Kelli O'Hara on Singing (and Kvetching) with Seth Rudetsky (this Thursday in Boston)

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 7, 2020

Critic Christopher Isherwood has called Kelli O'Hara "Broadway's golden girl," and the New York Times hailed her as "Broadway musical's undisputed queen." She was nominated for a Tony Award five times before winning in 2015 for the Lincoln Center Theater's acclaimed revival of "The King and I," which she took to London last summer and was filmed for theatrical broadcast. She subsequently received her sixth nomination this past season for the recent revival of "Kiss Me, Kate."

But O'Hara wasn't thinking of Broadway when she studied music in the 1990s at Oklahoma City University where she studied under teacher Florence Birdwell. (Fans of Kristen Chenoweth may recognize Birdwell's name — she had studied with her years earlier and speaks highly of her influence.) It was opera. O'Hara had even won the state's Met competition and had visited New York in search of pursuing her operatic career with further training; but Birdwell made a difference in what she should focus on. "I didn't want to just concentrate on a beautiful sound, I want to wrench my heart out a little bit," O'Hara told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year. "Singing came to me naturally. She made me want to be an actress."

She moved in 1998 to New York and with a little help from Chenoweth, found an agent. Two years later she made her Broadway debut as a replacement in "Jekyll and Hyde," then took a small role in a new musical headed for Broadway, "The Light in the Piazza." By the time the show came to New York, O'Hara was playing the lead — a young woman unable to mature beyond her teenage years — and received her first Tony nomination. In the ensuing years she starred in hit revivals of "The Pajama Game" and "South Pacific," as well as new musicals as "Nice Work You Can Get It" and "The Bridges of Madison County," all of which she was nominated for Tony awards. In fact, she has yet to appear in a role on Broadway for which she hasn't been nominated for a Tony.

In addition, she received her first Emmy nomination as Outstanding Actress In A Short Form Comedy of Drama Series for her portrayal of Katie Bonner in the hit web series "The Accidental Wolf." And she finally made it to the Metropolitan Opera in 2014 where she played in "The Merry Widow" with Renee Fleming in the title role. In 2018, she returned to the Met in the role of Despina in Mozart's "Così fan tutte."

This Thursday, O'Hara comes to Boston's Emerson Colonial Theatre as part of The Seth Rudetsky Series (co-produced by the Emerson-Colonial and Mark Cortale). As with the previous evenings, which at the Colonial featured such Broadway stars as Jessie Mueller and Cheyenne Jackson, Rudetsky hosts a casual evening of conversation and song with Ms. O'Hara that will highlight her career (and whatever else that may catch her whim). As anyone who has been to Mr. Rudetsky's shows, expect witty banter, great music and an unabashed celebration of musical theater.

EDGE recently spoke to Ms. O'Hara about her career and working with Seth.

EDGE: How did you get involved working with Seth on this show?

Kelli O'Hara: Seth and I have been friends since we took our dogs to the dog run in 2002. When this series started, it just seemed a good fit to work with a good friend.

EDGE: Are your interactions with Seth in the show rehearsed or impromptu?

Kelli O'Hara: Impromptu. They always are, and that's why they are so fun for me to do.

EDGE: How do you choose the songs you will be performing?

Kelli O'Hara: I think we have learned stories about each other over the years that are fun to talk about, and we try to choose songs that coincide with those stories and periods of time in our histories.

EDGE: Do you find performing in an intimate setting (like this Boston show) more nerve-wracking than performing in a Broadway show?

Kelli O'Hara: No, I think this is my favorite sort of setting. It takes me back to my beginnings when the only place to sing or tell stories was in the living room.

Favorite roles?

EDGE: You have an incredible resume of Broadway work. How do you make your choices on what roles to do?

Kelli O'Hara: Sometimes I am lucky to choose based on truly desirable, artistic work; sometimes I have to add financial responsibilities to those decisions as I have two children at home. It isn't always black and white with these choices. Much thought goes into it all, but I would never do something I didn't believe in.

EDGE: Is it possible to pick your favorite character?

Kelli O'Hara: Well, it is very difficult. I think Francesca in "The Bridges of Madison County" ranks above most. It was so deeply personal.

EDGE: You won your first Tony in 2015 for the "The King & I." Where do you keep it?

Kelli O'Hara: It's in a room I call "my office" which looks more like a catch-all room. It's on top of a shelf in a corner. I am very proud of it, but I don't spend too much time petting it.

EDGE: What do you hope your audience will take away from your Emerson Colonial Theatre show?

Kelli O'Hara: I hope they learn something new about me. I hope they laugh. I hope they get an hour and a half of relief from whatever they are carrying when they walk in the door and feel a little lighter when they exit.

EDGE: Do you make New Year's resolutions?

Kelli O'Hara: Not really. But this year, I have dedicated myself to being healthier, in all ways, and so far so good. I had the flu in December, and I'm starting to feel like myself again. Phew.

EDGE: What are you looking forward to the most in 2020?

Kelli O'Hara: Starting an exciting new project in March and then many concerts with friends!

Kelli O'Hara appears as part of The Seth Rudetsky Series on Thursday, January 9, 2020 at the Emerson-Colonial Theatre, 106 Bolyston Street, Boston, MA. For tickets and more information, visit the Emerson Colonial Theatre website.

For more information on Kelli visit, visit her website).

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