After Stepping into the Shoes of Nellie Forbush and Mrs. Anna, Kelli O’Hara Learned a Heavy Lesson

News   After Stepping into the Shoes of Nellie Forbush and Mrs. Anna, Kelli O’Hara Learned a Heavy Lesson
The Tony winner talked about realizing the darker side of these legacy roles in a BroadwayCon panel that also boasted multiple Tony nominees Danny Burstein, Judy Kuhn, and Celia-Keenan Bolger (who discussed their own challenges).
HR - Kelli O'Hara 2.jpg
Kelli O'Hara

The January 27 Legacy Roles panel at BroadwayCon featured four performers who boast a collective 41 Broadway shows and 19 Tony Award nominations: Danny Burstein, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Judy Kuhn, and Kelli O’Hara. Each performer has taken on a role (or roles) made famous by scores of other performers on Broadway.

When asked which of their roles had changed them, O’Hara, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Anna Leonowens in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of The King and I, brought up her turn as Ensign Nellie Forbush in South Pacific.

“I was just thinking about where we are right now in the world…” she started. “When you think about South Pacific, you think about this bubbly, funny ‘Honey Bun,’ and that’s what everyone always knew about it. Most people don’t even know what it’s about. I became this obvious blonde-headed, white-girl vessel for what racism can look like.”

O’Hara spoke of her family in Arkansas, who would call her “their Nellie Forbush” and tell her that they loved the character. “[I would think], ‘Don’t you know what Nellie Forbush stands for?’” she recalled, thinking of the racist connotations of a blinded young ingenue in the South Pacific.

Playing the role, O’Hara says, “was a huge opening for me, not growing up in a metropolitan area, or anything like that. [There is] a denial of things that are different, so that you don’t have to open up and be passionate. I felt differently than all of that, and that started something within me that allowed me to be a vessel. I feel so strongly about that change.”

Kuhn, who recently played two Broadway matriarchs—Helen Bechdel in Fun Home and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof—in succession, believes that it is important to shed the emotional weights that darker characters tend to leave actors with. “I try to leave it all at the theatre,” she explained, “but there’s a certain amount that you carry with you around in your head.”

Burstein, who recently starred as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, says the role changed the way he sees the world, as well as the way he approaches roles; he takes the weight with him.

In terms of the legacy of Tevye, Burstein knew he would star in the production for over a year before the show opened, so he researched other actors’ portrayals of Anatevka’s milkman. Rather than mimicking their energy, however, he “learned it all and then threw it all away. I wore [these men] on my back, in a backpack,” he said, “but I tried as much as possible to start at the very beginning and make it as honest as possible.”

Keenan-Bolger agreed with Burstein on the subject of taking familiar roles in new directions, but disagreed about watching past performances and listening to cast recordings. “So often, half of the rehearsal process is getting yourself out of being scared and feeling like you’re going to disappoint [people who remember previous productions],” she said. She also mentioned that while some moments in shows are iconic and must be kept the same, a good director would never make actors do something they aren’t comfortable with just for nostalgia’s sake.

Regardless of their stances on how to take on established roles or new roles, the actors shared similar views when it came to discussing how they would like to be remembered. “When I was 17, I thought, ‘All I want to do is do good work and have the respect of my peers,’” said Burstein. “I want to be one of the people who did the work and really made things happen.”


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