Eight times a week, The King and I's Tony-nominated star Kelli O'Hara slips into her role as governess Anna Leonowens — a teacher who singlehandedly alters the political and social trajectory of Siam with just a map, a hoop skirt, and conviction. The Rodgers and Hammerstein canon (with which the actress has grown intimately familiar over the years) puts a great deal of stock in the power of teachers — a breed that the songwriting team believed had the world-changing power to impart both close-minded hatred and boundless enlightenment. O'Hara subscribes to a similar philosophy, but though she plays one of musical theater's most revered educators onstage, offstage she remains the devoted pupil of director Bartlett Sher, who started her on a rigorous theatrical curriculum over a decade ago.
"I did a few Broadway shows before you came along," O'Hara said to Sher. The two recently gathered in O'Hara's Lincoln Center dressing room after a matinee performance to discuss their 12-year collaboration. "And I was probably flapping around aimlessly."
They met in 2003 when The Light in the Piazza was making its world premiere at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, where Sher was serving as artistic director. Before the Adam Guettel musical earned both Sher and O'Hara their first Tony nominations in 2005, for director and featured actress, the Intiman production featured O'Hara in a smaller role, and Sher as a producer and supportive onlooker.
"He was kind of lurking in the back all the time," O'Hara laughingly recalled.
Once the production moved to Chicago, Sher came out of the shadows and climbed aboard as the show's full-time director. But even on the fringes of the earlier Seattle production, he had begun to make an impression on the young actress.
"We began to care what this guy thought," O'Hara said. "There was a time I came into his office and he taught me about mask work — there were masks on his wall — and then he wanted to talk about Shakespeare. I immediately became fascinated with the hunger he had for everything theatrical. Then I wanted it. And I wanted him to teach me. I figured it would probably take a lifetime so we'd better get started."
Sher's first memory of O'Hara in Seattle, unsurprisingly, is of her divine soprano: "Adam [Guettel] had said he'd written a lot of the score based on Kelli's voice, so it was really more about the sound. I wasn't really thinking about the actor because I heard this extraordinary voice and I was like, 'Oh my God.'"
O'Hara as the full package of actor and singer did not strike Sher until they left the Intiman. "I remember we were in Chicago and we had just started working. It was the opening cross where you came in," he said, jogging her memory. "She was so amazing in her body. The spirit of the character was so in the way she moved. I very distinctly remember that cross. It was like, 'Holy sh*t — look at that.' That kind of thing is really where great theater happens."
It turned out to be the cross that launched the career of one of Broadway's most in-demand ingenues.
"I didn't come out of the womb an actor," said O'Hara, whose educational background is in opera, not musical theater. "Bart's literally been my acting teacher" — and a fine one at that, judging by her last ten years of work, which has garnered the actress six Tony nominations.
The first lesson to follow Piazza was Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific in 2008, though she still had to audition for the part.
"Several times as I recall," she bitingly joked to Sher.
He replied with a conciliatory smirk: "After that, there was no auditioning."
The production went on to earn the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, while handing Sher his first win and O'Hara her third nomination (her second being for The Pajama Game in 2006). It also solidified the rapport and mutual admiration that has kept them tethered since.
"We talk a lot," Sher explained.
"I've done shows where I put up the show and I never see the director again," added O'Hara. "But we'll keep working on it because it's fun."
The fun of their collaborative work has largely stemmed from the natural fit of their creative processes.
"I'm one of those people who wants to change something really fast and fix it and it'll be a really bad move," said the actress. "I can kind of air things at him in the moment and he just takes them and lets them settle. He's not just going to tell somebody they're wrong — I would," she quipped. "But he'll make me go through the paces."
"Kelli is good for me," Sher returned, "because she doesn't go fast. I've worked with some really great actors, and often the performance is done within the first week. That is very bad for me, because I'll keep digging away and uncovering things. She'll be struggling with certain things and I'll be struggling with others but at least we're not done."
By their next project, the names Kelli O'Hara and Bartlett Sher had become indelibly linked.
"I was approached to approach him," said the actress, relating the beginnings of composer Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County (a show whose score was inspired by O'Hara's voice and went on to win Brown two Tonys). The production, in which O'Hara starred as the Italian ex-pat Francesca, became her fifth Tony nod, but it wasn't a hit with audiences.
"I would say the more difficult one of all the ones we did was Bridges because it had closed," said Sher, who, for the first time, was not nominated with his leading lady. "I was doing an opera in Germany so I didn't have to go through it. She had to be here and go through it and that's really hard," he said sympathetically — recalling all of the labor that went into building her intricately layered character, and the disappointment that surrounded what both still consider a passion project.
Beyond the mix of pain and pleasure that accompanies their fickle craft, the politics and emotions that awards season inevitably drags along have become part of the package of their artistic partnership — one that burns bright under a Broadway spotlight. "You can get all wrapped up in it," said O'Hara, who, since Piazza, has become one of the Tony Awards' most regular attendees. "Of course you do — because you're human."
Despite this, both continue to look back with immense pride at the shared experience of their first nominations. "It was like heaven to me," O'Hara reflected. "Because it was such an icing on the cake. There was no pressure — it was just absolute joy."
"I enjoyed it too," Sher coolly concurred. "I knew I wasn't winning" — a position both agree is exponentially better than the alternative. "The worst time for me was South Pacific," Sher continued. "Everybody thought I was supposed to win." Luckily, he didn't disappoint. But for O'Hara, now on her sixth nomination for The King and I, the pressure has been gradually mounting and she has yet to take home a trophy.
"I'll never stop hoping to win," she admitted. "And what that does for me is it takes away from my love of this business. And so you learn after six times to start holding a grudge, and I don't want that. I want to love it again."
Fortunately, beyond a teacher and mentor, Sher has been a kindred spirit and grounding force.
Their collaboration reminds the actress of a time before red carpets and award ceremonies, when performing was simply a thing she did for the joy of it. "Where I did it, there were no prizes for it," O'Hara explained, referring to her upbringing in small-town Oklahoma. "There was nothing for it. You just did it because the prize was the way it made you feel and the way it made other people feel. [Bart] comes from the same place."
"I never had any intention in my entire life of [participating in] any of that part of it," Sher said. "I would be in the ancient tradition of theater where you have a company and you work with your company over your lifetime and you make work together. That seems to be the way theater works for me."
Anchored in the spirit of this ancient tradition, the pair has managed to maintain their secluded cocoon away from the fray where they can continue the work they began in 2003 in Sher's mask-covered Seattle office. "I think I'm on about my second year of grad school right now," O'Hara gibed. "I just need to graduate."
Yet, in the words — and "ancient" sentiments — of Rodgers and Hammerstein, "If you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught." So how has Professor Sher profited from his star pupil?
"The idea that I have a collaborator over this much time with whom I can investigate these stories is an incredible blessing for me. It makes everything I do and how I think about it work better. As a director working with Kelli, the gift is all mine."
"Come on," O'Hara shrugged. "I don't need an award — listen to that."