Interview with Tony Award winner Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O'Hara is one of Broadway's most celebrated performers, having starred in original productions of musicals such as "The Light in the Piazza," "Far From Heaven," "The Bridges of Madison County," and revivals of "South Pacific" and most recently The King and I. Having been nominated for 6 Tony Awards, she finally took home the award this year for Best Actress in a Musical for her role of Anna Leonowens, which she is currently playing at the Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre to great critical acclaim.
Ms O'Hara kindly took time out from her hectic schedule to talk to Dom O'Hanlon about her award win, career highlights and the iconic role of Anna:
Dom O'Hanlon: I guess the obvious place to start would be with your Tony Award. Many congratulations! Can you even begin to describe how it felt to win?
Kelli O'Hara: You know, because I had no plans that I would win I think that whatever I said up there at the podium gives away exactly how I felt - I think I lost my mind! There was a great deal of relief, especially for my parents, who are so supportive and so loving and I felt so happy for them for a life of believing in something. They said the same things to me as I've said to myself, "you don't need this", but when it does come, you just breathe a sigh of joy and it does feel pretty good. I'm flying high. It must have affected my body too - three days later I came down with the worst flu I've ever had in my life for 12 days. I think there was so much expectation that you don't even know you're carrying. I did have to miss some shows but got straight back in as soon as I could.
DOH: I guess the pressure after winning must be so significant.
KOH: Absolutely! The minute I got sick I kept thinking I can't miss a show! I had to help people get tickets changed and that sort of thing, but yes it's a lot of pressure.
DOH: Now the role of Mrs Anna and the demands it places on a performer are quite different to other roles that you've played.
KOH: Yes - very. I think I thought before I went into the show, not knowing it so well that it would be a little bit light and maybe not as emotionally charged. But now I'd say it's both emotionally and physically demanding. What Anna says, what she believes and what she fights for is something that I can really understand and it moves me every night in a way I've never expected it to - which can be exhausting. Physically - I didn't know how much the hoop skirts would be limiting and challenging. I love that kind of constraint and what it symbolises, but day in day out you do get tired and sore from wearing them.
DOH: I can imagine! I have to say I loved how Bartlett Sher staged "Western People Funny" and the way he turned that number around with the skirts.
KOH: He said we wouldn't do the number if there wasn't a reason to do it. A lot of people do cut it, but I think when he got the idea to do it in the way he does it's the right way for our production.
DOH: How familiar were you with the show? Were you conscious of all the previous revivals and people who have played Anna?
KOH: I'd never seen a production of it in my life! I watched a couple of scenes from the movie to get a feel for it. You know I grew up watching musicals but for some reason 'The King and I' was one I never saw. I was terrified when we read through the script at a reading last year, but that's where I got most of my character from. Obviously there's the book "Anna and The King" which it's based on, but also a wonderful book which the Assistant Director gave me called "Bombay Anna" which is about the real Anna Leonowens, who is mixed raced and reinvents herself as a British woman when her husband dies. All this information coincides with the character and what we're trying to say in the show. That's what formed the core of who she is.
DOH: Did you have a particular hook into the character such as a song or scene that was your access point?
KOH: There are a couple. The first scene with the Kralahome. There's a double purpose to that scene - it's when she first shows her backbone but also it's where she is most afraid and she is very vulnerable. There are a lot of things in me that also help and those are to do with my son. That really helps build my character.
DOH: You've worked extensively in both commercial Broadway as well as the non-profit Lincoln Center. What are the main differences you find between the two sectors?
KOH: You know I've enjoyed both for different reasons. There's nothing like being down there in Times Square in one of the wonderful theatres, but then there's also nothing like being in this huge indulgent space at the Lincoln Center where you're treated well and I feel it can afford to be a little riskier. There is not as much pressure on actors to make something work in non-profit, they're a lot more comfortable in certain ways. Commercial shows are riskier - commercial producers need it to do well. Everyone is a bit more on edge trying to get something new. I've done one new show at Lincoln Center and I think the reason it carried was because we were there - we kept going until people started coming around. We opened to extreme reviews and by the end of the Tonys I guess you'd say it was a hit and I don't know that would have happened Dowtown in commercial theatre.
DOH: Something like 'The Bridges of Madison County,' a show which was so fondly embraced by the theatre community, would it have survived in the non profit environment?
KOH: I have no doubt. We had a beautiful commercial producer that tried so hard and did everything she could but it's a different world. Had it been at Lincoln Center it would have hung on a little longer. The outpouring of love for the show has been amazing - I don't leave the stage door or a concert anywhere where people don't talk about that show. I do wish it had a longer life.
DOH: As a performer you're very brave, and you're not afraid to try with new work. Have you found a comfort with 'The King and I' as a brand or does it bring a different stress?
KOH: The thing is I don't ever view new vs old. It's always playing a role I've never played, so it's always new to me. The music may be unknown and you may be working with a composer to shape something that can change and develop - I guess that's the main difference. If I did something for a week at summer stock as a revival it would be less pressure, but only because of the platform, not because of the brand.
DOH: Is it possible to pick a favourite character?
KOH: My favourites change - I fall in love with whoever I'm playing every time I do it. I don't think I'll be able to sing as I did with Francesca in 'Bridges'. I loved the challenge of playing someone so different to me, someone with two grown up children, Italian, a farm wife. It was just so different to me.
DOH: And you always seem to be in roles that require an accent...!
KOH: It's so funny I don't even notice that! I was just doing a reading recently of something new and after ten minutes I thought hang on, how do I speak? I've forgotten how Kelli O'Hara speaks! I'm constantly embracing whoever I'm playing - it's such a distinct part of a character - I think it's by chance!
DOH: Did you have a specific point of reference for Anna?
KOH: We talked about the accent and where should it be from. With Anna there was this whole mindset where she wasn't really British. She would have had a British accent because of where she lived at the time and where she was growing up and the things going on around her. She was highly educated. We tried not to go too far, I didn't want her to be snobby - I wanted her to be approachable. Sometimes when Americans try to do a British accent they can seem snobby, and I didn't want her to seem like she was looking down her nose, that was so important.
DOH: Choices in accent can really turn a character!
KOH: Absolutely. It's the same with American accents! They're all very specific - you're giving off a very 'type' of person, and I wanted to do something that wasn't as specific.
DOH: Speaking of Britain...you have so many fans here - can we hope for you to come over to London soon?
KOH: I hope so! Definitely - I would love to. We've talked about this - I'm ready and my family would love to. It hasn't been an option yet. I almost did something last year but it conflicted. Tell your friends - I would love to come!
DOH: I can guarantee you'd have the warmest reception! I'll really have my fingers crossed!
The King and I is currently booking through to 3 January 2016 at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theatre at the Lincoln Center.