DIVA TALK: A Chat with Piazza's Kelli O'Hara Plus News of Menzel, Haran and Lansbury

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: A Chat with Piazza's Kelli O'Hara Plus News of Menzel, Haran and Lansbury News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Kelli O'Hara in The Light in the Piazza
Kelli O'Hara in The Light in the Piazza Photo by Joan Marcus

KELLI O'HARA

Why I had previously taken little note of Kelli O'Hara has much more to do with her earlier Broadway outings — the short-lived Sweet Smell of Success and Dracula — than her formidable talent, for she is currently delivering one of the most delightful performances on Broadway in the touching, award-laden musical at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, The Light in the Piazza. O'Hara offers a truly luminous performance as Clara, the young woman with a secret who is vacationing in 1953 Italy with her doting mother Margaret (Tony winner Victoria Clark). O'Hara finds the perfect balance of childlike innocence and adult longing in Clara, who yearns for a relationship with her new Italian suitor, Fabrizio Naccarelli. She also possesses one of the most beautiful sopranos in the musical theatre today, a soaring instrument as rich in vibrato as it is clear in tone. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with the Tony-nominated actress, who is articulate and refreshingly candid about her work on Broadway. That interview follows:

Question: How did you originally become involved with The Light in the Piazza?
Kelli O'Hara: I actually did the first workshop of it at Sundance at the Theatre Lab just over three years ago. I had been doing Sweet Smell of Success at the time, and we were crashing into the ground [laughs], so I started to go out on a few more auditions, and I went in for an audition for a performance arts piece that was going to Sundance. When you go, they typically put you into a couple of different shows. I won the part of doing this performance arts piece, and Piazza was going [there] as well, and they had this part of Franca, the sister-in-law, a small part, and they hadn't cast it, and they were just going to cast it from the people going [to Sundance]. [Piazza musical director] Ted Sperling knew me and said, "Oh, Kelli O'Hara can play Franca," knowing very well that I probably wouldn't play her in other renditions because she's a 35-year-old Italian woman. But I did, and really, really loved it, and ended up playing Franca in the next two versions, in Seattle and Chicago. So I've been with [Piazza] ever since the very beginning.

Q: What was the piece like at that point — at Sundance?
O'Hara: It was very much a table work — we didn't have anything staged. Our final reading after the three weeks was on a stage with stands. Adam [Guettel] had quite a few of the songs but some without lyrics. Craig [Lucas] had a good book but definitely like a shell of a book. We basically sat around for three weeks in this wonderful place letting our minds wander, and they just created and added things. By the time the three weeks ended, we did a reading that was very well received, and everyone just fell in love with it and cried, and it was so much smaller than it is now, and yet people still knew that it was something great. Q: Who was part of the cast at that point?
O'Hara: The only two people [there] that are still involved [now were] Mark Harelik, who plays Signor [Naccarelli, and I]. There's a rumor that Vicki [Clark] might have been asked but couldn't go. But it was Mary Cleere Haran, who was just great. The music wasn't a fit at all [for Mary], so at the time it was kind of a makeshift thing. . . . She played Margaret, and Celia Keenan-Bolger, of course, was playing Clara, and Stephen Pasquale was playing Fabrizio. In every rendition they've wanted Stephen to do it. He's basically who they wrote it for, and no one sings it like Stephen. He was almost going to do this Broadway production; that was the plan, [but] he had a television show and couldn't get out of it.

Q: What was it like playing Franca at Sundance and then in Seattle and Chicago?
O'Hara: I just adored it. I thought it was the best thing that happened to me. [Laughs.] . . . In Sundance it was easy to just assume that this is just for fun. But in Seattle when we started rehearsing, as you can imagine, most people would look at Celia and me and say, "Who's playing Clara?" Therefore, I felt very much out of place, in rehearsals, looking like [Clara] and trying to play this daunting, older, bitter character. It wasn't until, literally, we really put the show together [and] I put some costume and some make-up and some hair on [that I] felt grounded in the role [and] just started having a blast with it. By Chicago — [that] run I just loved it. It was actually, more than you think, a bigger decision to change over [to playing Clara] besides . . . the other obstacles you can imagine went along with it. One of them was: Did I want to stop playing Franca? No one had ever seen me do anything like that, and I really took to it, I think. So it was a hard decision to go back to ingenue land when I thought I was maybe graduating a little bit.

Q: Do you feel it was a good decision?
O'Hara: I will be honest and say that there's a part of me that felt more connected to someone like Franca than I've ever felt to Clara because I loved the comedic side of Franca. I loved the honest, the real harsh honesty of her. But I've enjoyed playing Clara, and I understand that that's kind of what I do, but at the same time I really loved the thought of doing some meatier stuff. And, I don't think anybody would agree with me and say that Franca is more meaty. But when you think about it, it is — it's growing up and being able to play really true things. As opposed to saying, "The sun is shining, and I'm happy about it."

Q: Since you have been in all the productions, how has the audience reaction changed from city to city and even in New York — from previews to after winning so many Tonys?
O'Hara: It's a huge change. It's amazing to watch what the public does to change the show. We've had good responses in every city. The show did well every single time, even in Seattle [where we had] different direction, different sets, different everything. It was more abstract, not so glamorous in Seattle, but yet we got great reviews, and people seemed to like it. I remember it seeming more like an art piece and not for everyone type of thing in Seattle, but Seattle is a great audience —they're a very open-minded group of people, so they really received us.

By the time we got to Chicago, it had changed hands. Bart[lett] Sher started directing, and the set became a more realistic kind of Italy. Vicki started developing what is all her, which is just kind of taking this piece and carrying it. The comedy started coming alive. Everybody's comfort level was so different, and all of a sudden it became something of more of a commercial feeling piece. It was never going to be that, but the audiences did have more of a big time rather than sitting their thinking of it introspectively.

When we got to New York, we were still furthering that idea. The sets were even more beautiful and realistic, and the cast got bigger. We had opening numbers like in Beauty and the Beast with townspeople, so it seemed even more commercial. And then we started previews, and the audiences, to be honest, were sitting on their hands a little bit. We knew it was going to be good — we were getting lots of good feedback, but there was a little bit of a quiet air about it. The reviews were a little mixed, and we were kind of worried. I'm so used to crashing shows that I started just getting really down after opening, thinking, "Well, here we go again."

After some of the nominations coming out, [there was] an absolute 180 [degree turn]. All of a sudden, people started coming to the shows like it was The Producers. Once Vicki was touted — everywhere it was "Vicki's going to win the Tony. This is the best role that's been written in a long time for a woman." All of a sudden, she'd come out on the stage, and people would start laughing. It didn't even matter what she did. [Laughs.] It's kind of smoothed out into something that is tasteful, and people are really connecting with her, so that now it's all fair and good and makes sense. For a while there was this explosion of "You've been told you can like it" and they did, but now I feel like it's a joint effort, and we're giving something to like and they're also liking it.

Q: How do you feel your performance as Clara has changed from previews to now?
O'Hara: Well, I often get a little frustrated because [I wish I] had had the chance to grow into this role a little bit more. Even just having the Chicago run — but that's a whole [can of worms] I don't want to open up because that would have been really hard. Vicki's performance has changed so drastically, and she's able to really own [her role], and I think that there's a big part of me that understands who Clara is now. Even from the beginning of this Broadway run, I wish people would come back and see it again because I've gained so much more understanding and feel so much more comfortable. In the beginning I was a wreck. I just started for the first time with it in February, and this part, I really believe, is something you have to let sit with you, especially if you're not naturally geared to something like this. Even when I was 18 and playing the ingenue roles, I always felt like they were a snore. And, I feel like there's so much more to Clara. She's not an ingenue at all, a [typical] one, so I needed to have a lot more time with her. By now I'm finally getting to a place where I'm getting a little bit of pride in my performance, but to be honest, for a long time I knew that it wasn't — I wasn't trying to be hard on myself — I just knew that I hadn't been given the time with it. And it's not just something you can pick up and memorize the lines and do. So, I would want everybody to come back and see it again, because I don't know what I was doing back in previews! [Laughs.]

Q: Matthew Morrison leaves the role of Fabrizio at the end of this month. How do you feel about him leaving and working with a new co star?
O'Hara: There's a lot of fear in it because there has [been] this major connection with all of us. But, I'll tell you, Matt is gearing to go. He's been ready for a long time. After the Tonys, he was like, "And, what's next?" He's ambitious and people are calling him, and he's got a lot of opportunities. So, in a way, because the rest of us have to keep the show fresh, we send him off with wonderful blessings because he's going to go and be challenged again in a new way. Aaron Lazar, who's replacing him, had done a concert of this music with Celia and me two-and-a-half years ago at Lincoln Center when there was no Margaret [and] I sang "Fable." It was supposed to be Audra McDonald at the time, but she couldn't do it, and since I knew all the music, I did [the song]. Celia sang the Clara stuff, and Stephen [Pasquale] was out of town, and so Aaron came in and sang the Fabrizio part. And to me, I remember thinking, "Well, gosh, he's great too!" And then they went on, and I don't know if he was busy or if he auditioned. So, when they brought him in this time, I thought, "Of course, I'm not as scared as I thought I would be." . . . Aaron's going to be fantastic I think. He's really up for it. He's really excited. And that kind of new, fresh ambition may be something really good for the show.

Q: How does it work when they put in a replacement? Do you get much rehearsal time with that person?
O'Hara: No. Matt and I had never met before, so we had five weeks of kind of feeling out chemistry and learning each other and getting to know [one another]. Aaron and I, although we're acquaintances, I'm only going to have one day of rehearsal with him this Friday, and basically we have a put-in and he goes in next Friday night.

Q: I'm a big admirer of Victoria Clark's work. What's it like working with her? You seem to have a very believable relationship onstage.
O'Hara: You know, I would win any "I'm her biggest fan" fight. [Laughs.] The truth is, I've known Vicki for all of these three years that we've been doing [the show], but [before New York I was] playing, not really her contemporary, but Franca and Margaret have this kind of bitter feeling toward love. I didn't play Franca as a middle-aged woman, but in a way, your character kind of leads you to what your social relationships [in the cast] are going to be. And Vicki and I always got along great. That "I'm less than you and I need your help" kind of feeling — we never ventured into that because we didn't have to. I think it was really hard for Vicki to take me on as her daughter, and I think I was really nervous for a few weeks. And then what happened was I grew shorter and shorter, and she grew taller and taller. And, literally, that's how I feel, and I need her so, so much, and she opened her heart and let me in. . . . I'll never have another onstage relationship that's become an offstage relationship like this in my working life. I don't even want to do [the show] without her — she's so wonderful and so fair and so open. And, obviously, she's been unbelievable to me in all the speeches she's made. But it's constant, it's every single day. Not that she's like my mother at all because she's so young. It's more like she's my older sister. But onstage, everything you see, if you believe it, is because it's really there.

Q: Would you say Piazza is the best work experience you've had so far?
O'Hara: Overall because [there have been] so many experiences I've had with it over the years, I would definitely say that. There have been others that I think have been wonderful as well, but overall — learning wise, everything — Piazza has been the most fulfilling.

Q: Going back in time a bit. Where were you born and raised?
O'Hara: I was raised in Oklahoma. I was actually born in Tulsa, but I grew up in a small town on the west side of Oklahoma called Elk City on a farm, where my dad grew up actually. That's where my parents grew up; that's where I grew up.

Q: When did you start singing?
O'Hara: I've been singing since I was nine or ten. We moved away when I was in high school. My dad had gone back to school, so we moved to Oklahoma City, the big city. [Laughs.] I started studying with who is my teacher still at OCU [Oklahoma City University], who was Kristin Chenoweth's teacher. That's why I ended up going to that school because of that teacher, Florence Birdwell.

Q: When do you think you knew that performing would be your career?
O'Hara: I was getting an opera degree. I was going to go to grad school and do all that. What I did was I went to summer stock in college. Everything came a little late to me. I see some of these kids coming to see [Piazza], and they're in high school or college, but they know their track — they know what they're doing. I loved to sing and I loved to act, and I didn't want to continue opera because I wanted to act. I wanted to be in plays. It wasn't until really in college when I was with this teacher who opened my eyes to everything. And, basically, it was one of those risk things. I just said, "I'm packing my bags and I'm moving."

Q: What was your first professional job?
O'Hara: I got the tour of Jekyll and Hyde that then led me back into the Broadway company about four months after I moved here. Before that I did the Downtown Cabaret out in Connecticut and got my Equity card. My first audition was for a little thing up in Sugar Loaf called Something's Afoot. That was my first audition, and I got that role. It was a non-union thing, so I started working pretty quickly. Q: You can belt and you can also sing in your soprano. Do you have a preference? Is one more comfortable for you than the other?
O'Hara: Definitely, the soprano. Like I said, one of the reasons I liked [playing] Franca is it is a soprano role, [and] I'm starting to want to get into that meatier part of my voice. . . . By no means, I can't sing any rock and roll. But [I want to explore] the less airy [part of my voice] . . . as I get older. . . . . I love Audra [McDonald's] singing. She's always going to be legit no matter what she does — she's not a rock-and-roll singer — but she can put some body in there sometimes, and I think that's where I want to be, too.

Q: Is there a difference vocally in Franca and Clara's parts?
O'Hara: Yes. I always felt much heavier with Franca — older, heavier and rounder. With Clara, we worked a long time to lighten my voice up. . . . It's definitely a lighter place for me to sing, but it is a comfortable place. But the older I get, the less I want to be flute-y.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Clara?
O'Hara: It's changed because all the beginning stuff — the happy-go lucky girl, open-minded was really hard for me. But now I'm having fun with her humor where I didn't used to. But I think, for me, the most fun and the most comfortable I am is something like the bedroom scene because that's when she says, "Even though my mind is a little messed up, I can still express myself with you this kind of sexual way" — more like the 18-year-old Clara rather than the 13, 12-year-old Clara. I think the duet — being able to express herself — she doesn't have to talk necessarily. She can just be the most open part of herself, which is when she's with Fabrizio.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
O'Hara: There are three or four workshops, and I'm doing some recordings. There's a Jule Styne recording that PS Classics is doing next month that I'm going to be doing a Doris Day tune on that. It's called "Blame It On My Absent-Minded Heart" and some demo recordings for a couple of new musicals in the works.

Q: How long do you think you'll stay with Piazza?
O'Hara: Right now, we're scheduled to January 1.

[The Light in the Piazza plays the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets.]

DIVA TIDBITS

Cabaret veteran Mary Cleere Haran has been added to the fall line up at Feinstein's at the Regency. The literary chanteuse will perform Lullaby of Broadway: The Harry Warren Songbook Oct. 26-Nov. 5. Haran will offer performances Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8:30 PM with late shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 11 PM. Born Salvadore Guaragna in Brooklyn, Harry Warren became a major composer for Hollywood and Broadway. Among his best-known songs are "Forty-Second Street," "We're in the Money," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Jeepers Creepers," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo," "There Will Never Be Another You," "The More I See You," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," "That's Amore" and "An Affair to Remember." Feinstein's at the Regency is located in New York at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. There is a $60 cover and a $40 minimum. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit www.ticketweb.com.

Tony Award winner Idina Menzel will be one of the many artists featured on the new CD "Music From and Inspired by Desperate Housewives." Billboard.com reported earlier this week that Menzel has recorded "Damsel in Distress" for the CD, which is due in stores Sept. 20 on the Hollywood Records label. Among the many other performers featured on the CD are Shania Twain ("Shoes"), SheDaisy ("God Bless the American Housewife"), Anna Nalick ("Band of Gold"), Liz Phair ("Mother's Little Helper"), Indigo Girls ("Mrs. Robinson"), Martina McBride ("Harper Valley P.T.A."), Leann Rimes ("Running Out of Time"), Joss Stone ("Treat Me Right [I'm Yours for Life]"), Sara Evans ("One's on the Way"), Macy Gray ("Boom Boom"), Gloria Estefan ("Young Hearts Run Free") and k.d. lang ("Dreams of the Everyday Housewife"). The recording also includes dialogue spoken by its leading ladies and Danny Elfman's Housewives "Theme".

Fifteen female directors, designers, composers, actors, playwrights or producers comprise the upcoming season of CUNY-TV's "Women in Theatre." The third season of the acclaimed television series, which spotlights women in the arts, will be hosted by Newsday theatre critic Linda Winer. The new season kicks off Friday, Sept. 9 with an interview with Tony-Award winning actress Angela Lansbury. Each interview will be offered several times: Fridays at 10 AM, 3 PM and 8:30 PM and Sundays at noon. The complete line-up for this year's "Women in Theatre" season follows: Angela Lansbury: Sept. 9 and 11, Joanne Woodward: Sept. 16 and 18, Anna Deavere Smith: Sept. 23 and 25, Jane Greenwood: Sept. 30 and Oct. 2, Anne Bogart: Oct. 7 and 9, Tina Howe: Oct. 14 and 16, Lynn Nottage: Oct. 21 and 23, Peggy Eisenhauer: Oct. 28 and 30, Barbara Cook: Nov. 4 and 6, Jeanine Tesori: Nov. 11 and 13, Ellen Stewart: Nov. 18 and 20, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company (Artistic Director Martha Lavey and actors Joan Allen and Lois Smith): Nov. 25 and 27 and Audra McDonald: Dec. 2 and 4. "Women in Theatre" is produced by Betty Corwin, Ruth Mayleas and Harriet Slaughter. CUNY-TV airs on Channel 75; visit www.cuny.tv for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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