Kelli Meets Nellie

Kelli Meets Nellie Kelli O'Hara stars as Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center Theater's new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific.
Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot in rehearsal.
Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot in rehearsal. Photo by Joan Marcus

*

It was inevitable — kismet, even — that Kelli O'Hara would meet up with Nellie Forbush in 2008, given the iconic singing damsels who crossed her path during the 2006–2007 season.

In June of '06, she ended an SRO run as Babe Williams, the feisty union rep in amorously close proximity to Management (hunky Harry Connick, Jr.), in The Pajama Game. The next June she went home for her Sooner State centennial to play another Williams — Laurey — in Oklahoma! In between, for four glorious My Fair Ladys in March with the New York Philharmonic, she hit a pristine high-C as a pitch-perfect, letter-perfect Eliza Doolittle.

What, I ask you, could follow that? Clearly, only that sailor-suited honey bun and all-round cockeyed optimist from Little Rock, A.R.K. — little Nellie/Kelli. That O'Hara snagged this is all the more miraculous since South Pacific, a staple in summer stock and "the provinces," hasn't been back to Broadway in 59 years — not since Mary Martin suited up for the Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II–Joshua Logan Pulitzer Prize winner.

Not to put undue pressure on the revival that Bartlett Sher brought to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, but it's the only Broadway show ever to win Tonys in all four acting categories: O'Hara, Paulo Szot, Danny Burstein and a debuting Loretta Ables Sayre have inherited the roles that were winners for Martin, Ezio Pinza, Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall. O'Hara takes these giant steps in logical stride: "I feel my work's autobiographical because everything I do leads up to the next thing. I did The Light in the Piazza, which was very ingenue-y. Then I did Babe, which is very me — even though the voice wasn't, necessarily. Babe was not a soprano, and I was belting. If you're spunky, it means you're a belter in musical-theatre lore, and if you're sweet and innocent, then you're a soprano.

"I've spent my whole career singing beautiful soprano things and not having any strength in my character, but it all came together with Eliza — soprano and spunk. I never felt more alive than when I played her. Singing a high note with force is so different from floating up to that note. She's the best musical-theatre role ever written for a woman — at least, for me. If they do it here anytime soon, I'll do whatever I have to do to do it.

Kelli O'Hara as Nellie Forbush
photo by Joan Marcus

"Nellie is vulnerable but with spunk. The soprano's missing, but I don't mind since she's softer than Babe. Babe was a bit of a blowhard, being head of the grievance committee, but she had gusto. Nellie's not head nurse. Nellie is the knucklehead. The nurses call her Knucklehead Nellie. They think she's green so she gets to be Ingenue-Meets-Strength."

Then there's that little bigotry blemish of Nellie's, which becomes inflamed because she can't quite wrap her head around the idea that the widowed French plantation owner she loves has Polynesian children. "What we did was go back to Josh Logan's original 1948 script. Anything that made us cringe we put into the 1949 script that we're using. When Emile tells me his wife was Polynesian, I say, 'She was colored.' Little things like that, added back in, help build the world they were living in at that time — a world of segregated barracks. Everyone felt that way, and Nellie's part of it, but she's the one who moves on."

O'Hara personalized the part by basing it on her maternal grandmother. "Mimi was from Arkansas — blonde, spunky, naïve. She wasn't a nurse, but she had that 'You've Got To Be Carefully Taught' problem, having grown up with servants in the house. I think of her as Nellie. When you see someone in a role, you put yourself into it and say, 'I know that person.' You can piece together emotions that are foreign. Like the race issue — that's a challenge for me. It's a part of Nellie that's hard."

One new addition is "My Girl Back Home," a song cut from the show but restored in the movie. It finally allows Nellie a duet — with a homesick soldier (Matthew Morrison).

"I don't know if people know this, but Mary Martin didn't want to sing with Pinza. He had such a powerful voice, and hers was very small. It was in her contract that they would never sing at the same time, so they have no duets in the show, which they should have."

Her research on the role goes well beyond being in love with a wonderful guy — she has been Mrs. Greg Naughton for eight months, with blissfully no end in sight (hey! it helps).

"Bart had us do what he called 'The South Pacific Institute,' where we met with World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans and Iraq veterans. I read a book about nurses in World War II and, of course, James Michener's 'Tales of the South Pacific.' One chapter is called 'Our Heroine' and talks at length about Nellie, and she surfaces in other parts, but they're short snippets of things. They kinda pieced things together to make a story line."

So what musical-theatre mountain could follow South Pacific? O'Hara's level head does not swell one iota at the question. "What people will allow me to do," she replies simply.

"I want to do things I'm supposed to do, for me, to keep growing. I'm not worrying about what I can possibly find to top this. I've got my record coming out in May ["Wonder in the World," with her Pajama Game partner, Connick, for accompanist]. Some touring or some concertizing would be a great thing for me to do until the next right thing comes along. And, at some point, you have to have a personal life, too. What follows this is a little more dedication to my life and my marriage. Then we'll see what comes next . . ."