Only Kelli O’Hara could calmly give an interview about her forthcoming return to Broadway in The Bridges of Madison County and her volunteer work with the New York Pops while holding her five-week-old daughter, Charlotte, and greeting her four-year-old son, Owen. But we shouldn’t be surprised: This is the same musical star who played Nellie Forbush in South Pacific for almost half of her first pregnancy and headlined Far From Heaven while expecting Charlotte! The three-time Tony nominee chatted with Broadway.com about everything that’s going on in her busy life.
The New York Pops has just announced that you’re co-chairing its new PopsEd Ambassadors program. Why did you want to get involved?
I’ve performed with the Pops many times, and was so impressed with the work they do with Ronald McDonald House students; I sang “Inch Worm” with those kids at the Pops’ spring gala. Their “Kids in the Balcony” program [which gives free tickets to schoolchildren] is wonderful When [music director] Steven [Reineke] asked me to be involved, I was happy to say yes.
What will you and committee members like Laura Benanti, Santino Fontana, Brian d’Arcy James, Norm Lewis and Laura Osnes be doing?
Steven has attracted a lot of wonderful people who will go out and take part in music education programs all over town. Some of us will give master classes. There are lots of ways people will be able to get involved.
Let’s talk Bridges of Madison County. What drew you to the role of housewife Francesca Johnson?
The first thing is how different she is from me. That’s something I look for. She’s Italian, and I love the voice she’s been given by [composer] Jason [Robert Brown] and [librettist] Marsha [Norman]—the language, and the music, which is quite classical. The show has a beautiful message, and I feel like the role combines things I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.
You must feel very comfortable working with Steven Pasquale [as photographer Robert Kincaid], your co-star earlier this year in Far From Heaven.
Steven is one of my oldest friends, and we’ve been trying to work together for more than 10 years. He was going to do Light in the Piazza and Cable in South Pacific with me, but his TV schedule kept getting in the way, so we can’t wait to get started. Our chemistry is going to be palpable!
You always have good chemistry with your male co-stars.
Well, this is the ultimate chemistry-needed show! [Laughs.] You could have lots of negative opinions about Francesca’s choices unless you feel that these two people just have to be together. The fact that we are such good friends will be a great starting point.
Did you see the show in Williamstown this past summer? Was that weird for you? [Because of O’Hara’s pregnancy, Elena Shaddow played Francesca in the pre-Broadway run.]
I did see it, and it was weird, although I’m glad I went. I actually saw it twice—once and the beginning and once just before they closed—and Elena was wonderful. I’ve never been able to look at something from the outside until after I leave a show, and I got great insight into what worked and what didn’t, and just the “colors” of the show. I’m extremely grateful to get to do it [on Broadway].
You’ve starred in hit revivals as well as new musicals. How do you compare the pressure?
It’s kind of balanced. With a revival, you’re compared to somebody else. This is brand new, but it’s been done as a film with none other than Meryl Streep, so how do you compare to that? [Laughs.] The book was also wildly successful and people had their own vision of Francesca in their head, so I just have to approach it as myself; a musical is a different beast. It’s a joy and a challenge to do a new show, but the pressure is definitely on.
Are you finding motherhood easier the second time around?
It is easier! Having two is a little bit more of a challenge, but I’m definitely less neurotic and a little more relaxed; I know that it will all be okay. I have Charlotte in my arms, and [Owen] is coming in right now. She’s five weeks old and not sleeping great, but she will; she’s doing better all the time.
Is Owen a good big brother?
He is in love with her, and I’m so happy about that, because it could have gone another way. We just have to watch him because he wants to kiss her all over, almost too much.
Well, you and Greg [Naughton, O’Hara’s husband] are old hands at this. You're ready for Broadway!
We’ve made it work so far! I have wonderful help, and we make it work because we're both artists; we know that when you’re fulfilled in every direction, that rubs off on your children. It’s overwhelming and wonderful and a great joy.