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2012
SUNDAY, JUNE 10, 2012
Live at Beacon Theater

Nice Work Star Kelli O'Hara Looks Back on Four Tony-Nominated Roles & More

Nice Work Star Kelli O'Hara Looks Back on Four Tony-Nominated Roles & More
Kelli O'Hara
Kelli O'Hara has earned four Tony nominations, including a 2012 nod for 'Nice Work If You Can Get It.'

Given her blonde beauty and soaring soprano, Kelli O’Hara could have built a solid career in “sweetheart” roles, but this Broadway headliner is too smart and versatile to be pigeonholed. She conquered the challenging role of Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, showed off her sexy side as Babe in The Pajama Game and is now practicing her pratfalls (and singing Gershwin classics including “Someone to Watch Over Me”) as bootlegger Billie Bendix in the delightful new musical Nice Work If You Can Get It. Oh, and O’Hara could teach a course in chemistry after creating stage sparks with Matthew Morrison, Harry Connick Jr., Paulo Szot and Matthew Broderick, among others. Just before the announcement of her fourth Tony nomination, she filled in the Role Call blanks for Broadway.com.

Role That Was the Most Fun
“I was in heaven in The Pajama Game [as Babe Williams; 2006 Best Actress Tony nomination]. Harry Connick is such a musical genius. For the scene in which he played the piano, he would come by my dressing room and say, ‘What do you want to hear tonight?’ I would say something like, ‘Play Japanese.’ And he would literally take ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ and make it sound Asian. He would look for inspiration and just go with it, and the audience loved it because it was so creative. No performance was the same; it was always an adventure, and that’s hard to come by in a Broadway show. Plus, it was the first time I got to play a sassier girl on Broadway, and I loved that.”

Role That Was the Most Like Me
“This role [Billie Bendix in Nice Work If You Can Get It; 2012 Best Actress Tony nomination] is the most like me, definitely. I’m actually a tomboy—I joke that I’m not really a girl, but I play one on stage. I was a ‘sporto’ in high school and I hate the color pink. Being tough and no-nonsense [on stage] is really fun, and it’s also fun to play the humor, which I don’t get asked to do very much. Matthew Broderick [as millionaire Jimmy Winter] is adorable and generous, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. His role, in my opinion, would not work any other way: He’s a man who has been married however many times, and he goes out and parties—you would hate him if it weren’t for Matthew’s sweet portrayal.”

Role That Was Closest to My Heart
South Pacific [2008 Best Actress Tony nomination] was an embarrassment of riches: that orchestra; that huge, beautiful stage at Lincoln Center; working with Bart [Sher, the director] and Paulo [Szot as Emile] was a dream. The show was closest to me, first of all, because I grew up on Rodgers & Hammerstein. I was from Oklahoma, so Oklahoma! the musical was a big deal. My maternal grandmother and her sister, who is still alive, were from Arkansas, and Nellie Forbush was their girl. I thought of my Mimi and my Aunt Tootie—their voice and their hair—and it brought me close to the character. Even Nellie’s prejudices make me proud that I was able to go on her journey and show she could change and come out of that place.”

Role That Was the Most Challenging
“I had worked on The Light in the Piazza [2005 Best Featured Actress Tony nomination] since its inception, but in a different role, so I didn’t have much time to work on Clara [Johnson, the musical’s childlike heroine] before we opened on Broadway. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted Clara to be real, and to pay respect to people with traumatic brain injuries. What we discovered is that you don’t find in reality the person we needed her to be. Stephen Sondheim came to one of the first previews, and his note was, ‘We need to see her handicap more.’ So we did a couple of shows where I pulled my skirt up or had a tic with my hands, but it didn’t work because the boy [Matthew Morrison] wasn’t supposed to notice she had a problem. After a few months, I started to grasp who she was, and to love her, but in the beginning, it was a big challenge.”

Role I Would Like to Do Again
“I did a fully staged concert version of My Fair Lady [2007] with the New York Philharmonic that was so special, and I would love to do it again. I'm a soprano, and no one really writes music for us, particularly the older shows. In order to grow older in this business, you have to become a mezzo. I'm not a belter, but for Babe [in The Pajama Game] or the Judy Holliday role in Bells Are Ringing [at Encores!], I had to use a different part of my voice. My Fair Lady is so frisky and powerful in the soprano range. She’s yelling, she’s got spunk—I had never played a soprano part that had the vocal power to match the character. Who knows if it will work out to do it again?”

Role I Wish More People Had Seen
My Life With Albertine [2003, at Playwrights Horizons] is a show that no one knows, but I wish I could have done it longer. I had just come off of Sweet Smell of Success, where I played this lost ingenue, and Albertine was fiery and full of mystery. The show was loosely based on Proust, and I played his love interest—Brent Carver played the older Proust and Chad Kimball played the younger. Ricky Ian Gordon wrote a very passionate, almost classical score, and it was the first time I felt like I was using my true voice in musical theater. Richard Nelson’s book was so smart and poetic—it was like a play set to music. To this day, it’s probably my husband’s [Greg Naughton] favorite thing I’ve done because he liked seeing me so happy.”