hara had seen Birdwell was before the pandemic; her mentor was in her 90s, and in a nursing home. O’Hara said, “I found some solace that the night before she died her grown daughter and granddaughter told me they had played an album of mine for her. That moved me more than I can really explain. They are her family. I wasn’t her family. I was her student, but she felt like family. To be part of that moment was huge for me.”
When O’Hara first came to New York to pursue a career in theater, she describes seeing Audra McDonald in Master Class and Marin Mazzie in Ragtime as formative. “It was a time when pop music had taken off, after American Idol and things like that. I had grown up with movie musicals. Call me old-fashioned, that’s all I knew. Nobody was teaching anything about that.
“Even though Mrs. Birdwell and I would sing Sondheim, they weren’t singing (Tony Award winning composer) Jason Robert Brown. There was no (Oscar and Tony winning) Pasek and Paul. When I came to the city I saw Audra singing arias, and then I watched Ragtime, which featured a classical score for a Broadway show, and I thought, ‘Maybe I have a chance.’ Those two shows were huge reasons I thought I should try.”
Professionally, there was nothing else that O’Hara ever wanted to do but sing. “People can assume I am light, but I am pretty darn ambitious, or I wouldn’t have made moves to leave my entire life with no job or place to stay.” She isn’t sure to what extent destiny or simple hard work comes into it, “but I never believed it wouldn’t happen. I knew this was what I was supposed to do. A lot of times I got slapped in the face, but I kept thinking, ‘No, no, no. I am going towards this for a reason.’ I did work hard. I also acknowledge where I am privileged. I fit a certain ideal, and I was lucky to be working.”
O’Hara’s mom and dad were both supportive and scared. “They let me get on that plane. They believed in me somewhat, and I think they were scared to death. They’re the ones who believed in me to do it—but they were nervous, really nervous. Now, my parents are sort of dumbfounded. They didn’t know this business at all. They’re very practical people. My mother is a teacher, my father is a farmer-turned-lawyer. They both went back to school when we were kids to fulfill their dreams. I think in a way they know they taught me to not just roll over. We all accept and inspire each other.”
“I don’t want to be typecast, but also understand that I am”
After a national tour of the musical Jekyll & Hyde, O’Hara appeared in the 2001 revival of Follies, playing Young Hattie. Then came roles in shows including Sweet Smell of Success, Dracula: The Musical, and The Light in the Piazza, which O’Hara performed in first in Seattle and later on Broadway for which she received her first Tony nomination.
O’Hara says she went through “a lot of angst” about the ingenue roles she became so associated with, or the “voiceless women who looked a certain way” as she describes them. “That’s why I fought to do certain things like The Bridges of Madison County (composed by Jason Robert Brown), The Pajama Game, and King Lear (in which she played villainous daughter Regan at the Public Theater in 2011)—to say, ‘Hey, there’s more to me.’ I also know how the business works, and I never take for granted my ability to work. But you also have to check your soul. I don’t want to be typecast but also understand that I am. You can either sit around and be mad about it, or say, ‘I’m going to do this, and let’s see what you think.’”
Gender parity on Broadway is another issue O’Hara feels should be urgently confronted. “Things don’t change overnight. We’ve all been indoctrinated. It’s a crazy word to use, but you believe it yourself: who the leaders are, who the followers are. Then you grow up and think differently, and say, ‘Wait a second. I’ve had enough of this.’ I have had experiences in this business that are extraordinarily powerful where I speak and people listen, and extraordinary experiences that are the complete opposite. All I can do is learn from those.”
O’Hara does not think it fair to “lump the whole of Broadway” under the banner of one opinion; she knows men and women working in theater who want to tell feminist stories, and who want to tell stories about women over 40 and beyond—characters speaking about things beyond stereotypical stories of “menopausal anger.” She thinks theater, and musical theater in particular, has to do “a lot better” when crafting roles for older women.
“As we age, we don’t always have to play the angst of aging,” O’Hara says. “We can also play love and excitement. Of course, we should acknowledge how aging can be difficult and troubling, but there is also the joy in the journey of aging. Often you see roles which underline how things get harder as you age. I don’t always want to tell that story. I think women deserve better than that.”
Working on Days of Wine and Roses over the last few years, O’Hara has been aware of “a lot of men in the room.” She hopes the show’s staffing will become more diverse. “But something I can depend on is that I’m in the room,” she says firmly. “I had to learn the hard way that my voice has value, because I am the one telling the story. Yes, you need to have teams of women, but the most important thing to understand is, don’t discount yourself in a room filled with men.”
During the pandemic, O’Hara filmed Julian Fellowes’ glossy new costume drama, The Gilded Age, set in 1880s New York in which she plays a relative of Christine Baranski’s character Agnes van Rhijn. The show features a host of Broadway talent, including Nathan Lane and Denée Benton.
“To be in a period piece back in a corset, alongside people you would normally be staring at backstage in a Broadway house felt really perfect,” O’Hara said. “I prefer the fast days and craziness of live theater, but this particular project had great dialects, costumes, and storylines. I had a really creatively good time.”
One night, she recalled, the cast were waiting around to film a glittering ballroom scene, and to kill the time staged a bombastic runway show in all their finery. “We had some shenanigans, but when the camera rolled of course we were all behaving perfectly.” O’Hara has also filmed two more seasons of suspense series The Accidental Wolf, which O’Hara is “more excited about than anything,” playing a wealthy lawyer’s wife involved in a quest to save a stranger, whose plight she is first alerted to via a mysterious phone call.
As occupied as she is and hopes to be, O’Hara has treasured the time she has spent over the last year and a half with her actor-writer-director-musician husband Greg Naughton two children—Owen James, 12 and Charlotte, 8—during the pandemic. “It was an over-privileged gift, I know. Our schools are open. I know friends with kids who are not back at school, so we’re very grateful. I’ve enjoyed this time with my family, after racing around since they’ve been born. Suddenly we were living that 3-meals-a-day cliché. We have dinner together every night. I love it.”
She has observed the seismic effect of the last 18 months on her theatrical colleagues. There’s the person “with a 35-year Broadway career who moved to Illinois to make jewelry, or the person who left to start a theater company in Utah.” Others have just had to leave the city because they couldn’t afford to be there. “A large amount of people have had their lives changed forever.”
O’Hara’s intention is to not return to her Old Times hamster wheel. “Doing 8 shows a week, I wasn’t home for dinner most nights. My personality is that I always want to be busy. But there’s so much I want to retain of this time—those dinners, random walks, fresh air, turning off screens. I don’t want us to go back to living parallel lives, rushing to make things happen. The kids are growing so fast. I want to take it all in.”
She paused, and laughed. “I’m trying to put FOMO into the trash.”