Kelli O’Hara is home from London after completing her first ever West End run, starring in the Lincoln Center Theater production transfer of The King and I. Her portrayal of Anna Leonowens, the British schoolteacher brought to Siam to educate the wives and children of the King, won O’Hara her first Tony Award in 2015 after having been nominated five previous times. Before leaving Britain, O’Hara and her King and I company were filmed live at the London Palladium for global cinema release. The King and I: From The Palladium will be screened in theatres November 29 and December 4. (Click here for information on local screenings and tickets.)
Here, O’Hara talks about her West End debut, her reaction to London audiences, and the London rule she wishes Broadway would adopt:
On simultaneously performing for the stage and the camera:
“This isn’t my first time filming a show,” she notes. “We broadcast South Pacific when I was in it at Lincoln Center. The director both times was Bart Sherr. Bart did change some things in South Pacific because we were on a thrust stage at the Vivian Beaumont [Theatre]. He told us to be a little more subtle, that he was going to come in close on us with the camera. He didn’t do any of that for The King and I. It’s shot full front, from the house, all proscenium, just as if you were there in the audience. I can’t say that I changed a thing.”
On playing for London audiences:
O’Hara brought a discovery from her time abroad. “I loved my time there,” she says. “I loved the London theatre community especially. People say that the audiences in London are different; that they don’t cheer as much, that they don’t stand up. Well, ours did. I didn’t find London audiences that different, honestly, or the London theatre in general.”
On best adjustment she ever made to her pre-show ritual:
“London Equity has a rule for a mandatory warm-up before every show: a physical warm-up and a vocal warm-up for the full company. They’re very strict about it. A lot of American actors go over and just hate it. It changes up your pre-show schedule. But I began to obsessively love it.
“When I did King and I on Broadway, I had a lot of injuries because of the huge, heavy, hooped dresses I had to wear. In London I had not one injury. In fact, I felt better than I have for a long time. That warm-up rule made a big difference for me. It changed my experience of the show. I loved that it forces you into a better routine for your body and your voice. I also loved that it forces you to spend time with your cast. Anna can be a lonely role. I was almost always onstage, and when I wasn’t on the stage, everyone else was. Offstage, I was stuck in a hoop and couldn’t roam the hallways. I found those warm-ups to be my gathering time with my company.
“Our conductor, the musical director, would step into it and run a very serious vocal warmup. Whether you think it’s all working for you, or not, you learn after a while that it is. Your voice is stronger, you have a cleaner show, vocally, and, God, my back and my ankles were in really good shape.
On her upcoming turn in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Kiss Me, Kate on Broadway:
“We start rehearsals in January,” she says. “I don’t usually do a revival against a revival; I like to jump into something else that is very different, but that’s how it has worked out. I’m excited. Kiss Me, Kate is a big, old musical comedy—very different from King and I. I’ll have a bit more social life backstage. And the costumes will be way more comfortable.”