South Pacific is one of those magical Broadway productions in which everything worked—and the cast knew it, which is why Tony winner Paulo Szot (Emile de Becque) repeatedly returned to the show between opera engagements and Tony nominees Danny Burstein (Luther Billis)and Loretta Ables Sayre (Bloody Mary) never left. Now the show’s luminous leading lady, Kelli O’Hara, is back as Nellie Forbush for the final two weeks of the revival’s run, including a Live from Lincoln Center telecast on August 18. Just before her return, O’Hara chatted with Broadway.com about what’s new with her baby son (13-month-old Owen James Naughton) and how it feels to come full-circle with a wonderful show.
Are you excited about the live telecast of South Pacific?
I’m really looking forward to it. It broke my heart not to be in The Light in the Piazza when they shot that for PBS. I had left to do Pajama Game, and it extended a week so I wasn’t able to come back. When they said they were going to film South Pacific, I said, “I’m not going to miss this one!” The idea of getting everyone back together to close the run meant a lot to me. I’m thinking more about [the final performance on] August 22 than I am the broadcast.
The original cast has been so loyal. Can you sum up what this production has meant to all of you?
Well, we all pinch ourselves, because actors don’t always get opportunities like this. It’s Lincoln Center—it’s a very comfortable, healthy work environment, and South Pacific is one of those show you can feel proud of doing. It has something to say while being fun to watch, so it’s kind of a heavenly job. I left out of necessity. If it was a role I could play pregnant, I probably would have stayed for eight and a half months.
You’ve worked with Matthew Morrison on two shows [The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific]. Are you amazed at what’s happened to him in the last year, as a star of Glee?
His life changed drastically very, very quickly. It’s exciting, but I also think it’s overwhelming. He can’t walk down the street anymore! You can never really be ready for something like that. When you’re 18, it’s exciting, but when you’re a little bit older, you think, “Gosh, where did my privacy go?” I think he’s handling all of it beautifully. He’s meant to be a star.
You need to get a guest spot on Glee.
I’d love to! We’ll see; hopefully sometime in the future.
What have you been up to since leaving South Pacific last winter?
I’ve been doing several concerts a month—I was at Carnegie Hall in April; I was in Florida; I was in Orange County, California, for six weeks. I’ve also been spending time with [baby] Owen, because that was my goal: to make a living and sing, because that’s my passion, but enjoy being a mom and not hand him over to somebody else to raise. It’s the most fulfilling thing in my life.
Is Owen a good traveler?
He’s adapted well to it. I took him with me every time, so he’s been all over the United States. He’s going to be a world traveler.
Can you tell yet whether Owen is going to be musical, like his parents? [O’Hara is married to singer Greg Naughton].
Oh, he loves music! He dances, he plays the piano, he loves the guitar. I always said he was either going to hate it, because there’s so much around him, or love it. And I think he’s going to love it.
How did you celebrate his first birthday?
We were in Vermont, and we had a big birthday party on the lake with swimming and cake and lots of friends. It was our kind of day.
We’ve gotta ask about a tidbit we just read about you on IMDB.com: “Grew up on a farm. When she was 14, she chopped cotton from 6 A.M. to noon—in a bikini.”
It’s funny that they published that, but yeah, that’s what I did. I grew up on a cotton farm in western Oklahoma, and my first job was chopping cotton. But I was also a vain teenager who wanted to get a suntan, so I did it in my bikini. I wish they’d come up with something else [to mention], but I’m proud of it. I worked hard! We don’t do cotton anymore because the climate has changed; we mostly run cattle now.
When will we see you on a Broadway stage again?
There are a couple of things going on. One is a great dream of mine, but I’m not at liberty to say [the name of the show]. It will come out soon; it's very exciting. I’ve also been shopping a new musical which may be done in the next few years. Mostly I have concerts scheduled—I’m going to be at Feinstein’s in October. I’ll keep singing until the right thing comes along.