Kelli O’Hara is dancing on a rooftop. It’s the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and she has a rare morning off from meetings, luncheons, rehearsals, press events, and everything else that comes with being a Tony Award nominee. Not to mention she has two young children who demand her time and attention when she’s not starring as Anna Leonowens in the revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center. So why not take a moment to soak it all in?
The sun is shining for what seems like the first time this season, and O’Hara moves with freedom and grace, as the light captures the sparkles on her Randi Rahm gown. Her golden hair shimmers as she spreads her arms and just basks in the moment. She’s unbridled and full of energy, part of why theatergoers continually flock to her.
She’s a rare celebrity who can sell tickets based on her stage credibility alone in today’s Hollywood-obsessed Broadway landscape. Over the years, O’Hara’s name has become synonymous with Broadway leading lady, as she’s dedicated her career to the theater with a few exceptions, including the recent Peter Pan Live!
And though her angelic presence and voice can sometimes peg her as a typical ingénue, the vast diversity in her roles thus far proves otherwise — from a developmentally challenged young girl in The Light in the Piazza to an unhappy Italian housewife in The Bridges of Madison Country to a British schoolteacher bringing education and leadership to 1862 Siam in The King and I. Case in point: She’s earned a Tony Award nomination for leading actress in a musical for the past six roles she’s played on Broadway
“I don’t want to be Kelli O’Hara the Broadway personality playing the role. I want to tell the story that’s inside. That’s my goal,” O’Hara says. “People will talk to be ad nauseam about how subtle I am all the time, and I get a little bit frustrated with that because I’m just trying to be honest.”
O’Hara is exactly who you want her to be in person—gorgeous and generous but also witty and charming. “Momma needs a little help!” she casually jokes with the crew before settling in for hair and makeup, and throughout the photoshoot, she proves she’s game for anything from collapsing Sarah-Jessica-Parker-style in a couture ballgown to giving sultry stares in a backless, beaded dress.
Sitting under a red and green umbrella on the Empire Hotel pool deck, overlooking Lincoln Center, O’Hara looks exactly as she describes her personal style — “free and open.” Sporting a blue maxi dress with a fitted, army green jacket along with a straw hat with a navy blue band, O’Hara appears effortlessly put together. You’d never guess she’s likely in the throes of one of the most stressful, yet exciting, seasons of her life. “I’m a hippie in some ways,” she says of her fashion choices. “I like lots of layers and scarves and jackets and hats and flowy things. I do two different things. I want to be comfortable and I want to be a mom, but then when I go to work, I love dressing up.”
She cites Free People and Elie Tahari as two brands that represent the dichotomy in her wardrobe, and she also likes pieces that have a particular significance, like the white scarf she’s wearing with blue and teal outlines of elephants on it. “Ashley Park, who plays Tuptim in The King and I, gave it to me for opening night,” O’Hara says. “White elephants are a good omen in the Siamese tradition culturally. It means good luck, and I wear it a lot just because I like what it means to me.”
Park also gave O’Hara’s son Owen a bow-tie with white elephants on it, which the five-year-old wore to his mom’s opening. “He’s a little fashion guy!” O’Hara says, adding that she bought him a new suit for the night. “He loves to dress up. He feels really good.”
She also calls her 20-month-old daughter Charlotte a “shoe freak.” “I never was like this!” O’Hara says. “She pulls out every pair of shoes in the whole house. I have a picture of her standing in my heels just two days ago. She put them on herself.”
Having children has affected how O’Hara views her career. She chooses her roles much more carefully, and she’s also considering making more forays into film and television, as the schedule can be slightly more conducive to parenting. However, she couldn’t be more grateful that her children get to spend time at the theater during rehearsals and shows. “My daughter is learning how to climb all the stairs in the Lincoln Center lobby!” she exclaims. “And my son’s favorite thing, especially at Nice Work, is playing hide-and-seek in an empty theater.”
O’Hara admits she’s “not very specific with her fashion,” but she does recognize her style choices often tend to be influenced by the character she’s playing at the moment. When she was doing Light in the Piazza, she gravitated toward sundresses, and during Nice Work, she wore combat boots, skinny jeans, a vest, and a newsboy-type cap in her daily life. While she’s not wearing a hoop skirt offstage now, she does admit she’s dressing more maturely and wearing dresses more often while playing Anna.
“You don’t even realize how much it’s influencing your life,” she says. “Some people walk away with the emotion of the show, and maybe I walk away with the fashion.”
One of O’Hara’s favorite costumes she got to wear was in The Pajama Game. “Martin Pakledinaz, who’s no longer with us unfortunately, knew about a woman’s body in a way that I can’t explain,” she says. “He’d put me in a plaid shirt and a pencil skirt, but I never felt better in my life. There was just something about the line. It was so fierce, and I felt sexy and strong. I’ll never forget how great he made me feel.”
While O’Hara loves the costumes she gets to wear in King and I, the corsets and large hoop skirts — standard for British women in 1862 — can be limiting. She had to wear a skirt throughout rehearsal to know how much space she took up, and the violet gown she wears during the crowd favorite number “Shall We Dance” is 30 pounds and 6 feet in diameter.
“At first — I’ll be honest — I didn’t see how it was possible. In the very beginning, they couldn’t reach me to even fasten me,” O’Hara admits. While it only takes one person — her dresser Fran — to put on the costume during the show, four people will help O’Hara during the Tony Awards broadcast, as she has a 45-second quick change before she has to perform.
Though the dress is constraining and O’Hara has had to teach herself how to move, let alone polka in it, and she uses the physical constrictions as a metaphor for the struggles her character would have faced in that time.
“With how strong Anna is, I use it as a reminder of how belted down she is and how she can’t get around easily and how she has to work through constraints to get anywhere,” O’Hara explains. “It’s almost like she has shackles on, but she’s trying to spread her arms and fly. I actually really like the fact that I’m dressed that way because it helps me in 2015 understand the limitations and what a women went through in that time in 1862.”
Surprisingly, O’Hara had never seen The King and I before director and her longtime collaborator Bartlett Sher approached her about playing the role. She grew up watching Rodgers and Hammerstein movies with her mom, but at a younger age, she fell in love with the more ingénue-type roles like Laurey in Oklahoma and Julie in Carousel. Even in her career, which has been peppered with many standards from the songwriters’ canon including the two aforementioned musicals, she has never come across a production of the The King and I or a reason to visit the 1956 film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
“When I read Anna back in August for the first time, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m growing up,’” says O’Hara. She admits that non-ingénue roles tend to be showy and brassier, which she hasn’t done much, and she continually compliments Oscar Hammerstein II for writing a female character in 1951, when the show first bowed on Broadway, with so much dimension—something not always found in younger, classic leading lady roles. “The big frustration in my early 20s was I needed to feel a lot more than I was allowed to say,” she explains. ”I was just encouraged to have an open face and look as pretty as I could.”
She cites The Bridges of Madison County, a part that Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman essentially wrote for her, as an example of a strong woman who also sang with a powerful soprano voice. “It was my favorite role I’ve ever had,” she says. “I loved the show so much.”
The role earned her a fifth Tony nomination and The King and I makes six, but even though she knows the drill, she says it’s still just as exciting every year. “The best part about this year is spending time with friends, like Kristin [Chenoweth] and Vicki [Clark],” she says. (Chenoweth and she are both from Oklahoma and share a voice teacher in Florence Birdwell. Clark starred in Piazza with her.) “It’s almost like the end of the school year… I just wish there wasn’t a race part.”
Though she never watched the awards growing up. “Nobody watched that in Oklahoma — there was a sports game on for sure!” O’Hara says with a laugh. “Growing up, I fell in love with doing it onstage. I didn’t know anything about Broadway. The first Tonys I ever watched, I was on the national tour of Jekyll & Hyde, and we all got together in a hotel room to watch the Tonys because my friend Kristin Chenoweth was going to win for Charlie Brown and she was going to talk about Florence Birdwell in her speech and I knew. And she did. And I cried my eyes out.”
As far as fashion goes, she’ll spoil very little about what she’ll be walking the red carpet in this year. She does hint, “This year will be fun. It’s very different for me.” (Later, after our interview, she revealed in a conversation with AOL that she’ll be wearing a tea-length dress with a slight hoop as an homage to The King and I.)
However, after six nominations, she finds herself under a certain amount of pressure and sometimes faces probing questions from eager reporters about what it must be like to come up empty five times in a row and now be nominated for a role, which has never lost an actress a Tony. But she can’t think that way because that’s not what it’s about.
“I just have a huge level of gratitude pumping through me at all moments,” she says. “One of the things about the Tonys is it can be a nerve-wracking thing, and as we know, I’ve never walked away with a statue. You have to keep reminding yourself how absolutely lucky you are to be invited to the party at all. If I ever got down about not winning —which I have, of course—my husband says to me, ‘Do you know what the percentage of people who get nominated is?’ If I ever lose sight of that even for a second, shame on me. You get in a Broadway show, and all of sudden you’re nominated so it feels really good. Then the pressure to win becomes bigger. But if I could go back and realize — and I do, I make myself — how just doing it was all I really asked for. So stop asking for more.”
Our interview needs to wrap up soon, as she has to pick up Owen from school. They have a tradition on Friday afternoons where she will take him along with Charlotte out for “Fri-dates.” They’ll go to the park or out for what O’Hara calls “a civilized date” to Le Pain Quotidien for hot chocolate. Some remaining crew members are still breaking down photo equipment nearby, and she gives everyone a hug and starts walking up Broadway, toward home.