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Kelli O'Hara

Kelli O'Hara displays a freshly scrubbed elegance that looks like she just stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad, but this peaches and cream blonde with the sparkling soprano voice has a dark side. At least her characters do, and that's no accident. O'Hara, who hails from Oklahoma and studied under the same voice teacher as another famous Broadway Oklahoman, has made some risky choices in her career--taking on edgy characters and new works such as Sweet Smell of Success, My Life with Albertine, The Light in the Piazza which will play at Lincoln Center this season and her current role as bitten beauty Lucy Westenra in Frank Wildhorn, Don Black and Christopher Hampton's musical version of Dracula. As the new musical settles into its run at the Belasco Theatre, O'Hara chatted with about Jekkies, tryouts, stage nudity and a certain spooky ghost.

Now that Dracula has opened, has the cast settled into a comfortable run?
You know, we were just settling, and then Melissa Errico unfortunately has gotten a bruised vocal chord, so she's been out of the show for two and a half weeks. Elizabeth Loyacano, who is the understudy, is doing a fabulous job, so now we're starting to get it into our bodies--and then, of course, Melissa's going to come back. So, it keeps it interesting. There's never a dull moment around here.

Then again how could it be dull when there are people are flying around all the time?
Exactly! Flying and levitating and bleeding! It's one of the things that's a guilty pleasure where you think, 'Oh no, I don't want to do Dracula!' And then you do it and you have a blast. We're having a lot of fun and the people are so nice. It's such a good group.

What is it like backstage? It looks like everything must be perfectly timed or there'd be chaos.
Oh my gosh! When we were in rehearsal we were like, 'This is not going to happen.' And [director] Des [McAnuff] would say, 'Trust me, just trust me.' He was right. I have a 16-second full-costume change, and I make it every night. It's one of those things where you get the choreography offstage just as much as you get it on. The whole time we're going, going, going. It makes the job easier because everything has its place and time. There's no time for sitting around twiddling your thumbs.

Let me just get this out of the way and ask you about the nudity.
It's so funny because I've heard that same lead-in line before, but I know you have to ask.

It's true, I feel like I do have to ask about how you feel doing it every night.
Of course. I totally understand. I'm not upset at all about people asking questions. I decided--to my chagrin--to do it. I honestly think it adds to what Des wanted as far as the spectacle of the show is concerned.

Do you think there has been too much talk about it?
It's been talked about a great deal in the press, but in reality, it's about five seconds. For me, it's in blue light and I have my back to the audience. Personally, I think that Melissa's part--and Elizabeth's actually not doing it--would be much more uncomfortable for me. Let me put it this way, I play a victim and it adds to the vulnerability of Lucy rather than me taking off my clothes and sexily walking across the stage and attacking Dracula. It adds to the fact that he has power and she is weak. And that's how I make it work for me. I use the fear in it.

Was it a challenge to build trust among your cast mates to do it?
Tom Hewitt is the only one that looks right at me, and he's such a decent person. He's such a nice man. The only other person that has any other contact with me in that moment is Stephen Henderson, who plays Van Helsing. Talk about two really, really polite and chivalrous guys. I actually heard from the other girls that when [Henderson] is getting ready for that entrance and I'm naked onstage, he actually closes his eyes to be a gentleman. I really appreciate that from my fellow co-workers. Otherwise it could get pretty strange.

How does your background in opera mesh with Frank Wildhorn's pop sensibility?
Well, it probably doesn't mesh with his sensibility at all! Jekyll and Hyde was my first Broadway show. And when I first came to New York, I was coming right from my education in opera, so it was very challenging for me. I would consider Jekyll and Hyde to be more pop than Dracula, but I was playing Emma, so it was the more soprano-y role, though there is the pop aspect. And I think what it made me do was change my voice and learn new things. Not just for the pop genre, but it just made my voice more acclimated to musical theater. And I'm very appreciative for that because the opera thing hasn't been really fitting in for what Broadway is calling for right now. The two shows of Frank Wildhorn music that I've done have helped me to broaden my horizons. But I know that Frank wanted a more legit sound for the Lucy role, just as he did for Emma in Jekyll and Hyde, so I know that he didn't expect me to come here and blow the walls out with a Linda Eder voice because that's not what I do. So he's been very understanding and very supportive.

Having been a part of Jekyll and Hyde and now being a part of Dracula, do you find that you have the Jekkies [Jekyll and Hyde fans] coming to see the show over and over?
Of course! It's crazy! There are so many Jekkies, and they are such loyal fans. They came to see me in Sweet Smell of Success, My Life with Albertine, Follies... If you're ever in a Frank Wildhorn show, they come everywhere you go--even if you're not in a Frank Wildhorn show. They're very loyal people. And they buy tickets, so there's no complaining here.

It must be nice to have that Wildhorn fan base. Do you feel it at Dracula?
We do get the people who see the show eight times. We also get the standing ovations, which to be honest, we didn't have standing ovations in Sweet Smell or Follies--and that's a Sondheim show! And in Dracula, unfortunately now after the reviews, people have come in with the permission to sit on their hands, but they stand! Of course, everyone knows the story of Dracula, and we get the Dracula people, too. I was just about to call them Drakkies, but I don't think that's my place to call them that. They've got the Goth clothes. I love that they decided to dress up and make it really exciting. I think Halloween might be really interesting for us. There's definitely a feeling that there are supporters that have already decided to be supportive. Then there are the people that come in expecting to not like it and they do enjoy it… and then of course, there are the people that just hate it. But that's with everything.

It seems like you've had a lot of different experiences with tryouts--from Sweet Smell of Success' big pre-Broadway tryout to Dracula trying out a while ago and then diving into a Broadway run years later to The Light in the Piazza's seemingly gentler road to New York. How have the experiences been different for you?
Piazza's road to New York is definitely gentler; it's also less nerve-wracking. I know Dracula did have time in La Jolla to try it out once, but it seemed that when they did finally throw it together Des had to be determined to stick with what he decided. What happened with Sweet Smell is that they had a great vision and we did it in Chicago and, in my personal opinion, it was just messed with too much.

And a lot of the changes had to do with your part, didn't they?
Oh, so much of it. Of course, at the time, I wasn't as strong. I was just starting out and I was nervous. If I had it to do over, I would have really fought for some things that I thought were true to the character of Susan. Maybe it would have helped something. But at the time, I trusted and I just did. I think that if you stare at something for too long, you lose sight of what's exciting and what's not exciting anymore. We all do that, you know. You look at your husband or your wife and you say, 'Where's the passion?' You can't step away, so you have to have people you trust. You can tweak something too much. I think that was the case with Sweet Smell--and hopefully it won't be the case with Piazza, although I feel like we've been doing it so long that there are things happening that I worry about.

What worries you?
Changes in casting, changes in the script. The longer you hold something, you want to add this and you want to add that. Of course, I trust these guys working on Piazza with everything. I'm sure it will come out well. But with something like Dracula, it went as fast as it could. Sometimes I think just going after it is the best choice. But I don't know. We'll see.

Do you mind telling me a little bit about what it's like to date Greg Naughton and be close to his family?
Let me tell you, if I was ever a big fish in a little pond back in Oklahoma, I'm not now. I come from a background of attorneys and farmers and teachers--there aren't any performers. And with Greg, he's a great performer in his own right--and then there's his sister [Keira Naughton] and his dad [James Naughton] and then there's his dad's brother [David Naughton]. We recently got together with the whole family, and there was one big laugh after another. It's a great environment. It's also a wonderful family environment that you might not expect. They also have an understanding of what I do, and Greg and I have an understanding that might not be had in other relationships because of the business. And even though he's not performing as an actor anymore, he knows my schedule because his dad was on that schedule most of his life. He knows my needs and what I'm called to do, and he understands. And I do for him and his music. It's a great balance and he's a great guy.

I know that you have the same education as Kristin Chenoweth. How does it feel to be another blonde from Oklahoma on Broadway?
I entered college the same year that Kristin graduated from grad school. We had the same voice teacher, and we both studied opera. In opera, we are very much the same: coloratura sopranos. So I spent four years with my teacher sort of being Kristin for her, and doing all the same things and aspiring to do the same arias. It was such a good thing for me to see someone going out there and making it. And there I was in my four years of college doing what she had done and believing that I would, too. That I could do it. One of the best gifts that I had from that situation was that [Kristin] got me an audition with my agents. I've learned that we are very different in musical theater. She's a character person with a specific kind of character-y voice, while I'm not a comedian--although I try to be at times. I'm different and I've learned that I could separate myself from Kristin, but at the same time, I really appreciate every single step she takes because it makes me believe that I can be there right behind her like I have been since I was 18.

It's nice that you don't feel competitive with her.
There's no competition because, let me just put it honestly, she's out of my league. I still consider myself to be reaching for the things that she's already accomplished, and it makes me reach for them because I've seen her already accomplish them.

You must have the proudest voice teacher in Oklahoma!
She is thrilled. She's amazing. She was just here for Kristin's Carnegie Hall concert. She's one of those famous people in Oklahoma. Everyone knows her. Her name is Florence Birdwell. She knows what she's doing. Adam Guettel wants to get her up here to do a big master class because he says, 'Everyone needs Florence Birdwell in their lives.' She is proud and she is worthy of a lot of attention.

I know that you've been in two shows at the Belasco Theatre, Follies and now Dracula. Do you believe in the stories that the ghost of theater impresario David Belasco haunts the place?
You know what? I think I do! Roxane Barlow, who was in Follies with me, thinks she saw him one day while we were rehearsing. And I believed her. It was the look on her face. She turned white and she said, 'Who is that guy up in the third balcony?' And we looked up and there was no one there. She described him and someone said that's what David Belasco looks like. And so ever since then, I feel like I believe it. We also got to see the apartment above the theater. Of course, it's sort of demolished and old. It was so spooky to see it. I have to believe that he's still making his home in the theater and watching over the place.

I guess it's not a bad thing to have a bit of spookiness in the theater when you're doing Dracula.
Oh, yeah. It works for us all. We keep it in mind.

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