Florence Gillam Birdwell must be all a-flutter this year. The professor of voice at the Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University could have her two prize students Tony-contending for Best Actress in a Musical: Kristin Chenoweth of Broken Arrow, OK for On the Twentieth Century, and Kelli O'Hara of Elk City, OK for The King and I.
Chenoweth has won once, but O'Hara, after five nominations, remains a bridesmaid.
That fact—plus the additional fact that three of her five nominated performances were helmed by Barlett Sher (The King and I would be four) — gives O'Hara a slight edge.
Sher and O'Hara met on the road to Broadway in Seattle. The Light in the Piazza tried out there at the Intiman where he was artistic director. It was a troubled landing so he took over the direction of the musical from book writer Craig Lucas when it moved to Chicago's Goodman. Just prior to Broadway, he upgraded O'Hara from the subsidiary sister-in-law role to the focal part of the mentally beclouded daughter — a smart move that earned them both Tony nominations. Their respective stars have been on the ascent ever since, occasionally crossing for more Tony commotion (South Pacific, The Bridges of Madison County and, now, The King and I). After the South Pacific success, Lincoln Center Theatre's artistic director, Andre Bishop, was keen on reviving The King and I, but Sher opted to wait. "The idea of waiting seven years and growing into the piece was a good one," Sher contends.
"A lot happened in the meantime. Unlike what happened with The King and I, when there was never a question who would play Anna, Kelli had to actually audition for South Pacific, which she never lets me forget. But it was a different time, and we were also trying to put together a couple in that way." (Among the mix-and-match: Victoria Clark, who won a Tony as O'Hara's concerned mom in Piazza and whose Texas accent reminded Bishop of Mary Martin and spurred South Pacific's reprise.)
With The King and I, as with South Pacific, Sher is working with a clean slate. "I don't know the show," O'Hara admits matter-of-factly, "I've never seen a production of it, and I've never seen the movie. I read the script for the first time in August with Bart. I grew up with almost all the Rodgers and Hammerstein things that I felt were the right types for me. I didn't know this when I was growing up. Now that I look back it was The Sound of Music, Carousel, Oklahoma! It wasn't South Pacific — I never really knew South Pacific before I did it — and it wasn't The King and I, so I didn't know I was that much of an obvious choice. In fact, I'm still not sure what makes me the obvious choice. We never know how we're perceived."
Sher gives an understanding nod. "I think you grow into these roles as you mature. The difference with someone like Kelli is she has all the technical chops to play any leading role — plus skills that give her the capacity to play a lot of different colors — a lot of other kinds of roles no one would expect. She has a sense of playfulness and of comedy, for instance. If it were a Shakespeare, you could cast her as Olivia in Twelfth Night. She has versatility and a thirst to do different stuff, and that's just fun."
O'Hara receives this like music to her ears (maybe it's "Something Wonderful") and smiles. "This is why I work with Barlett Sher. He makes me feel like an artist."
As befits Broadway's Golden Girl, she has cherry-picked her roles well and been seen in New York, in various lengths of time, in The Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing, My Fair Lady, the aforementioned R&Hs and only missed doing their Sound of Music because she was otherwise engaged at the Imperial in Nice Work If You Can Get It.
After The King and I, what's left to wish for? "I don't have a role I've always thought, 'Gosh, I have to play that.' In fact, with this one, as we're going into it, I sit there in the rehearsal room and think, 'I really want to play this role.' I didn't know that till someone like Bart, who knows me inside and out, says, 'You'll be great doing this.'" Is her eye out for another role? "That's always a hard question for me because I don't really know something till it hits me in the head. There's nothing I'm reaching out and looking forward to. The only thing I've said publicly that appeals to me at some point in my life is to try on the mother role in The Light in the Piazza — only because that show is so deep in my heart. Every single inch of it I feel like I know."