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InDepth InterView: Kelli O'Hara Talks NY Pops Holiday Concert, THE KING & I Revival, PETER PAN LIVE!, THE MERRY WIDOW At The Met, THE MUSIC MAN On NBC? & More


Today we are talking to one of Broadway's biggest and brightest stars all about her incredibly busy year and impossibly packed schedule coming up for the rest of 2014 and the start of 2015 - the winsome and angelic Kelli O'Hara. Offering a generous tease of her upcoming Carnegie Hall holiday concert spectacular alongside fellow InDepth InterView participant Matthew Morrison and the NY Pops in KELLI & MATTHEW: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, O'Hara reflects on some of her favorite Christmas memories and shares some of her favorite holiday selections while commenting on the notable rapport shared between herself and Morrison, previously having co-starred in the Lincoln Center Theater productions of THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and SOUTH PACIFIC. Furthermore, O'Hara offers us a behind the scenes perspective on starring in NBC's recent entertainment extravaganza PETER PAN LIVE! and her thoughts on the unique production process as well as performing in the live telecast itself and introducing new material into the hallowed score for the show specifically for the broadcast. Additionally, O'Hara opens up about her leading role in the hotly anticipated forthcoming revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's vaunted THE KING & I, to be directed by her frequent collaborator Bartlett Sher, and sheds some light on what preparations are currently underway in taking on the iconic role of Anna while positing her own insights into the complex character in the historically-informed story. All of that, first news on appearing in the Tom Hanks tribute as part of this year's Kennedy Center Honors, reflections on THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY on Broadway and on disc, whether she would consider playing Marian in NBC's recently announced live TV production of THE MUSIC MAN, her courageous fund-raising for a cancer-stricken friend and much, much more!

More information on KELLI & MATTHEW: HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS with the NY Pops on December 19 & 20 is available at the official site here.

Only Pretend

PC: Have you and Matthew Morrison stayed in contact since SOUTH PACIFIC prior to this week's NY Pops Christmas concert?

KO: Oh, yeah! We've stayed in touch - we definitely do. He and his wife, Renee, came to see BRIDGES last Spring and we run into each other and text each other here and there. I just love him. We have had such a great time in the past. You know, we kind of came into the world as babies together in PIAZZA and you never forget that kind of experience. We're close and it's going to be so much fun to do this stuff onstage with him. It's just a really fun, crowd-pleasing - hopefully - night of Christmas music. Hopefully, it's a win-win for Matt and I and the audience.

PC: Will there be any musical theatre moments?

KO: Well, we're not going to do a lot because I think they want it to primarily be a holiday concert, but Matt and I have done "Tonight" from WEST SIDE STORY as kind of our signature duet throughout the years, so we didn't want to leave without at least doing that one. But, besides that, we are going to keep it pretty holiday-oriented.

PC: Matt's 2013 Christmas EP is magnificent. Will you be doing any selections from that?

KO: Yes, we are - we are doing a couple of things from that; we made a duet out of one of the things on that, I know.

PC: What song are you looking forward to performing most?

KO: Well, one of the big things that I am doing with the orchestra and the choir is "O Holy Night" which is kind of a big, huge number. We are going to be doing lots of different things, though - and the Pops is going to be playing stuff, too; and the choir, too. There will be a Christmas sing-a-long and other things. We are doing a fun "Let It Snow!", too.

PC: You are now a co-chair for the NY POPS ED, as well, is that correct?

KO: Yes. I am a co-chair for the POPS ED program and I am on the board for the Pops. They asked me several years ago now to be a part of it and I am as involved as I can be and I love what they do. I love the outreach that they have to schools and how they bring kids in to see the shows and everything. They have these different programs where they really get kids listening to and watching and hearing and doing things that they never would get the opportunity to do. They also have a partnership with the Ronald McDonald House, which is very important for some of those kids. When you have things that you are doing that you feel good about it makes for a brighter existence, I say.

PC: It certainly plays into your character in THE KING & I, as well. How many dozens of children are in the new production?

KO: [Laughs.] I know! I've never worked with that many kids before. Actually, the kid playing my son in THE KING & I played my older son in PETER PAN and played my son in FAR FROM HEAVEN already, so...

PC: Did you have any say in that?

KO: [Laughs.] I should get him written into my contract!

PC: As a prime Rodgers & Hammerstein interpreter, I'm curious to know your thoughts on "My Favorite Things" from THE SOUND OF MUSIC becoming part of the holiday music canon?

KO: Oh, "My Favorite Things"! I think so. You know, it's funny you ask that, though, because a lot of families have Christmas traditions and one of mine growing up was always to watch THE SOUND OF MUSIC - even though it's not a Christmas show. So, whenever I hear a song from that show, it reminds me a little of Christmas. Actually, "My Favorite Things" is one of the very first songs I ever sang in my life - when I was like 10!

PC: So, would you consider playing Maria someday?

KO: [Big Laugh.] Well, that role is the reason I am here! Julie Andrews is such a big part of why I sing. Honestly - and, unfortunately - it's the one Rodgers & Hammerstein role that has gotten away that I have never gotten to play.

PC: SOUTH PACIFIC, CAROUSEL, THE KING & I... maybe somebody?

KO: All of them except that one! Maybe someday, though... maybe in a huge house where the age won't matter! [Laughs.]

PC: Do you have any holiday traditions you maintain in NYC? Will you be going home for the holidays or is it impossible with the Met schedule for THE MERRY WIDOW?

KO: Oh, I would go home every year if I could, but I very seldom get to, unfortunately. What my family does, which is amazing: you see, my mom is a huge Christmas freak; she's the kind of person who just plans and loves it and has multiple trees, so, whenever I can make it home in January or February or November or whatever, she is one of those people who will have another Christmas then just for me.

PC: How wonderful. So, will the songs in the NY Pops concert be mainly traditional holiday songs?

KO: It's very traditional - yes. I love the traditional stuff, though, and that's what I think the Pops prefers to do for their holiday concerts. The arrangements are really special and different in many ways, though, too. So, I think it is going to make people feel very warm and homey and have great memories, but at the same time it will be interesting, too.

PC: "Only Pretend" is such a gorgeous song and such an astute addition to the score for PETER PAN LIVE! How did those additional moments in the score arise?

KO: Oh, my God! I know. When I first heard it, I just thought, "What is this melody?!" So, Amanda [Green] told me about it - having been this song from DO RE MI and her writing new lyrics for it.

PC: Another Jule Styne gem.

KO: You know what, though, honestly, I was so shocked and surprised by the additions - I was just happy to be there!

PC: An unexpected bonus moment.

KO: Then, they started saying, "Well, we're going to get a couple more moments in for you." Originally, since Mrs. Darling sometimes plays the older Wendy in stage productions, I thought that might be what they meant, so I said, "Well, what is it that she will be doing?" Of course, on TV, it wouldn't work, naturally - because they would see my face and know that I am Mrs. Darling; onstage you can sometimes get away with that kind of stuff.

PC: Suspension of disbelief, too.

KO: Right. So, the fact that they actually added songs for me really made me feel like a bigger part and that I was still attached to the story when I came back in that one moment for the lovely duet that I got to do with Taylor [Louderman]. They really threw me some nice bones and I really appreciated it so much.

PC: The opening scene has the most dialogue of the whole show, so it is a bit of a challenge to get the proceedings off and running. Did you find that tricky at all? Plus, of course, you sing the first song.

KO: Right! Right. It's kind of like SOUTH PACIFIC like that - nobody knows that the curtain opens and you have, like, this literally 20-minute scene!

PC: A bit surprising for a musical.

KO: It's just full-on talking, talking, talking - and, then, you know, "Some Enchanted Evening" happens. But, first, it's just talking - you wonder at first if it works, but I think it really does because it gets people into the show and asks them to start paying attention from the very, very beginning.

PC: Had you seen the Mary Martin or Cathy Rigby versions prior to joining PETER PAN LIVE!?

KO: No. My mother, actually, remembered watching it as a child - she and her brother are both in their 60s and they were so excited when I told them I was going to be doing it. They said, "Oh! I remember as a kid seeing this!" But, I had never seen it. People talked about it a lot, of course. I need to go and watch it - I just haven't seen them.

PC: How did you become involved with PETER PAN LIVE! in the first place? Did Craig Zadan and Neil Meron seek you out?

KO: I just got a phone call - and it's so lovely to have that happen. I was so grateful and moved by that.

PC: At nearly 10 million, more people saw you in one night in PETER PAN LIVE! than all the audiences in all the performances of all your many Broadway shows combined.

KO: I know! Christian Borle put it in perspective, too - he said that last year when they did THE SOUND OF MUSIC they did the math and figured out that if they did the show at a big house like the Gershwin - a 2000-seat house - and it ran 8 times a week and was fully sold-out it would still take 15 years to get the same viewership as that one night.

PC: Unbelievable.

KO: That humbles you a bit - it definitely does. When you're in theatre, you might think, "Oh, lots of people saw me," but that's nothing compared to one night on TV.

PC: Considering it was live, did you still have the same excited feelings or slight trepidation as you would before a live performance in the theatre, even with no actual audience in the studio?

KO: You know, I think it was a little bit less than I would have with an audience - there is a sort of jittery high that you get when you hear the audience rustling about out there and you hear them talking and you know that they are sitting there when the curtain goes up and the show starts. This had a different kind of nerve - this had a sort of interior thought that you had that people were watching but without a live audience actually being there in the same room with you. I definitely felt it in the first number that I had, too - my vibrato was extremely fast! [Laughs.]

PC: It certainly didn't show onscreen.

KO: I just remember thinking to myself as I was turning down the lights and singing "Tender Shepherd", "Just keep breathing - keep breathing," because I felt like I sounded like [Shaky Vibrato.], "Te-e-nder Sh-e-e-pherd".

PC: Were any other moments particularly nerve-wracking?

KO: There was another moment that I don't think many people know about - it was in the last scene, but, the camera people were so brilliant that watching at home on TV you didn't even know it.

PC: What happened?

KO: Anyone will tell you this in live performance: when something bad happens, you actually become less nervous because you become more focused on your job at hand. The focus goes off of you onto these things that are happening and you stop worrying. So, what happened was that the camera went down for the moment with the dog when I'm singing "Only Pretend".

PC: No way!

KO: Yeah. The moment I sat down when I am in the empty room with just the dog, the Steadicam went down. So, while I am singing - while I've got the dog's paw in my hand and thinking about giving him the treat; all the things I thought I would be nervous about - I'm watching cameramen running around, in front of my face, and all you are seeing onscreen is my face in the scene.

PC: You would never have known it from the broadcast.

KO: I know. It was really great to see how professional everybody was and nobody was freaking out about it - they just said, "Cut to Camera 2," and that was it and the two Steadicam guys switched right in front of me as I was doing the scene. One of them had never even done it before - the one who picked up where the other guy left off. It was pretty magical - I just had to keep going and not think about it.

PC: And you can't show that any of this is happening in your reactions or facial expressions, of course.

KO: I hope not!

PC: Did your own kids get the chance to see PETER PAN LIVE!?

KO: My son and my husband watched it and loved it, but my daughter was too small. You know, I don't really know how the numbers work or how it was received so much, but I do know that it was so much fun and I was so proud of Allison [Williams] and how hard she worked. I was really proud to be a part of it. There wasn't really a negative thing about it for me - and, I remember after last year and all the hate-watch stuff we were all shaking in our boots a little bit, but we can all rest on how positive the experience was for all of us, all around.

PC: Have you watched the broadcast yourself yet? Or, the re-broadcast?

KO: No, not yet... but, I might! I usually don't like watching myself, but I might check it out.

PC: Playing a British character, was this a change to try out your English accent for playing Anna in THE KING & I?

KO: [Laughs.] Funnily enough, I had the same dialogue coach for PETER PAN that I had for my Italian accent in BRIDGES - lots of things - and we actually talked about it back in August when we did a little reading of THE KING & I and first started working on the accent. I said, "OK. Good. This will get me through PETER PAN and THE KING & I!" [Laughs.]

PC: Two birds with one stone.

KO: Sort of one-stop shopping.

PC: Speaking of two-in-one, you simultaneously appeared on Renee Fleming's CHRISTMAS IN NEW YORK on PBS the very same night as PETER PAN LIVE! aired on NBC. What a coincidence!

KO: I know! I know. I told my family, "This is a real crazy night - you're going to have to channel-hop!" [Laughs.]

PC: Your "Silver Bells" duet is gorgeous. Did you get involved with that prior to joining THE MERRY WIDOW at the Met?

KO: We had met years ago, actually. There is a play that she is doing, and, as a favor to Kathleen Marshall, I read one of the smaller roles in that play at a reading. So, we met again then. Of course, I am a huge fan of Renee's and have been ever since I was studying opera in college - I used to listen to her all the time. So, of course, I made that known. And, we knew of MERRY WIDOW coming up, but the Christmas album came up because I think somebody else dropped out or something and it was a very quick process - they just invited me to be a part of it and I was so happy to do it. It was just like with Craig and Neil with PETER PAN - I was like, "Are you kidding?! That's fantastic! I'm there!" So, it was one of those things where we recorded it in a day and then several weeks later we did the video and finally got to sing together then and talk and get to know each other.

PC: And now you are rehearsing together at the Met.

KO: We are! We have been rehearsing for THE MERRY WIDOW and she just couldn't be lovelier. So, I just feel really lucky about these things.

PC: Susan Stroman makes her Met debut with this production in addition to you, is that true?

KO: Yes, we are making our Met debuts together! And, please, let me just say: I think she is turning that place upside down!

PC: How so?

KO: Everyone is just thrilled! The chorus feels like they are in heaven - they are being used in ways they have never been used before. She has every single one of them doing a different thing and telling a different story. She has every single person - Renee Fleming included - dancing while they are singing, which doesn't happen very often in opera. She has me doing stuff I never imagined I would do, too. So, I think it is going to be a very unusual production for the Met, but in a very positive way. I hope that the real purists will love it, too, because it does respect the music, but it is so alive and fun.

PC: It sounds spectacular!

KO: Stro is very impressive - her organization is unbelievable. There are hundreds of people on the stage and she has every single one of them already doing great things.

PC: THE MERRY WIDOW will be filmed for movie theaters and PBS, as well, yes?

KO: Yes. We are filming it in HD on December 17.

PC: What are your thoughts on Fathom Events, bringing live performances to movie theaters around the world?

KO: Well, you know, I am from the middle of the country and I can't tell you how many friends and family I have that have never been able to come see me, so I am a huge fan of it because I think it makes them understand what we do and it makes them fall in love with live theatre. And, if they didn't think of it before, maybe they will plan a trip now to come see something live. We've got to reach people any way we can, so if that's the way that things are headed then so be it. I support it.

PC: It's fascinating that you are going from a full-out opera to a role written for a singing actress with a lot of acting required, THE KING & I. Do you find one more challenging than the other, coming at something as a vocalist versus as an actress or is the approach the same?

KO: It's interesting that you ask me that. A lot of people from the opera world when I left rehearsals for a week to go do PETER PAN said to me, "Have fun playing Peter Pan!" And, I said, "No, no - you don't understand." You see, in the opera world, I am playing the young tart and youthful thing, but in musical theatre I am the mom.

PC: What a comparison!

KO: But, it's true! The funny thing about doing these roles back-to-back, in THE MERRY WIDOW, I really am playing the tart - the young, active one - and then I go into THE KING & I and play this strong woman who is a leader, essentially, and makes choices for herself; she is a mother, she is independent, she's wise, she makes change happen.

PC: What a juxtaposition!

KO: I think it's so great for an artist to get the chance to kind of do such different things. Vocally, it's going to be very, very different, which I welcome because I like to do all sorts of different things with my voice. And, I think that Anna is more of an acting role for me and that's a big reason why I want to play it - it's the same thing with THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and I loved it for that reason; for the kind of complex character that she was and that I also got to sing the way that I wanted to sing, too.

PC: An insightful comparison.

KO: So, we will approach the music for THE KING & I the same way that we did for SOUTH PACIFIC - you know, I am not a Mary Martin-type singer and I never have been; I'm not a Janis Paige-type singer. So, I will take the score the do what I do with it and if it's OK, it's OK, you know?

PC: THE KING & I is considered by many to have the finest female role in the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, so it would be underestimating it to say we can't wait to see your take.

KO: Yes - it's a great show and I can't wait to do it.

PC: Having done PETER PAN LIVE! so successfully, would you be open to appearing as Marian in the announced live MUSIC MAN on NBC? Furthermore, who would you dream cast as Harold Hill?

KO: Oh, my gosh, of course! Of course! Also, doing Marian would be a dream and it is a great, great score for my voice - I mean, that's exactly how I feel like I like to sing. But, I know how these things work and they've got to get viewers, so I don't know if they would choose me, unless they found a really great Harold Hill that they could depend on. That would be my dream - it would be my dream to play Marian in THE MUSIC MAN, but I am going to leave that up to them.

PC: I also wanted to congratulate you on approaching your goal for the fundraising initiative you set up for your cancer-stricken friend earlier this Winter - I actually wrote one of the first articles on it (available here) and the immediate reaction was incredible.

KO: Oh, thank you so much for that, Pat! I can't remember where I was, but I just remember that I was standing there and started to get the e-mails - I set up the account, so I'd get notifications that such-and-such donated such-and-such amount of money - and my inbox blew up; like, hundreds. Donation, donation, donation, donation. I started to weep right then - I just had no idea. And, I'll be honest with you - I have not been such a fan of social media because I am a private person, but I saw the beauty and power of social media that day. That I could put out something so quickly - I mean, I recorded that video in the stall of a bathroom at a recording studio!

PC: So, you made the video as soon as you found out?

KO: Yes. I was so scared - I literally found out that morning. So, I went to the bathroom, I put the recorder to my face and made the video and put it up on Twitter - and, then, people like you spread it and it all just happened. She still needs us - she's going through Hell right now and will be going through Hell for quite some time, so I just figured that if there was anything we could do than I wanted to be able to do it. And, it really moved me to tears that day.

PC: What were you recording? PETER PAN?

KO: I was recording the soundtrack with the big orchestra for PETER PAN and I found out while I was there and I went up to the third floor bathrooms that were there and I made the video there.

PC: Social media ranges from hate-watching to attempting to help cure cancer - truly the gamut of the human experience.

KO: It does. I learned a lot about social media that day.

PC: I was also curious to hear about was this year's Kennedy Center Honors. Lady Gaga was there, was she not? And, Meryl Streep?

KO: Yes, they were!

PC: What was your experience of the night like this time? You've been there before, of course.

KO: Well, it's always the most amazing night because it's completely free of ego. I mean, people are there to honor somebody and the President is there - everyone is just really having a great time and it was another great time again this year. I really had fun.

PC: Who did you pay tribute to specially?

KO: I'm not sure how much I am allowed to say, but I was part of the Tom Hanks tribute.

PC: Are you friendly with him?

KO: Yes, I do know him. He's been lovely - him and his wife, Rita - have been lovely to me for years.

PC: Lastly, were you pleased with the cast recording for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY? People absolutely adore it and it's a wonderful representation of the score.

KO: Yes! I have to really hand it to them - the way that they did it was so strange and awesome and a big risk. We didn't do it in booths where you could sing it over and over again, we did it with the orchestra right in the studio. What you hear on the recording is what we got - we didn't go back and fix anything. It turned out so, so well.

PC: So, do you have your own personal tunnel now between the Met and Lincoln Center since you are doing two productions there simultaneously?

KO: [Laughs.] As you probably know, there is the underground parking lot situation there so they are connected through that so it's just right next door, basically. Thankfully, KING & I rehearsals don't start until near the end of THE MERRY WIDOW run, so they won't overlap too much - it'll be fine.

PC: PETER PAN LIVE!, NY Pops holiday concert, THE MERRY WIDOW and THE KING & I in a month's time... you are super-human. Thank you so much for this today, Kelli.

KO: Thank you so much, too, Pat! Have a wonderful holiday. Bye bye.

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, NBC, Lincoln Center Theater, The Met, etc.

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