The Gilded Age
The Gilded Age

Donna Murphy and Kelli O’Hara on Co-starring in The Gilded Age

It’s a who’s who of Broadway in The Gilded Age on HBO. More than a dozen Broadway stars — racking up 22 Tony Award wins among them — appear on the series that airs weekly on Mondays at 9 p.m. ET. Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Carrie Coon, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Denée Benton, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Douglas Sills, Debra Monk, Michael Cerveris, Katie Finneran, Kelli O’Hara, and Donna Murphy are many of the actors featured.

The Gilded Age, set in New York City back in 1882, is the brainchild of Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey. His latest period drama focuses on a time of prosperity in the United States during the industrial boom. It follows the happenings of upper-class, high-society families from old-money and new-money backgrounds.

O’Hara and Murphy, who both won Tony Awards for their portrayals of Anna in The King and I in two separate revivals, play wealthy society women from old money New York. Broadway Direct spoke with both leading ladies on Zoom about their experience filming The Gilded Age together and their last memories of composer Stephen Sondheim.

Is this an interview about The Gilded Age or a convention for actresses who won Tony Awards for playing Anna in The King and I?

Donna Murphy: It’s funny: I don’t think we ever talked about [the Tony Award aspect]. But we did talk about all the time in corsets and hoop skirts that we’ve both spent earlier in the 19th century [doing The King and I].

Kelli O’Hara: I’ve been Donna’s fan forever and ever. I love sharing this role from The King and I. Donna came to see us [perform] and that was a big night for us. We were all nervous. So it’s a little surreal to be working in this way and have this shared history. It’s such a wonderful gift.

DM: It’s such a great role and there’s such incredible strength, heart, courage, and humanity in Anna. I think we should be lucky if we’re able to take with us some of these qualities that we try to imbue in a character.

What was it like to be on set together?

KO: The wonderful thing about being on the set with somebody like Donna is the beautiful conversation. We talked a lot about the industry. There were some crazy times happening in this last year and we talked a lot about a lot of things.

DM: Especially at the time when there was such a sense of isolation. I think that there were conversations that just needed to happen. The nature, depth, or tone of some of those conversations wouldn’t have happened as quickly at another time because we all really needed to talk about what was going on. It had to do with our business in terms of producers, racial situations, and voices that needed to be amplified. That’s all I can really say about it now without revealing things that were really about that moment.

KO: By September, we had this opportunity to start to gather with each other and hash everything out. There was a catharsis in it. This particular gift was twofold in many ways; it wasn’t just a job. It was this opportunity to gather and say, “How are you? What have you? What are you feeling?”

When did you join this incredible company?

KO: My auditions were in October and November of 2019. We all had a table read — remember, Donna? It was on the sixth or fifth or fourth of March. We all sat around a table for two days — which is also a lovely thing to do — and it felt very theatrical. That doesn’t always happen in film and television, when the whole cast gathers. It was so wonderful. The next thing we knew, the first days of shooting got canceled and we were all at home.

DM: I was cast in November of 2019. As a single mom, I need my work life to be based [in the New York area]. And I wouldn’t be able to do this if I was shooting in Montreal or on the West Coast. When I read the material, I thought, This is a no-brainer. I would just love, love, love to be part of this. Every time I heard about someone who was cast, I was like, What?! Are you kidding me? At some point somebody said, “There’s a character of Denée’s mother.” And I said, “Well, did they cast Audra [McDonald?]” And they said, “Well, yes, they did.” It’s a very rarefied experience, and that hasn’t been lost on any of us, that we’re surrounded by the best of the best.

Audra McDonald and Denée Benton in HBO's <i>The Gilded Age</i>. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa for HBO.
Audra McDonald and Denée Benton in HBO’s The Gilded Age. Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO.

What fascinated me was that you’re both in these scenes on the show together. When would we ever see two Broadway stars like yourselves headlining a musical together, except for War Paint, maybe?

KO: Well, let’s get that written. Come on, people.

Kelli, is your character, Aurora Fane, based on anyone in real life? I know Donna’s character is based on the real Mrs. Astor.

KO: There are several characters based on real people. Then there are characters who are a combination of different society women and different things they might have been going through. Aurora, I think, is that which makes it interesting for me because I keep having all of these wild ideas about where she might go in her story lines.

DM: Somebody actually put a comment on one of my Instagram posts saying, “You’re playing my great-great-great-great-grandmother. I was like, “If this is true, please DM me.”

KO: Oh, that’s amazing.

DM: That was last night. So, Mrs. Astor was originally Caroline Schermerhorn. She came from one of the wealthiest and oldest families in New York. They were of Dutch descent. The tricky thing about playing a historical character is that you are dealing with the descendants of that family.

Donna, I’m not sure if you caught this — you probably did: The show takes place sandwiched right in between the time period of when The King and I took place in 1862 and when Hello, Dolly! was set, in 1890. There is something about this era that draws to you.

DM: You and I have both worn a lot of corsets, right, Kelli?

KO: Yes, indeed. That was one of the most coming-home feelings I had [of being back on set after the shutdown]. I know how to wear this corset, I thought. Then I learned quickly that putting on a corset for two and a half to three hours in the evening is one thing; wearing it for 16 hours one day and not being smart about having corset breaks or taking it off during a meal — I learned the hard way. When we were shooting the finale in Newport [Rhode Island], I was certain I had bruised a rib. It got better the next day and I got smart after that.

Underneath those beautiful costumes, are you really wearing all the undergarments?

DM: Full-on

KO: It’s fully authentic. The attention to detail is extraordinary.

DM: It’s unbelievable, the attention to detail from our costume designer, Kasia Walicka-Maimone. It’s off the charts. And Bob Shaw has done this remarkable interior of the Russell Mansion. I can’t understand how what was accomplished was accomplished.

Donna Murphy in HBO's <i>The Gilded Age</i>. Photo by Alison Rosa for HBO.
Donna Murphy in HBO’s The Gilded Age. Photo by Alison Rosa/HBO.

Speaking of interiors: Donna, where is that huge portrait of you now? Did you get to take it home?

DM: It’s waiting for season two, I hope!

Everyone went crazy for it on Twitter after the episode aired.

DM: Historically, Mrs. Astor had a very famous portrait of her. It was actually done later, around 1890. She would stand in front of that rather intimidating portrait and greet people. And [the set designers] wanted to re-create that portrait. We did a photo shoot. There were three different paintings. I positioned myself in poses that would work on the top of these three beautiful paintings. And that’s what they came up with.

And you filmed on beautiful sets.

DM: It was a little bit of a last hurrah, in Newport. That night you took that group photo outside in Newport, Kelli, was a great, sweet night. That was rare. It was not like we did that every night.

KO: It was nice to all gather together. Those times up in Newport last March felt very theatrical. I won’t give anything away, but there was choreography and things that felt like we were putting on a show. It was like we were all in an out-of-town repertory theater, having meals together. That was really fun.

Kelli O'Hara and Louisa Jacobson in HBO's <i>The Gilded Age</i>. Photo by Alison Rosa for HBO.
Kelli O’Hara and Louisa Jacobson in HBO’s The Gilded Age. Photo by Alison Rosa/HBO.

You both performed for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration. What does it mean to you to now to have been a part of that?

KO: Donna, you go ahead, please. Your history with Sondheim is the best.

DM: That was the last time I performed for him and in the form of interpreting his material. I am so glad I was asked and so glad I said yes. Everyone found their own way to do it. I didn’t have any lighting.

KO: I think you wrote to me about that. You were like, “What should I do?”

DM: Every lamp in my living room just gathered on stacks of things. My daughter was my cameraperson. She was rolling her eyes during certain takes. He wrote me a note afterward and we emailed each other. I had subsequent emails that followed that time. During Passion, he gave me the great gift, in addition to the role itself, of asking me after a show one night, “Hey, you having fun?” I said, “Oh, God, Steve, it’s just all so meaningful. I couldn’t have asked for a greater gift as an actress. Everything is golden to me.” And he said, “No, no, no, no. I just, I just wanted to know if you’re having any fun.” He said, “No, listen to me: It’s not always like this. I know the connection you feel with this character and I feel it for the character with you. You’ve got to embrace the joy of it. It’s such a waste if you don’t allow yourself the joy of it.” I didn’t feel like I was denying myself that, but it’s coming from Steve. And it really resonated so deeply for me that I carried it with me. Sorry, I took so much time talking about that.

KO: No, No. I wanted to hear you. One of my first Broadway shows with Steve was Follies. I was enamored. You’re right, he was so generous. He would sit around the table read and cry. My favorite part of that 90th birthday celebration was when we all gathered in that Zoom room and took a picture with him. He’s right in the center of the Zoom box. Everybody’s saying “happy birthday” to him over each other. He was basically like, “That was awful.” But I loved it. He was so, so moved and so kind. It’s easy to fool yourself during this pandemic that when this all ends he’ll be there somewhere. It’s hard to think about him being gone, but boy, does his legacy live on in all of us.