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Interview with Kelli O'Hara
Wonder in the World

By Beth Herstein

Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O'Hara first appeared on Broadway in Jekyll & Hyde in 2000, and she has been an increasingly popular presence there ever since. After performances in short-lived shows including 2002's Sweet Smell of Success and My Life with Albertine (Off-Broadway) the following year, she co-starred in Lincoln Center's award-winning hit, Light in the Piazza in 2005, earning her first Tony nomination and kicking her career into higher gear. Piazza was followed by even bigger successes: the 2006 smash revival of The Pajama Game at Roundabout Theatre Company, and a concert staging of My Fair Lady in 2007. Now, O'Hara has released her first solo CD, "Wonder in the World," which is arranged and orchestrated by her Pajama Game co-star Harry Connick Jr. In addition, she currently stars as Nellie Forbush in one of Broadway's biggest hits, Lincoln Center's highly acclaimed revival of South Pacific. Recently, O'Hara stole a few minutes from her busy schedule to talk to me by phone about "Wonder in the World," South Pacific and other projects.

Beth Herstein:  You recorded "Wonder in the World" a while back. How did the CD made its way to Ghostlight?

Kelli O'Hara:  I made the album with Harry [during the run of The Pajama Game], but it wasn't released initially. Then Kurt Deutsch and the wonderful people at Sh-k-boom came on board and said, "We want to release this for you." They've absolutely done that in a very quick fashion, and it's been fantastic. So Ghostlight is my record label. It's wonderful what [Kurt Deutsch and his wife, Sherie Renee Scott] have done with their record company - Sh-k-boom and Ghostlight. It's been fantastic in this business. They're really making a name for themselves, and I'm proud to be on their label.

BH:  What was it like to work with Harry Connick Jr. in this different role in the studio?

KO:  Harry is instrumental in this record. It was his idea to help me start doing it. He arranged everything, and I recorded with all his musicians. I felt really lucky to be working with such top notch people.

It was kind of a big wash of things [going on at the time]. We were doing the show together, but at the same time we were also recording the [Harry on Broadway] album, which included both The Pajama Game [revival cast recording] and Thou Shalt Not tracks. We spent a lot of that spring not only on the stage doing The Pajama Game but in the recording studio recording three different albums, really, including the second part of the Harry on Broadway album, which included those Thou Shalt Not tracks. Between shows and on breaks during shows we would be working on arrangements [for my solo album] in his dressing room. He would be writing them, we would be picking out songs. It was kind of a real collaboration of a lot of things going on at the same time. It felt like an incredibly artistic time. The show was such a fun and wonderful thing, and there we were on the side doing a lot of different kinds of music. It was a lot of fun.

BH:  Your husband Greg Naughton wrote one of the songs on your new album, and you've appeared on stage together. Do you plan to do more together?

KO:  With all my CD release stuff and in different concerts I've been doing, he's been joining me on the stage and singing the song with me. People ask all the time, when are you two going to write together or perform together? I think we will. We very much enjoy it. Right now our schedules have been so busy, and he's also working on his own album. I think that when things start to settle down again, you'll probably see us wanting to spend more time together and turning that into some sort of collaboration.

BH:  How did you select the songs for the CD, and find the right balance between older and newer songs, theater and popular tunes?

KO:  I'm from such a different background from theater music, and I have such a love of so many different types of music. I never put music into one genre and say, "I can't have this or I must have this." Instead, I listen to music based on how it makes me feel, especially from the lyrics. This album is extremely lyrically driven. The only song added as a fun little twist, that doesn't move me the same way lyrically, is maybe "Spooky." But, if you listen to any other track —it's a listening album. Not to groove to or clean your apartment to, but to listen to in your car or when you're mellowing out, whatever you're doing. The words in every song meant a lot to me. That's how we tied in what we wrote as well.

BH:  You wrote two of the songs for the album. What was the composing process like for you? Had you written songs before?

KO:  My whole life, I've written poetry as a hobby, and nobody's ever seen any of it. Almost as a journaling type of technique. Harry really encouraged me to write for this album. It began with lyrics or poetry. I'm not a pianist at all, but I play enough to play chords and write and notate. I took enough theory in college to know how to write out music. So, I would have a poem and set it to music and chords, and Harry arranged the song for me with the instrumentation.

BH:  That sounds like a great collaboration.

KO:  It was great. He gave me a lot of good advice, to make the songs the best they could be. I don't think I could have been any luckier than to have been under the schooling of such a musician.

BH:  You were talking about the songs telling stories and the lyrics moving you. A few years back, I interviewed Kerry O'Malley, and she talked about singing in a show versus singing in a cabaret or revue. She felt much more comfortable singing in the context of the show, as the character. It sounds as if you don't feel that way necessarily.

KO:  I actually have many friends, many wonderful talents, who would much prefer to be in a character singing. I grew up singing long before I started performing in shows. Singing for me was kind of who I was. It defined me as a kid. I was singing at weddings or funerals or church or school events or whatever it was around town. I feel most comfortable when I'm singing from my own heart, for myself. That is why in shows, it is so important for me to bring something of myself to the part as well, to be able to communicate in a certain way through my singing. So, I did not have that same feeling. Even if I'm singing a song from the show, even if I'm singing it as myself, I try to see how it affects me. That's the only way to really communicate it at the time.

Paulo Szot and Kelli O'Hara
Photo by Joan Marcus
BH:  I watched the recent WABC special about the current production of South Pacific. Your co-star Paolo Szot talked about transitioning the other way —from acting through the song to acting through dialogue. Did you all talk about that in the process of preparing for the show?

KO:  A lot. Paolo has never acted before. It comes very naturally to him to be on stage. Some people who have never acted before can't pull it off the way he has because he's just so genuine. That's what I'm talking about, bringing yourself as a person into the role, being as genuine as you can be. Whether it's Emile de Becque or Paolo, he's just being a genuine person and I think that's what gets across.

It goes either way for people, whether they're great actors and they want to transition that communication into their singing, or for Paolo, to transition into the actual acting from the singing. It just depends on what you've done more of. I think if you look at both things as a genuine form of communication, then they are equal.

BH:  I know you trained in opera before going into musical theater. You're acting opposite someone who's performed as an opera singer. Also, you studied under Florence Birdwell, the same woman who taught Kristin Chenoweth, and Kristin Chenoweth is going to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in a few years [as Samira in John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles in March of 2010]. Have you thought about performing opera at some point?

KO:  I would love to. It's actually a huge, huge goal of mine. If you step away from opera, you can get pigeonholed. Sometimes they don't want to let you back in. That can happen in any business. My hope is that if I keep myself in shape I will have the opportunity to sing operatically at some point. It was my whole life for a long time. I stepped away from it because I wanted to be an actor. I did want to speak. It's hard to have to make that choice, but you do, ultimately.

BH:  Your career is really building at this point, so hopefully you will have the option to pick out some operatic projects that interest you.

KO:  I hope so. Kristen Chenoweth has done some things where she's been able to show her operatic skills. She sings "Glitter and Be Gay" a lot in concert. I'm a very different kind of performer so it's harder for me to show that side of myself and a lot of people don't know about it. I'm hoping that I get that chance. I put it out there as much as I can. Bart Sher, who is the director for [South Pacific, and who also directed O'Hara in Light in the Piazza], directs a lot of opera, and Peter Gelb [general manager] at the Met knows that I'm shopping it a bit at some point, for sometime down the line. If you put it out there enough and you can actually do the work, then you might get lucky and get a chance to do it.

BH:  You mentioned in an interview that you started out playing a different part in Light in the Piazza, which gave you the opportunity to show off that other side of yourself a little more.

KO:  Definitely. I was playing Franca, the knowing, older feistier character, and also she sang a little more operatically. I really enjoyed that so much. Playing Claire I stepped a little bit away from that, but that's why I chose to go and do The Pajama Game. Character-wise, Babe in The Pajama Game was a little feistier and more powerful than an ingenue. I don't want to get pigeonholed into that either. I'm very grateful for those roles, but I want to do all sorts of things.

BH:  I read that you're in an upcoming animated series on television.

KO:  I am. I did a full season of a show called "Car Talk." It's on PBS, and I think it will premiere in June. I think they changed the name to "Click n' Clack." It's very funny, actually. It's based on the PBS radio show featuring two guys who take calls about car work. They're very funny, they're brothers. So they made this whole cartoon series about it. I play their producer in the record studio, their kind of neurotic little Harvard grad producer. It's a lot of fun.

BH:  I saw South Pacific a few weeks ago and I really loved it. Congratulations on the success and the Tony nomination. One thing that is so nice and so refreshing, I think, to contemporary audiences, is that you're playing someone who's an ingenue, but also feisty. She has resonance as a character.

KO:  I hope so. I didn't have a preconceived notion of what Nellie Forbush was. I think a lot of people do. For that reason it was very risky. But I didn't even know there was risk to it. I just wanted to be true to what I thought she was, and I actually feel like I know who she really is. I have family in Arkansas and I'm southern, and my grandmother was raised about the same time and struggled with the same kind of problems. I think that to play her in a one note kind of way, even ditzy, is wrong. This person is very conflicted, and I wanted to be true to that.

BH:  It seems that is true to the point the book and the movie and the show all try to make about the complexity of people who have these deep rooted prejudices.

KO:  I hope that they do. The more complex the person, the more you can identify with them. If you see them as some sort of ditzy, airheaded person, you can say, "That's not me, and that's a stupid way to be, and I'm not like that." If you see her as a person, you might say, "Why gosh, I kind of identify with her and I like her but —oops - she has these faults, and I probably do too. And since she changed maybe I can change."

BH:  Just like if someone is blatantly racist it's easy to separate ourselves from that. But we all have prejudices that we can't see as easily.

KO:  Right. And we also don't always have to face it, either. If she had stayed in Arkansas, she would never have probably faced it, but she went all the way across the world. We live in New York City where we get a lot of influences on a lot of different levels, but a lot of people never have to face it.

BH:  In an earlier interview, you spoke about the success of The Light in the Piazza after some less successful shows and how you adjusted to that. Since then, you've enjoyed even bigger successes, and you've received two more Tony nominations. What has that been like that for you, and how do you stay grounded?

KO:  I love answering the question of how I stay grounded because it makes me think that maybe people think I am. The important thing about it is —I didn't feel that much different when I was doing shows that weren't necessarily as much a success, in terms of how much I tried in them and how much I cared about them. But once you get in something that people seem to like, or you get attention for it, your life becomes busier and you feel a little bit more pressure on yourself to keep that going. The important thing is not to just have that in your life ... I have a husband and I have my family and plans for my future. The thing I have to do is give that time, because I respect it just as much as I respect my career. It's really about balance. The busier I get with work, the more I say to myself, What is it that is important to me, and how do I make a balance so that I can really enjoy what I'm doing with my work but also not let it run my life? And I totally understand, I get it when some people go bonkers and lose it because when you are in it - especially in these months now, with the Tonys coming up, and I'm releasing a record and it's been so busy —I can understand where people say, "Ahh!" and get to being hateful and everything. You really have to keep yourself in check and remember what's important.

BH:  You also have a husband with a family that's been in the business. Do they help give you that perspective?

KO:  The Naughtons have been such wonderful support. To be honest, Jim Naughton, as far as an influence for me —he raised his family, he has had a huge career and he has a beautiful marriage ... And you know what it's about? It's about doing your work and going home, and not letting it consume you and consume your ego. We all have healthy egos, but when you know that it's not all about you all the time. A lot of other people are depending on you to do other things besides sing and act. Then you can actually put things into perspective and lose your way. I'm not saying I always succeed but that's definitely my goal.

Wonder in the World - Kelli O'Hara
"The Sun Went Out," Wonder in the World" (with Harry Connick, Jr.), "And So It Goes," "Here Now," "And I Love You So," "Spooky," "All You Get Is Me," "All the Way," "Fable," "Slowly," "Fire and rain," "I Love You the World," "I Have Dreamed" and "Make Someone Happy." Arrangements by Harry Connick, Jr. produced by Tracey Freeman.

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