ELYSA GARDNER: Welcome to Stage Door Sessions, by Broadway Direct. In this podcast, we have in-depth conversations with Broadway’s brightest, bringing you what’s new, what’s noteworthy, and what’s coming next to a stage near you. I’m your host, Elysa Gardner, and my guest today needs no introduction. Kelli O’Hara is one of our greatest leading ladies and biggest musical stars, and she is currently starring on Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Kiss Me, Kate now playing at Studio 54. Thank you so much for being here.
KELLI O’HARA: Thank you Elysa
ELYSA GARDNER: Kelli has captured audience’s hearts in Broadway productions of The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, South Pacific, Nice Work if You Can Get It, Bridges of Madison County, and most recently The King and I, which earned Kelli a Tony Award and recently completed a sold-out run in London. If you’re lucky, you may have also caught her Off-Broadway in the musical adaption of the film “Far From Heaven” or as the conniving Regan in King Lear, or performing at City Center with the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera, or in concert in various screen projects such as the series “13 Reasons Why” or “The Accidental Wolf.” Thank you again for joining us, Kelli.
KELLI O’HARA: I’m so glad that you’re here.
ELYSA GARDNER: We could say a lot more… [laughs]
KELLI O’HARA: Well, that makes me squirm so let’s move on. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: Well, in recent years, you have done on Broadway the sweeping dramatic musicals as I’ve just mentioned, from Rodgers and Hammerstein classics to Bridges of Madison County. Kiss, Me Kate is another classic. It’s in a slightly different vein though. This show gives you an opportunity to once again show us your funny side and how sexy you are, if I may say so.
KELLI O’HARA: Oh well thank you. [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: Have you been having fun with that?
KELLI O’HARA: Oh yeah. No, this is… I knew I would have fun with this one, I thought that what I really need right now is a nice dose of joy and laughter and fun and kind of diverse. You know I play two different women and I find them very different. And, I like that you said that. I mean Jeff Mahshie has dressed me in some of the most exquisite costumes from the late-1940s. I always think of Lauren Bacall and the new look suit, and the kind of, that shape. I really do feel like some sort of throwback and it it’s fun to do that because it reminds me of the beginning of all of this, all of musical theater, everything. It’s like going back there and being part of history.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well tell us a little bit about those two women, Lilli and Kate. Because you play these two very strong women. One being a Shakespeare character obviously from “Taming of the Shrew.” They share a lot in common but they’re different.
KELLI O’HARA: Yeah I know. I think they laid them over the top of each other. I mean they put the Lilli and the Fred story of Kiss Me, Kate on top of “Taming of the Shrew.” And so I think people think of them as the same person. You know, you talk about Kate as being this strong woman, yet we talk about “Taming of the Shrew” as being the most misogynistic play ever written. But the truth of it is, is if you pull it out from under everything and, and let’s give Shakespeare credit if it’s due, maybe he meant all this. There was a Queen in power at the time that if you look at the words, she does have a lot to say that’s in retort to this kind of behavior that she’s, you know, taking on from men all around her. Her father and these suitors, or anti-suitors really, and Petruchio himself. I think that when you pull the language out you realize that she has reason for being angry. But we in the past and over the last many many years, have just called that shrewish. You know, a woman who is not sweet and lays down and shuts up is just a shrew. And she’s difficult and she’s… you know nasty, but instead, if a woman has been treated a certain way and actually has a voice about it, we can look at it differently today I hope. And that’s kind of why I love Kate. Because playing her more simply and and… she’s validated for kind of how she has been treated by the words that she says and by the way we can see her now in today’s world. I I feel like she’s very strong and bold. Now, I purposely put Lilli kind of back in the 1940s. Also a strong woman, definitely a good businesswoman. She’s good at her craft, she’s become a movie star, she’s been nominated for an Oscar, she’s come back to help this show run by being one of the reasons it’s selling and getting the backers money for it. She knows her power and yet she’s still kind of at the, you know, in the hands of men around her like Fred, her ex-husband, producers probably. This man Harrison Howell who she is going to be saved by at one point during the show. You know she’s still kind of a 1947 starlet, needy of that kind of help. I find that she can speak through Kate. I find that her anger and her emotion actually gets to come to a boil through the strength of Kate. And that’s how I make them work in tandem.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah that’s a really good point. Because “Taming of the Shrew” has come under scrutiny in recent years and decades I think because of how it, how people perceive that it portrays gender dynamics you know through the lens of our time. And Kiss Me, Kate, by extension too, a little bit. And I know that Amanda Green who contributed to this production, lyricist, book writer, composer also, she did, I think she called it “minor surgery” or “delicate surgery.” Tell us a little bit about how that happened.
KELLI O’HARA: Yeah, I mean I think the most powerful thing about Amanda Green, aside from the fact that she knows both of these worlds, she knows the history of this, of this genre because of her father, Adolph Green, and yet she is this current, strong, very very intelligent powerful woman who can go in with just the fine tooth pin or the small needle and say these are the things we can leave in by way of example and these are the things we can change or take out so that we can make this… we don’t take this show apart. We don’t try to recreate it. We still pay homage to kind of the period, the classic everything about it, the score, but then we are just going to take these things and rebuild or.. or just facelift a little bit. And I think she.. we had to change the last song, which was a monologue in the Shakespeare play basically saying I am ashamed that women, all of us are simple, and we’re all going to lay down for our husbands and be quiet. Well, in years past, the only way to make that work is giving that a wink. But we got the allowance this time to finally re-write it. And instead of saying I’m ashamed that men are all so simple and you’re all so stupid and cowards and misogynistic pigs, we’re going back to the middle, maybe in more of the equal way. Not swinging that pendulum all the way over, but coming to the middle and saying that I’m ashamed that people are. We shouldn’t fight, we shouldn’t seek for supremacy and sway because at the end of the day the short time we have on earth, really love is the only thing that matters by the end. And, you know, and so let’s all try to work harder. And I think that was such a smart way of dealing with this rather than kind of turning it upside down. And I didn’t have any interest in singing it in general, even with a wink. I think the Douglas Fairbanks film brought that in and then I think Meryl Streep did that in the park because it’s the only way to do it. Because we’re not going to say that. Women are not going to say that and do that. And so, she did little things like that. She took out some of the really ugly, ugly misogyny. But she left, like I said, she left some in. The ones that nowadays get the laughs from the fact that, uhh, that’s stupid. Look how stupid that is. We shouldn’t behave like that anymore. Whereas they used to get the laughs because people agreed with it I guess. Or men did. So it was, I think it’s a smart bit of surgery, as you say. And I love being in a room with her. I’ve known her for years and this has been quite a pleasure.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. She seems very lovely. I met her once. I want to talk about your singing a little bit. We certainly can’t ignore that. I think of you as a really great musical actress in the tradition of someone like Julie Andrews or Barbara Cook. In that as technically glorious as your soprano is, you make singing sound as natural as speaking. That, I always… when I hear you sing, feel like I’m listening to a story being told beautifully. Is that more challenging to do with a role like Lilli? I mean you do it beautifully, you don’t make it sound more challenging but, you know, since the singing is more operetta-like, or when you do opera for that matter, is it more of a challenge to sound natural?
KELLI O’HARA: Well thank you, that’s a nice question and a nice compliment. You know, my teacher and my mentor Florence Birdwell, she called her technique speaking on pitch. That’s what she said. And if the thing didn’t have meaning or heart or a realistic core, then it wasn’t worth doing at all. I think approaching a piece of music, especially opera, as a technical piece of information, you can do that and there are beautiful sounds that come from it. And we know a lot of those singers who make the most bel canto perfect sound. But without heart or meaning or truth, and the truth is probably the main word I think about, there has to be something truthful about what you’re doing, I think it’s a waste of time. I don’t, I think they go together. They don’t, they’re not separated. And so hearing that is a huge compliment for me, probably the most, the biggest compliment because that’s what I endeavor to do. That’s what I always seek out, is the truth in a song, a lyric. And even if, she used to say, even if you’re singing “ah” on a melisma in an operatic aria, what is that “ah,” what does it stand for. And I totally invest in that. And so I find these songs, first of all, because I studied opera and that is more of where my voice wants to go, these are the most comfortable for me. It’s when I am thinking technically in order to produce a belt or a musical theater sound that I can lose my head. But when I can sing freely and open my mouth without thinking too much about the technical aspect of it, because that’s in place, I can be the truest form of myself. So, they’re higher, you know. It’s harder to always have the right resonance or the right plosives or anything like that when you’re up higher, but for some reason to me, it feels the most natural. And I hope that that’s what’s coming off.
ELYSA GARDNER: Wow, so you must, well how can you get a lot of rest. You have two kids and you do that show eight times a week [laughs]
KELLI O’HARA: I get rest mentally, I guess you’re right. I get rest because I don’t worry those things as much and I know they are few and far between for me to sing a classic score like this. I mean, I think it’s probably why I find myself back in revivals sometimes because I’m searching for the places to get to do what I do. I mean, Bridges of Madison County was written for me and that was more in the vein of where I want to sing and that was a glorious feeling. But often I don’t get that kind of feeling to just sing naturally but also live my, my truth. So I find myself in these revivals and I want to make them current and I want to make them, I want to put part of me in them. So, yeah, so it feels actually, this show feels restful in a way because it feels right to me.
ELYSA GARDNER: It sounds right too. You work with some really great, really prolific directors like Bartlett Sher and Kathleen Marshall on musicals, the kind of musicals you’re talking about. You’re now working with another, Scott Ellis, who I guess you maybe got to know a bit as Roundabout’s Associate Director back when you did Pajama Game and I’m sure you’ve encountered him throughout the years. What has it been like working with him more closely for Kiss Me, Kate? Is this the first time you’ve worked this closely with him?
KELLI O’HARA: Well, we did, I’ve known Scott for years and years and I’ve done so many of the Roundabout galas and he’s always been around and being quite a leader. When you asked me about Amanda Green, I was going to interject there, one of the reasons why we had such a wonderful addition of Amanda Green is because of a director like Scott Ellis bringing her on. It takes that kind of forethought and generosity in sharing the room and the gavel with someone and saying I want your voice, I want your help. Scott to me is one of my favorite directors. We have done, we did you know a one night gala of She Loves Me, and um I wasn’t able to go on because I was in The King and I to do the production, but then we did the one night of Kiss Me, Kate. So we have put together shows but in a very quick way. So finally here, getting to sit down with him, at a table for weeks on end to go through this, to talk about what we wanted to do and then get on our feet, one of the things that really strikes me about Scott is how much he listens and how generous he is with that, with that creative… now of course at the end of the day, he has the say, but he is also very generous with that. You know, he would let us try just about anything and then he would move us back in the right direction or he would agree to let us stay. I’ve really grown so much respect from this situation for him and just friendship. I mean, I adore him actually. Really do.
ELYSA GARDNER: He was a busy guy this season too.
KELLI O’HARA: Yeah two shows, basically on top of each other. I mean, he was, we were still trying to get our sea legs and he was already starting Tootsie. And, two very different shows, one kind of very contemporary and one classic. And um, he’s the kind of guy that never stops and he kind of thrives in that mayhem. And you didn’t ever feel, I mean he still comes by here. I mean he’s sitting on this couch probably three times a week and he’s probably sitting on Santino’s couch and whoever is over at Tootsie three times. He stops in. He checks in and makes us feel like he’s not kind of like abandoning us. And um, I mean he takes my kids for sleepovers.
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh how nice
KELLI O’HARA: You know he’s a generous professional and personal friend.
ELYSA GARDNER: That’s a great director to have. What have the audiences been like? Have you come across people who remember, I guess the first production would be a stretch, but, other revivals? I know you’ve spoken very movingly of Marin Mazzie who passed last year and how you’re honoring her with this.
KELLI O’HARA: Yeah, I really want to. I mean one of the reasons I decided to do it is because I.. I just, I miss her. We all miss her. And I remember seeing her in this and getting the… it’s almost as like we can, I can re-feel her again, you know. Because I’m paying, I want to pay homage to her in everything that I do. She was a huge influence on me. Ragtime, you know seeing her in this, over the years in concert, everything. So, that feels great. But you mentioned about the audience, we did have a couple come, just last week and they broke my heart. He had seen the original and he never forgot it. And they were just the most adorable. They were celebrating their 55th or their 60th wedding anniversary or something. That was lovely because we had a lot of that during South Pacific. A lot of people who had… now you’re starting to not have as many because we’re 20 years, you know, we’re getting on here in our time. But, I find that the audiences have been a good mix of those people wanting to come in and see the classic production and I think leaving very pleased with the new ideas. And actually, I mean I see some of the older people probably horrified by my take on “I Hate Men,” [laughs] but…
ELYSA GARDNER: I don’t think so!
KELLI O’HARA: Which is just a simple take actually, but I think it’s a little bit more to the, who knows. We have a lot of young people. I think Corbin Bleu, who you know of “High School Musical” lore…
ELYSA GARDNER: Oh that’s right, he’s wonderful.
KELLI O’HARA: I think he brings… we get a lot of screaming girls out there which is really fun. And I think they, those young women, I think they’re liking this take on this show. And even though it’s a classic take on it, there are certain things in it that give that, those women a voice in a way that I think is doubly good. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of that. So they’re seeing Kiss Me, Kate for the first time, but in a different way. And I think that’s the reason why we’re here.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting mix. I spoke with your co-star Will Chase who, I know he’s got older children than you do, and he spoke about getting some really interesting feedback from his daughter, one of his daughters. And I know you have a 10-year-old son, is that right? And a five-year-old daughter? Have they both seen the production?
KELLI O’HARA: Yeah, Owen’s almost 10, five-year-old daughter. I mean they both came to opening night and they’ve seen it one other time and they’ll see it again. They love it. They both told me this is their favorite one. Of course, they’re obsessed with the fighting and Mommy being that physical and funny and climbing stairs and slamming doors. And of course, my daughter loves Stephanie Styles and the whole Bianca storyline and the men dancing and lifting her up. So it kind of has a little bit of everything for them. And they love the music. But they’re getting, you know they have asked me questions both of them, she’s been… my five-year-old asks questions that you wouldn’t even think a five-year-old, she’s just been to a lot of theater already and I’ve exposed her to everything I can. She has a lot of questions like you know, what’s up with three men at one time asking you out for, you know [laughs]
ELYSA GARDNER: [laughs] Are you kidding [laughs]
KELLI O’HARA: And why did you, you know, say this and why did you hit him across the head. And these are conversations we’re starting to have in a light way and I think my nine, almost 10-year-old, is gets it pretty well you know. And he’s… it makes me feel good that my work, of course, they’re not watching “13 Reasons Why” at this point and they’re not mhm. But, other work that I’ve done, we’ve had really good conversations. I mean, King and I, and we went to London and we were going to go to Tokyo and immerse them in a different culture and I think those kinds of conversations that I’m able to have with my kids about why I’m performing a certain role and what I want to say with it, is a great tool for just life lessons and I feel fortunate to have that.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah, you can learn a lot through musical theater, certainly…
KELLI O’HARA: You can!
ELYSA GARDNER: …the kind you do. I mean it’s really, these are our American.. this is classic stuff. The kind of stuff you’re doing.
KELLI O’HARA: Yeah.
ELYSA GARDNER: I remember reading an article about you around the time of South Pacific that I was thinking of recently. It was called “The Ingenue that Roared.” The years since then, you have continued to take chances in a variety of roles that have taken you from Shakespeare at the Public Theater to opera at the Met. Have you actively sought out that kind of diversity? Like from role to role trying different things? And what advice would you give to ingenues coming up?
KELLI O’HARA: I really have. But I also am thinking a lot lately about how much we as actors and performers sort of take the work we can get. Now I have spoken up a lot about how I want something to be diverse and I chose this over that. And I really tried hard, as hard as I could to say, do a classic musical and then maybe try to do something contemporary. Or then try to do a Shakespeare and then come back and do a comedy. I tried really hard for my own psyche and my own craft to learn something more and to stretch myself. But I will say to people, unless you’re… you’re producing your own things in Hollywood and you’re a huge film star or you’re a major theater star, if you’re trying to support your family and make a living, the truth of it is is that I’ve also taken work because I needed the job. And I’ve also taken work because it was the only job I could get or… or it seemed like a great job, but would I have wanted to do a play instead? Or you know, a different kind of role? Yes. And I think those are, there’s two parts to that answer then. Yes, with what I had, I try to choose the most diverse things for my learning and my craft. But, I… we also do what we have to. And it’s hard. It’s hard to find work all of the time. And I feel so lucky to have been able to find work and also work that is diverse. For instance, going back to the opera, even being able to do that was a dream come true. Then coming back here and playing stronger women as I get older as opposed to my life stopping because the ingenue ended for me, I’m grateful for that every day that I’m still working and I hope that that continues. But the reason I say that and bring it up is because I’ve seen people come in recently to my dressing room or something and they’ll say “gosh I didn’t know you could sing that way” or “I didn’t know that you had that in you” and you think to yourself, we all have a lot in us. We just don’t… we get to show. Now I mean, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, I’m not saying I’m great at everything, but there’s so much that we all are desperate to show people but you don’t always get the outlet. You know, you’d have to go these days, kids are smart. They’re starting to do it themselves. They’re starting to write it themselves, produce it themselves, create it themselves. I didn’t really come up in that world. So, as I get more of a voice and more confidence, it makes me want to say, “well you know what else I can do? Let me show ya.” You know, I’ll go rent the room and invite you all to see it. I don’t know what that is, but you you don’t know that you can really strike out and be different because we’re just trying to hang on and get a job. You know, and they tell you in the beginning, be one thing, figure what it out is so you can get in the door. But the truth of it is that we all have a million things we want to show.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah
KELLI O’HARA: We really do.
ELYSA GARDNER: Yeah. Have you thought about recording another album?
KELLI O’HARA: I actually am in current discussion about that. It’s really hard at this point for me to know exactly what to do and so recently I think I’ve just thrown in the towel and said I’m just going to record another really fun album. Because you always think you have to make these huge statements with your albums and my first two I didn’t, really. The first two… the first one was kind out of my hands. The second one, you know, I produced and so I didn’t have a lot of money to… and then I got sick when we were recording it and I couldn’t afford another studio day so I recorded a solo album when I was… that’s how it goes. So, you don’t want to get too precious about it and so yes, I am going to record another album. It’ll probably just be what feels good to sing. Not so much a statement about where I am right now. When I have the luxury to do that again financially or where I am, you think to yourself “but I have a million things to show!” But you sometimes just make the album that you, that you can.
ELYSA GARDNER: And they’ll be more opera in your future I hope?
KELLI O’HARA: Yes there will. And you know, I think that that is because when you talk about stretching yourself and continually learning your craft, I mean I love this work. And by this work, I don’t put it in a box like what some people think of it. I think as an actor and a singer, that means I do all acting and all singing. That’s what I think it means. And I don’t know if I’m going against the grain. But that means I’ll try to do more film, more television, more plays. And as a singer; more opera, more jazz, more musical theater, more country singing. I don’t care, I want to do it all even if I fall on my face. I feel like that’s my, that’s my obligation to myself. To just keep trying new things. Otherwise we just kind of atrophy or something. I’m constantly wanting to just keep stretching.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well stretching I imagine is what you do when you’re doing a show like this eight times a week.
KELLI O’HARA: Oh yeah
ELYSA GARDNER: A combination of physical comedy and the vocal demands. I mean, is it, do you have to basically live like an athlete in training?
KELLI O’HARA: I talk about this a lot lately. We are kind of living like athletes, especially the dancers. But, I mean, I’m… you feel me. I’m massaging…
ELYSA GARDNER: You look pretty fit.
KELLI O’HARA: But I’m massaging my rotator cuff as we speak this whole time because I’ve tweaked it in the show. But I come in and I have to do a full yoga stretch every night, and if I don’t, I run the risk of really hurting myself in this physical show. But the dancers and the… the way they take care of themselves and… Then you remember we have no offseason like a professional athlete. We don’t get, you know, time off. And when I do take a vacation, that’s, I’m missing, I’m letting my company down. I’m gone. So you never get a full mental vacation. So it’s this weird kind of life of living, and I’m not complaining. I mean I’ve heard some people recently “oh Broadway’s hard.” Yeah, it’s hard. But it’s also the dream. And we are still getting to live it. But, it is a sacrifice as far as like an easy lifestyle’s concerned. It’s not the case. I don’t go out and party every night. And if I do, I pay for it. I don’t, you know, I go home every night to my children because I want to be a good mom and I miss out on a lot of things. But I think those are the sacrifices I want to make to keep working at a certain level. And, I actually, I never have any regrets about it. But yeah, I’m sore.
ELYSA GARDNER: I wasn’t even thinking of that. Though there is so much, there is so much action in this production and things where you can physically get hurt. But the voice is also an instrument and to sing songs like this eight times a week, I would think takes a lot of discipline too, even at your level.
KELLI O’HARA: Oh, I mean I think for any level. and you know I have a lot of the opera world come in and see me and they’ll be like you did two today? This is your second show?
ELYSA GARDNER: Right!
KELLI O’HARA: And you do eight a week? I mean I can’t believe that. And this is kind of, there is some opera in this show. A little bit of, in this show as well. But, again, that’s what feels easy to me. It’s the other stuff that is hard for me to do. More of this, this, this is a constant bit of yelling. There’s a shouting match in the show so it’s more of the speaking. And King and I was similar. So, you know, because people doing plays, they have to take care of their voices. You know, there’s, there’s an athleticism to that too. There’s a physical need for for nurture and being in shape and you know, your voice, just like you said, is an instrument. We stretch it, we warm it. We, we care for it. We coddle it, whatever we have to do. The only thing I will say is that once you do a show for a while, and even now I’m kind of froggy, I’ve had a cold all weekend, but there’s a muscle memory. There’s a beautiful sense of muscle memory that takes over. And sometimes even when you think that you can’t pull it off, sometimes, your voice will show up for you, just because it remembers the places so well to go. I mean, I’ve had the other happen where I thought I was going to be fine and then whew [laughs]. I apologize to those audiences forever. But, for the most part, you can depend on you instrument if you care for it. It will care for you.
ELYSA GARDNER: Well with that said, we will let you care for it and have some tea or do your breathing exercises before you go onstage. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.
KELLI O’HARA: Absolutely
ELYSA GARDNER: This was really a pleasure.
KELLI O’HARA: Always nice to talk to you
ELYSA GARDNER: And you as well
ELYSA GARDNER: For all things Broadway and to find tickets to your next show, visit BroadwayDirect.com. This podcast is produced by Broadway Direct and the Nederlander Organization with Iris Chan, Glenn Halcomb, Erin Porvaznik-Wagner, and hosted and produced by me, Elysa Gardner. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you soon on Broadway.