By all accounts, Kelli O’Hara is no diva. But the Tony Award-winning actress (she’s been nominated seven times), played one with delicious delight in the revival of the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate, which ended its Broadway run in June.
O’Hara lives in Westport with husband and actor Greg Naughton and she will headline the Westport Country Playhouse gala, along with Sirius/XM radio personality Seth Rudetsky, on Sept. 14. The event, dubbed the Black & White Ball: A De-Lovely Evening, will celebrate the music of Cole Porter.
I caught up with O’Hara via email in Japan, where she is returning to the role that finally earned her a Tony in The King and I. She talks about growing up in Oklahoma, her career and her favorite yoga position.
In Kiss Me Kate, you play a hyper-theatrical star in a Broadway musical. What’s the most diva-like thing you’ve done in your career?
Ha! I’ll never tell! Honestly, I guess asking for a private plane to fly me back home from the West Coast for less than one day so I could walk my kids to the bus for their first day of school and then fly back would count.
Kiss Me Kate allowed you to show off your comedy chops, proving that sopranos can be funny, too. Was it liberating to let loose and kick butt (literally)?
I had a blast doing this show. I think we all have so many different sides of us, but we don’t always get the chance to use all of them in our careers. So finding different kinds of roles has always been my goal. I don’t have any specific roles in mind, per se, but I’ll know them when see them.
Did you watch the Tony Awards as a kid growing up in Oklahoma or was that not your world yet?
I am sad to say I didn’t. They just weren’t part of my life, although I know I would have loved them. I simply didn’t know. I was playing a lot of sports and doing high school theater, and I suppose I was lucky, in a way, to not be invested in the contest of it all until much later.
Your maternal grandfather, Dr. William G. Husband, bought you your first clarinet and supported your artistic aspirations. Did he give you any special advice?
Wow. What a great question. I think more than one piece of advice, he lived a whole life that was inspirational to me. He was a small-town doctor who had sung in a barbershop quartet as a young man but also played college basketball. He remained an avid sports fan, but also spent much of his time listening to records. He introduced me to all the greats who would influence my own singing. He was a well-rounded person, and that has been my goal.
Florence Birdwell, who also taught voice and theater to Kristin Chenoweth, was your teacher as well when you were at Oklahoma City University. What are the most important things you learned from her?
I often call her my life teacher. She taught me that all of this was possible. She was a tough-love sort of teacher, so [she] prepared me for the good and the bad. By the time I hit New York City, I could handle almost anything. And I did. She called her technique “speaking on pitch,” which led me to experience singing as my deepest form of communication. She is my greatest mentor.
What was it like to perform in Peter Pan Live in front of millions on TV in 2014? Anything especially memorable — or traumatic — happen during the shooting?
Actually, during my solo song, the steady camera right in front of me broke and chaos ensued right before my eyes, but Bowdie (the sweet dog who played Nana) and I just kept going, and the audience never knew. Thank God for the dog training of [Haddam’s] Bill Berloni because Bowdie never took his eyes off of me. There were camera crews running all over the place.
What was it like to make your Met debut, and without the benefit of a microphone because opera is not amplified? Did it require a different skill set?
It was fascinating, really. It was wonderful to get back to my roots, to readjust a bit for the lack of mics, but for the most part it felt very freeing. I worked with an opera coach named Gerald Moore who still coaches me.
"I am incredibly excited by the juicy parts that lie ahead, whatever they are, but I hope playing love will always be part of it. Just because we get older doesn’t mean we cease to love and be loved."
After taking on so many of the classic ingenue roles in musical theater, you’re now checking off star roles for older women, like Lili in Kiss Me Kate. What others would you like to play? Mame, Dolly, the mother in a revival of The Light in the Piazza, perhaps? (Yes, please.)
It’s funny that I never really make goals like that because things change so quickly. Playing Margaret in Piazza would be extraordinary, but I also could never imagine anyone besides Victoria Clark [in the role], so I’m not sure. I just want to keep working and reinventing. So I am more interested in something unexpected.
Is there a liberation in graduating from being simply the love interest or ingenue to roles that show a broader and deeper range, not only on musical stage but in films and TV, too?
Of course. We all have so much more to say than we get to play. Even as a younger woman, I often felt trapped inside the simplicity of playing ingenues. I am incredibly excited by the juicy parts that lie ahead, whatever they are, but I hope playing love will always be part of it. Just because we get older doesn’t mean we cease to love and be loved.
Of all the characters you’ve played on the musical stage, which one is closest to the real Kelli O’Hara? Or one with which you most identify?
The one I’m playing at the time of the question is always the answer. So right now, Anna in The King and I. They all feel like parts of me.
What advice would you give aspiring actor-singers, especially women, who are starting out in careers where perception is everything?
I would encourage them to invest in their craft more and invest less in selfies on Instagram. Staying a bit more anonymous should help them be more believable as actors. They might be less famous, but they will be better artists. They should ask themselves early on what they really want.
Do you really take the train from Connecticut to do the show? Any commuter tips?
I do, indeed. [I’ll] download a meditation app or bring a good book or listen to music. Try to take breaks from the news or social media. Or use the time to catch up on work or correspondence. It goes by quickly this way.
I saw you in a delightful stage reading of The Philadelphia Story at the Westport Country Playhouse with your husband Greg Naughton and father-in-law James. Any future spousal double casting?
Oh, I wish. We love working together. Sometimes I join Greg’s band, The Sweet Remains, for a song or two when they play The Levitt [Pavillion in Westport], but it would be fun to work together as actors as well.
When did you start yoga and why? What’s your favorite position?
I started during my first professional job, the tour of Jekyll & Hyde. That was in 1999, gulp. There was a musician who was also a yoga teacher on tour who taught me. It is a wonderful practice to start for so many reasons. Favorite position depends on the day. Today I’ll say [the] cat [pose].
You made your Carnegie Hall debut as a guest singer at a Barbara Cook concert in 2006 and three years ago, shortly before she died, you brought her onstage during your show there. What’s your favorite song recording by her and why?
I would have to say “Glitter and Be Gay,” because knowing that it was written for her makes the listening so sweet. We all dream of being at the beginning of things, helping to create them. This song is a great example.
You had six Tony nominations before you finally received the award for The King and I. Did your emotional experiences sitting in the Tony audience change over the years?
Naturally. It felt different every year but never less important. Different roles bring about different emotions. There is a part of me that wishes I could go back to loving this art without the contest, but most of me loves and strives for the community of the Tony season, the celebration of the art form. I really enjoyed the Tonys this year, in particular.
There’s a theater named after you in your hometown of Elk City — The Kelli O’Hara Center of Performing Arts. Have your performed there?
I have performed there a couple of times. It’s really a beautiful facility, and it is unbelievable to have it. I have started a scholarship in my name for the school now for any student going into the arts — any arts — and I hope it encourages more of that sort of thing in Elk City.