It’s been quite the year-and-a-half for Kelli O’Hara. She opened The King and I in April 2015, won a Tony Award that June and played her final performance as Anna Leonowens this past April.
“It was heartbreaking and beautiful and full,” she says of her final night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. It’s been about three months since leaving her Tony-winning turn behind, and things have settled down a bit (even though she’s kept busy with readings and concerts for causes that she’s passionate about).
“I really think that experience was really personal on just a cast-and-crew kind of level more than anything,” she continues. It was expected that she’d recreate her performance in the London production of King and I, but she says that plans have been put on hold and the production was “put off,” although she and her Tony-nominated co-star Ken Watanabe would “love to do it.”
So looking back, “It was a great year, and it was a great show, and it was a great role and unbelievable. But the biggest thing I did was really get attached to the people, so that last day, they did an entire thing where they surprised me before [the show] and had changed all the words to a song and sang it to me, and all the little kids had little solos. Before the show even started, I had bawled buckets. It was one of those days where it was just really heavy and, I don’t know, just beautiful. I miss those people every day.”
But before O’Hara had what seems to be the most career-defining year to date—finally taking home the Tony after five nominations—she was hard at work, trying to make her way into the business much like any other actor or actress with Broadway dreams.
“I do remember that experience,” she recalls, “and I’ve talked about it over and over again, when I auditioned for Sweet Smell of Success—that feeling of, ‘I know that this is mine. I know that I should be here auditioning for you. Please see me. Please see me.’”
When she auditioned for Sweet Smell of Success, she was in tech for Follies. Her lunch break at Follies was the same time the creative team at the Sweet Smell audition were taking lunch. But she still went in hopes of getting seen. She knocked on the door and though the pianist wasn’t there, someone offered to play. When the tempo was too slow, she snapped a bit at the piano player to pick it up. Little did she know that it was the composer himself, Marvin Hamlisch, who played for her. But she still scored the role.
“It was the only time I’d ever done anything like that with great passion—really begged for what I felt I should have—because I always was assuming that the other person was right,” she continues. “This is when I was younger, and I was green and scared. If I can say anything [to aspiring actors]—and I do say this when I’m teaching master classes—it’s to ask for what you really want. If you go in, and you really feel like there’s more that you could say, almost everybody that I know and respect as a director or a casting person—the people who I really know are looking for the best thing, not the ones who are just trying to churn you in and out and don’t want to listen, but the ones who are actually looking for something special… If you said to them, ‘Let me sing more for you’ or ‘Let me go on,’ or go on without asking is another option. Just tell the pianist… Go over there and whisper, ‘Just keep playing. Let me tell my story.’ I guarantee you, if you’re trying to connect with them and you do, and you feel like you can, they’re not going to stop you.
“They want someone to walk in that room that day and move them. They want it. They’re so tired of listening to a million big, huge screams with no heart behind it. They would actually love it if someone would come and make them look up. If you really, truly know that you had a passion to move here, to drop everything in your life, to leave your family, to do everything—then you have to fight for it, and you have to say, ‘I need a few more bars.’ Maybe you don’t say it, maybe you just try to take it. Then, if they don’t let you, you say, ‘I have a story to tell, and I would love for you all to listen to it.’ They may say no, and then that day it didn’t work, but I swear to you, it’s going to work. For me, it would have worked with the people I wanted to work with anyway—the ones who love storytelling.”
O’Hara is a passionate storyteller. She’s also passionate about making change through art, having been active in concerts and videos ranging from Arts for Autism to Broadway for Orlando.
“I was talking to somebody who works on Waitress just the other day. It was actually my dresser, Fran [Curry],” she says. “She had just gone out to march before the show, and then she was on the train when [the shooting in] Dallas happened. I just said to her, ‘Just remember today that we have a job where you go and people come in and for two-and-a-half hours they get to forget—just for a second.’ The victims of these [tragedies] can’t just forget, but if anybody can at least take a moment to see the other sides of life that aren’t that bad right now… I think art is that. It’s an escape.
“Also, if we are artists, I think it’s our duty to use our art in a way that makes people think, and some people use their art to really challenge people…. I just try to embrace the fact that I think I was meant to help with the ‘escape’ because I want to make people feel better. It’s why I sing. If I can sing to make people think about life in a more positive way, or if I can sing to help raise funds or awareness for a certain good cause, then that’s my duty. I’m glad to be making a living, and that could have easily not happened, and it’s not about that. Especially, when you do well, you need to give back. And I love that. I love singing for a purpose. I don’t ever want to sing for any other reason, especially now that I’m older, I only want to sing when it’s for a purpose—to change. What’s happened in the last week is so disheartening and so devastating. It’s scary. We’re in a scary moment in our country with how we’re going to change—if it’s even possible. Sometimes I feel defeated by this idea of how we’re going to get out of this rut. I just did a concert in North Carolina two nights ago, and I just said at the end of it, ‘It’s been a big week, and we have to take the moments where we remember that it’s not all bad,’ so that we can keep looking forward and find those moments of equality.”