"I have no connection to the worm," said Kelli O'Hara laughing. The Broadway leading lady inspired a great deal of laughter (and a few raised eyebrows) when, during her acceptance speech at the June 7 Tony Awards, declared, "I'm going to do the worm!" as she danced off the stage at Radio City Music Hall.
"I don't know why it popped up, but I was so elated and so happy that I started dancing, and I said, 'I'm going to do the worm!'" O'Hara said, explaining that, when recently asked if she had any special talents, she shared that she can do the worm. "I have no fascination with the worm; it has no connection to me. It was just one of those things that when you don't write a speech, it comes out of your mouth and you think, 'Why did I say that?'"
O'Hara's Tony victory, for her performance as Anna Leonowens in The King and I, came after 15 years working on Broadway and five previous nominations. She made her debut in Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde and went on to appear in Follies, Sweet Smell of Success and Dracula the Musical before receiving her first nomination for the role of Clara in Adam Guettell's The Light in the Piazza. Subsequent nominations followed for The Pajama Game, South Pacific, Nice Work If You Can Get It and The Bridges of Madison County.
O'Hara described June 7 as a "heavy" day as well as one of the busiest she can remember. After arriving at the theatre at 7 AM, she and her cast prepared hair and makeup to be at Radio City for a dress rehearsal, before returning to Lincoln Center for a matinee performance of the three-hour musical. She then prepared for the Tony Awards red carpet.
"I went from the Anna wig and makeup and costume to red carpet four times," O'Hara said. "Back and forth. It was one of those days when I kept thinking, 'At midnight I'll have made it through.' In a good way. There's excitement to it, too, but there's also a lot of fatigue...It kind of feels surreal, the whole day. It kind of exploded with the win."
As the awards ceremony approached, O'Hara said she kept telling herself, "Don't be upset." But when her name was announced, she said, "I think I was really, really surprised. I was elated. I kind of lost my mind, I was so excited."
"I thought about them all the way up until this," she said of her fellow nominees and sharing how honored she felt to be in the same category as them. "You want to pay the respect. If I had written [a speech] down I would have been hopefully very eloquent about it, but I was just talking off the top of my head. But every single year I've ever been nominated, that's happening. There's things that go on that are hugely Tony-worthy. If you walk away feeling guilty about winning or just try to celebrate it... it's probably only happening once for you."
Sometimes referred to as the Susan Lucci of Broadway, O'Hara said she had grown accustomed to being nominated but not winning, but she longed for a victory to thank and recognize people in her life and career, especially her parents.
"I've gotten to used to losing, and, actually, for me and my career it's OK. But my parents — they're so wonderful and have supported me my whole life. I want to make them proud. All my friends back home [are asking], 'When's she going to win one?' I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm going to be fine but I don't want to have to feel badly again.'" Along with her parents, O'Hara also recognized Florence Birdwell, her voice teacher, and her siblings and husband in an impassioned speech that, she said, was not prepared. For each of her nominations, she has never written anything in advance.
Must See! Kelli O'Hara, Ken Watanabe and Company in Positively Regal New Shots From The King and I
"I didn't want to do that to my own heart. I didn't want to make a big speech on paper that I might not ever get to say, that I had labored over and dreamed about making with lots of emotion and heart — about what I would say to my teacher, my parents, my husband. But if I had written it down, I might not have gotten to say it. And that's worse for me than letting the chips fall where they may. I just figured if it did happen, that it would come from my heart."
Following the awards, O'Hara immediately became sick and was unable to perform in The King and I for several days. "I can't even explain how I feel except to say my body was so shocked and surprised and relieved after 15 years and 10 years of kind of trying, that I immediately got the flu."
In the ten years she has been been receiving Tony nominations, O'Hara's reaction to the process and recognition has evolved and changed, she said, depending on the show she was performing in or the role she was playing.
"They've all felt very different," she said. "When I got the nomination for The Light in the Piazza, I was so dumbfounded and elated to even have a nomination. I can honestly say that I didn't have any preconceived notions of winning. When I was doing my first role for Sweet Smell of Success I didn't even think about being nominated. I know that's weird. I think it feels differently these days."
When she first moved to New York, O'Hara said, she did not have a heightened awareness of the awards and only focused on her work. Recalling the night of her first Tony Awards, she said, "By the time that first one came, that was the thrill — just being nominated — I remember having so much fun and being on cloud nine just being there. The pictures of after the Tony Awards, after losing, I've never looked so happy in all my life."
Looking back at her past nominations, O'Hara said they were all exciting, but, "there was the expectation of winning and the desire to win that started happening." She said there were years when she knew she wouldn't win — ("It would have been ridiculous to want to win over Audra's Porgy and Bess!") and she could relax and enjoy the night. But the 2014 Tony Awards, when she was nominated for The Bridges of Madison County, was a year she described as "painful."
"I loved my role in Bridges so very much as far as how it made me feel to play it," she said. "And I wondered if I would ever have that feeling again. Those are the types of things you want to win for. You want to win for a performance you think matches your emotions and where you are in life. The show closed as well, so it was a painful year. They're all really different. They've gone back and forth. But sometimes I wish I could go back and just feel what it felt like to want to be invited to the party at all."
Read O'Hara's thoughts on the role of Anna in The King and I, along with co-stars Ruthie Ann Miles and Ashley Park, here. Reflecting on the competitive aspect of awards within the theatre community, O'Hara shared that she has matured to a place where she can honestly say she can be glad someone else won instead of her. But, she added, she didn't want to win simply because she had been nominated so many times in the past.
"There's a part of me that didn't want to win this year just because I've been nominated six times," she said. "I'm really sensitive to that.
"You have to be in a certain place in your life to ever say that, and with full honesty, I'm there," she added. "I saw Jessie [Mueller, who won for starring in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical] in her show last year and thought she was brilliant. There was a part of me that was like, 'Let's all be fair here and be smart.' I think anybody with any bit of ego... Actors, boy, we've got it. We want to win."
With 15 years of work on Broadway behind her, O'Hara's said her relationship with competition has evolved as she has matured. "I think that competition is a very different thing when you're young. It should be," she said. "We're here to do something, and we're climbing a ladder and we're looking around us. We haven't quite made our spot yet, so we don't know quite what that is yet, so we're looking at other people and assessing our own abilities against them. Competition is healthy as long as you do it right and let it move you."
Reflecting on her friendships with her coworkers in the industry, O'Hara shared her pride in the relationships, emphasizing the importance of recognizing differences between people.
"We look at each other and see our differences and know that's what makes us individuals as opposed to being the ones that always beat each other out of other roles and stuff like that. But that takes time. I would be really miserable if I was still that kind of competitive person who let that kind of stuff get in the way of my happiness... One of the things you start to learn as you get older is there's a time and a place. You start to know what your place is and start to see how your differences help you... You want to do the things that are right for you and the right time for you. You want to win a Tony when it's the right time and not at the expense of someone else when they really deserve it. That's the hard part about this."
Following her victory at the Tonys, O'Hara honored her promise: two days later, back in her dressing room at Lincoln Center, she did, in fact, do the worm (in full costume) — and filmed it to share with her fans on Twitter.
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)