DIVA TALK: Four-Time Tony Nominee Kelli O'Hara Chats About Far From Heaven and Broadway Return

By Andrew Gans
21 Jun 2013

O'Hara with Steven Pasquale in Far From Heaven.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: I actually think it’s one of your best performances.
O’Hara: Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate that. I think [Cathy is] a really interesting person—she’s not as much of a heroine. She’s not [that] kind of leading lady, [which] is the challenge of her, in a movie or a musical, but especially a musical. I think for a 2013 audience, people want to see this woman, who's balls to the wall, and has a lot to say and a lot of certainty. The thing about her that’s hard and fun to play is her absolute kind of vulnerability, and finding things that she doesn’t start [the show] with. That’s really good to play with, so I think the material, without the film, gave me all that.

Question: How much changed from Williamstown to New York? And, are changes still being made?
O’Hara: We can’t really make changes anymore, although I think that we could every day with this, only because you discover it’s so layered. Obviously, we're talking about not just one love story – some musicals have only one thing – this has several different layers of really important, big stuff. We made a lot of changes I feel from Williamstown just as far as structure… Even though it’s 1957 and there’s this kind of person that a lot of us can’t identity with anymore – this wife of an alcoholic, this woman who’s really kind of more concerned with the way things seem than the way things are, which is not really someone who I think I am – but we also needed her to be someone who a person, a woman in today’s world, could identity with or feel for. So I told them I felt very strongly that the ending needed to have some sort of hope. She’s entering the 1960s, she’ll be a single mother soon after the story ends, and we need to believe that she’s gonna have a little bit of a backbone to take her children into it, and she also had more of a liberal idea about things. She didn’t have a problem with the black gardener, the way everyone in the whole story did. I discovered very quickly that you had to play her a little naïve and vulnerable in order to have her be understood, but then the ending has to have a little hope. So we changed the structure of the ending a lot. We didn’t have the train station [in Williamstown], we didn’t have the last song, we didn’t have really the music of hope at the end. We added a lot of those things; we also took out a lot of the more musical theatre-y fun songs that were in there. I think the creators decided that they didn't need to apologize for the story, we just needed to tell it. I really admired them for that because they said, "Let’s just tell the story the way it needs to be told." So they took out anything that seemed small and trivial.

O'Hara and Nancy Anderson
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: As you mentioned, so much of it is musicalized, but I found some of my favorite moments are when two of the characters are just speaking. As an actor, do you enjoy the moments where you’re just talking?
O’Hara: Yeah, you know that’s the funny thing. Again, I go back to the first things I did in my [performing] life, in college, right out of college, doing these things that were more sung-through, I would say more artsy maybe. At first it was the through-sung passages that I remembered familiarly and said, "Oh, this is nice." But now it’s the moments where we stop. Because of the through-sung nature of it, the heightened nature of it, when we do stop and talk, I do feel those are extremely important and I really enjoy them and kind of look forward to them.

Question: I think the relationships are so strong—they’re very believable, between you and Nancy Anderson’s character, and you and Raymond, the gardener. Did you work a lot on them or did that chemistry just happen?
O’Hara: Nancy and I have gotten to work on it for [awhile]—we did Williamstown together as well. I think she and I have a very similar sensibility, kind of as if this isn’t our first life. [Laughs.] This isn’t our first trip to the rodeo here. We have the same sort of sensibility as far as the old-fashioned ways, the women who raised us, so I think there’s an understanding there of what we’re doing and what we’re playing. She would understand Cathy Whitaker just as much as I understand Eleanor, which is to say we both understand each other’s character very much. Not that we’d be proud to understand those characteristics, but we do. So that’s something that I have to admit kind of came easy with Nancy and me, and I’m very very grateful for that. I’ve enjoyed working with her so much. Isaiah is new this time. Brandon Victor Dixon played it at Williamstown, and it’s very interesting because they’re extremely different in both wonderful good ways. Isaiah, what I’ve found with him, I've really enjoyed the kind of chemistry that I feel like we have. He’s very easy to get to know, he’s very open, and…I think he lived in the South for a while, [so] he understands what he's doing, the man he's playing, even though it’s Hartford. Sometimes I think you have to grow up in the South in the eighties to know what the fifties were like in Hartford. [Laughs.] And I think he did, although he’s from Alaska, he did have some time in the South. I’ve really enjoyed his strength. First of all, he’s very handsome and a very strong man, and that is appealing to me as an actress and also as Cathy because there’s a bit of her that needs a lot of something to lean on during the show.