Over the past decade, Kelli O'Hara has become one of Broadway's go-to leading ladies, racking up four Tony nominations for her roles in The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, South Pacific, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Nearly two decades after stepping off the bus as a self-admittedly "green" opera student from Oklahoma City University, her career is on the brink of soaring to even greater heights as she joins the ranks of Broadway greats like Ethel Merman and Bernadette Peters as the newest muse of the Broadway stage. On January 17 she begins performances as Italian war bride Francesca Johnson in the musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County, tailor-made for O'Hara by Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown (Honeymoon in Vegas, The Last Five Years) and Tony-winning book writer Marsha Norman (The Color Purple, The Secret Garden).
"It doesn't happen very often, but boy is it exciting when they say, '[We] want to do this and we're going to write it for you,'" she commented, humbly reflecting on what she says have been three "overly abundantly wonderful" years of the project's development (which also happened to coincide with the birth of her second child). TheaterMania chatted with O'Hara about this once-, or in her case, twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which seems destined to become one of her major professional milestones. While offering insight into her newest Broadway role, O'Hara reminisced about the road that led her to this point in her career, one that she claims has been filled with risk, hope, and rejection…from Jason Robert Brown.
Ten years ago, would you have ever thought that Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman would be writing a musical for you?
No. I have to say, I'm pinching myself. There's nothing about this that feels normal or Oh yeah, this is just the way it goes. Oddly enough, about the same time [that this opportunity came], Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Richard Greenberg had approached me about Far From Heaven with the same offer. That's why there was no way in Hades that I wasn't going to do both of them and make them work because that just doesn't happen. Jason [Robert Brown] and I laugh because I remember auditioning for The Last Five Years when it first went out of town and being cast as the understudy but not being quite good enough [for the main lead]. And to now be working on [this] with him and to have him write things to fit me — that's pretty heavy.
Do you feel like there has been a gradual progression in your career or has it been a series of big jumps forward?
I think that some people from the outside might think of it as a gradual progression. A lot of people still say to me, "You've got a bright future" because they've never seen me. But for me, I feel like I definitely made big jumps to keep holding on. For instance, I left [Light in the Piazza] to do The Pajama Game, which is a completely opposite type of role. I think that if I hadn't made that jump — and it was a sacrifice at the time — I wouldn't have been cast in South Pacific and Bells Are Ringing [at City Center Encores!], and Nice Work.
Do you consider Francesca one of your big jumps?
This is the mecca. She's Italian, she's older, there are a lot of things about it that aren't just me. It's going to be a combination of the things I know about. For instance, a lot of what I know about being a farm wife [is from] my grandmother. In South Pacific, my mother's mother was so instrumental (she was from Arkansas), and now, all I can think about is my father's mother who was raised on a farm and then became a farmer's wife. The idea that your family and your children are your life, the idea that maybe there is heartache because women weren't given chances and didn't ask for chances as much at that time? Loneliness and interior thoughts? I have a feeling I know that part of her more than any other part.
How do interior thoughts translate in a Broadway musical setting?
Well, that's the magic of music itself. The interior monologue and the things that movies can zero in on — that's what song is in my opinion. It's almost like it's turned inside out from the genre of filmmaking. Those interior quiet thoughts become larger-than-life musical numbers.
Is there a feeling of needing to catch up in this role after having to miss the Williamstown run of Bridges this past summer?
I went to see it twice, and it made me feel so good because I was so proud of what I saw. And Elena [Shaddow], who [played Francesca and] will stand by for me [on Broadway],…was so beautiful and taught me so much about the role. You never get a chance to look at it from the outside unless you leave it and watch it with somebody else in the role, so to do that beforehand was very helpful. Do I wish that I could have done it? Absolutely. The more time to marinate, the better. But I've got a baby instead, and I think that trumps.
What advice would you give young performers coming to New York for the first time?
[They] need to step into the city with a real hope. While kids are in college, I sometimes think too much knowledge of the inside of things is actually not good. If you come here with the cynicism of Oh, I know how it really works…then why even come? You really have to come with Oh yeah, I'm going to get all the jobs. And then you'll fall and then you'll get heartbroken, but that's good because you use all that…I think you have to take big risks to keep going.