It’s been a roller coaster ride for Kelli O’Hara, who was big part of two major theater stories last week. On Tuesday, as expected, she earned another Tony Award nomination, her fifth, for Lead Actress in a Musical. Two days later, producers announced they were pulling the plug on The Bridges of Madison County— making it one of the first casualties of what has proven to be a very unpredictable season on the boards.
Days before the major announcements, O’Hara was well aware of all the white noise about her latest show on the Great White Way, most notably of how critics may have grown weary of the current trend of popular cinematic fare being turned into Broadway musicals (namely with this season’s Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway, Aladdin and The Bridges of Madison County). “Well it is a trend and I think that some things are better musicalized,” O’Hara, who celebrated her 38th birthday April 16, told NewYork.com. “I think there are ideas from movies that can be introduced to the genre — like Bridges, where they expanded [the story] and made it feel special. I really think there’s room for it.”
Below, the married mother of two opens up about having a newborn while working, rumors about The King & I at Lincoln Center and racking up Tony Award nominations.
I adore performing as Francesca
The thing is I try to do very different things, so it’s like apples and oranges trying to pick my favorite thing. Like, I loved doing The Pajama Game with Harry Connick, Jr. because it was so much fun. But then, I also loved doing The Light in the Piazza because I felt like I was a part of something really brand new and really beautiful. And then South Pacific is one of those epic things that you know will never happen again, one of those artistically rich things. So I don’t know what my favorite show is. Definitely my favorite role so far has been Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County. Otherwise, I don’t pick a favorite.
I needed a vocal coach to get her accent just right
I worked with a wonderful woman named Deb Hecht at Julliard, who helped me with the kind of American-assimilated accent [required for the role]. My character, Francesca, had been in America for 18 years and she’s not really speaking Italian with the town folk in Iowa. Of course, I studied a lot about Naples and where she came from and the time she was raised there. I’ve tried to find some of my own understanding of a woman in her situation, not necessarily an affair, but more like the farm wife, two children, suppressing her dreams and things like that.
I can’t find my favorite ice cream in New York
I’m so boring when it comes to ice cream flavors. I’m in love with just chocolate. But it’s a specific kind: Braum’s. It’s only in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas I think. Braum’s chocolate ice cream is my favorite in the whole world.
If I wasn’t on the stage, I’d be in the kitchen
I really have only wanted to make music and think about music and acting so I think even if I wasn’t doing this, I would be teaching it at a level, maybe at a college level, where people are very, very passionate about it. I would love to say that I would be some sort of pediatrician or a veterinarian or something like that but I couldn’t. The only other thing I think I would be is a famous chef. I love to cook. I’m not good but I always fancy myself as being like Ina Garten. I do. And Lidia Bastianich is a wonderful chef and really an inspiration to my character. I got to do a cooking demonstration with her. So it was like a dream come true because I got to hang around her.
I am getting to be a pro at balancing Broadway and a newborn
It probably seems crazy, but I’ve worked on this show for four years building it and putting it together and creating it with the writers. And it just so happened that they wanted to do it this year, and it happened that I got pregnant last year because being pregnant isn’t something you can put off forever when you’re my age. And so when things happen like that, you say, “Well, I’m going to make this work and after I’ll be grateful and I’ll be fulfilled emotionally and creatively.” I can’t tell you how overwhelmingly rich it all is right now. As tired as I am, it’s actually a very beautiful thing. I always wanted to be a mother but I was always very passionate about my work. There are times that I want to quit everything, of course, but I love what I do and I know that in the future I will have a lot of time and right now, both of my kids come to the theater all the time and we make it work. My husband [singer-songwriter Greg Naughton] is a wonderful partner.
My kids are hard on my voice
Laryngitis happens all the time, especially since I’ve had kids because my son brings it home from school, but we just have to do our best and thank God for some sort of vocal technique because you can sing around it sometimes. If you’re going to do this for a while, you better learn some tricks of the trade.
My engagement is the perfect New York story
It was December 23, 2005. It was the subway strike and it was freezing outside and the subways weren’t running. Everybody was sharing cabs, like everyone on the streets was buddying up like “Can we share a cab?” I didn’t know I was going to be surprised that night because my husband was going to propose. I had been rehearsing for The Pajama Game and it was hard to get home because I couldn’t ride the subway and then I changed clothes and then we shared a cab to a little place called Vince & Eddies on 70th and Columbus, this little hole in the wall which is no longer there. It was down in this room with a little a fireplace and it was so sweet and romantic. All of a sudden these men started singing “Sh-Boom” in four part harmony. They were Greg’s college mates from singing group, like a glee club. And they came in and he proposed to me. And then he suggested we go over to Lincoln Center and stand by the fountain and it was cold so we ducked into O’Neals on 64th, which is now something else, and where everybody we knew, our friends and family were all standing there waiting with champagne and surprise. Thank God I said yes because everybody that we knew was waiting for us.
I’m the Susan Lucci of Broadway
Yes, I do feel like Susan Lucci, but as long as I’ve got a career doing what I love I guess I shouldn’t complain about it. With this year’s race, I have no idea, I cannot pretend to know who will win. If I won for anything, I would want it to be for [Bridges] because I’m so proud of this role but I also know it’s a very, very tough year. I’ve got the most amazing people working out there beside me like [fellow nominees] Jesse (Mueller), and Idina (Menzel) and Sutton (Foster,) so I couldn’t expect how it’s all going to turn out.
I’m looking forward to starring in The King & I
It’s been in talks for a long time and it’s starting to get confirmed. As far as I know, I’m going to do it. Lincoln Center is where I did The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific and it’s kind of a reunion of those people for me. It’s like going home. But that material is also lovely and bright and creative. And it’s like a little different. I like to keep changing, ya know.
I wish Broadway took more risks
I wish there was more brand new material. I wish that people would take a chance on writing brand spanking new things because that’s how we started the whole thing. A lot of things are based on source material like old fairy tales and Shakespeare and everything like that. But if someone started very fresh and very brand new, it’s just a world of endless possibilities. I just think people are afraid commercially that things won’t sell if you don’t have a famous name or something. With something like Next To Normal, it won the Pulitzer Prize and it was based on a brand new thought. So people need to take more risks, which is expensive and it’s hard to ask people to do that, but I hope that people do.