Kelli O’Hara couldn't have done ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ a moment sooner

The Tony Award-winning actress has been with the musical adaptation of the 1962 film for more than 20 years, and she now headlines the Broadway premiere.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Tony Award winner and seven-time nominee Kelli O’Hara has the kind of soaring voice people would kill to write for. So imagine being the lucky person who got to hear her say, "I want you to write something for me."

That would be Adam Guettel, who composed the musical that earned O'Hara her first Tony nomination: The Light in the Piazza. In an early workshop for that show in 2002, the two got to talking about the 1962 film Days of Wine and Roses, in which alcoholism upends the romance between lovers Joe and Kirsten in 1950s Manhattan. O'Hara was introduced to the movie as a teenager; Guettel thought O'Hara looked like Lee Remick, who plays Kirsten in the film. The rest is history.

At O'Hara's suggestion, Brian d'Arcy James joined the budding musical adaptation as Joe. They've continued with Wine and Roses throughout its 11-year journey, from when Guettel began writing the show in 2012 to the Off-Broadway premiere in summer 2023 and, now, its 16-week limited Broadway run.

The premiere couldn't have come a moment sooner for O'Hara. Playing a person struggling with addiction, she said, takes learned wisdom that only comes with time.

"I realized I could never have played Kirsten with as much compassion and forgiveness and humanity as I can now," O'Hara said. She spoke to New York Theatre Guide more about her time with Days of Wine and Roses ahead of the show's January 6 opening.

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Can you talk about Days of Wine and Roses’s road to the stage?

It all started from the idea that when you like what you're doing with the people that you're doing it with, you try to make more of it. This time it worked.

Twenty-one years ago, I had just done The Sweet Smell of Success with Brian, and I just love working with Brian. I'm a huge fan of his work, the artist that he is, and the person that he is. And when I went to do The Light in the Piazza with Adam, I had the same feeling about Adam’s music and the way he writes.

I knew this film when I was a teenager; my parents [and I], we watched all sorts of films like this. And I wanted Adam to write Days of Wine and Roses for Brian and for me. I wanted to work with both of them again, so I asked him to do it. Sure enough, Adam went and got the rights.

We did little readings over the years, and [book writer] Craig Lucas came on board, who had written The Light in the Piazza with Adam. By 2018-19, we did a real, full, whole-show reading. In 2020, we did a staged reading.

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How has your portrayal of Kirsten changed in that time?

I probably wouldn't have been able to play her [earlier]. It's the same thing with Clara [in Piazza]: I could probably play Clara better now than I did. When we're younger, we want to make things happen. When you're older, it's allowance and freedom that makes things happen. You become so much more powerful if you're open to the mistakes, the vulnerabilities, to the truth of things. As opposed to controlling the truth — you get in your own way.

When I was in my 20s, I might have tried to put a lot of acting into Kirsten, and I trust Kirsten’s story now because I know her story. I've seen it. I've experienced it with people that I love. They deserve for their stories to be told, and Kirsten is a representation of that. For Broadway, we just continue to stay open, dig deeper. Sometimes finding the love in a flawed person is what makes their flaws so much more obvious.

I love her. And I know that she's flawed, but she is a good person. Addiction ruins lives; it ruins families. I want people to feel for Kirsten — I don't want them to hate her.

So the wisdom you’ve collected in life has let you play Kirsten better? She, too, learns a lot of things the hard way.

Sometimes to play someone who's in trouble, you have to be more knowing than them. I can't fix her. [In my 20s], I was really trying to prove myself. I was trying to start my career. I was trying to show that I could do this.

But she doesn't need any showing. She just needs the allowance to be who she is, and that's in the material. I've learned that I can trust it. I've had a say in it as it's been developed, and that's important, but now you have to trust it. When you're younger, at least for me, I didn't always know how to trust.

What was the audience response like to the Off-Broadway production?

This show is very difficult for some, and it's very, very necessary and validating for others. If you want to take a happy, comedic journey, you're not going to want this. But see this on Friday and see one of those on Saturday.

In this subject matter — which we're all affected by in some length, whether it's ourselves or someone we love — you're either ready to hear the story and you need it, or you're absolutely not ready to hear this story. That's a very important thing about art. Art is what it is, and it's there for those who need it.

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Responses have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses off Broadway. (Photos by Ahron R. Foster)

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