For Kelli O’Hara, musical theater is ‘where my life blood and my passion is’

A veteran at hopping between the stage and small screen, Kelli O'Hara feels transitioning from Broadway broadness to more subtle TV work isn’t particularly difficult: “I never thought of it as a choice that I was making to be bigger or [smaller].”

Emilio Madrid

Tony Award-winning Broadway star Kelli O’Hara has declared that from an artistic standpoint, “I want to do things that scare me a little bit.” 

Those things include opera, O’Hara revealed during an interview ahead of her performance June 9 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although she earned a music degree (with a focus on opera), has twice performed operas at the Met (as Valencienne in The Merry Widow and Despina in Cosi fan tutte) and will star in an upcoming operatic adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s best-selling novel The Hours, musical theater has long been and will always be “where my life blood and my passion is.”

“There are a lot of rules in opera,” O’Hara says. “And there’s a lot of expectation. Some people would disagree, but it is a lot about perfection. What I love about theater singing is that if you crack — now, nobody wants to crack — you can definitely say, ‘Oh, that’s about my emotion. I’m super into it right now, so that’s what happened.’ But in opera, the emotion is [expressed] through the perfection and the beauty of the singing. In musical theater, it’s a combination of the music and the acting. And then in television, it’s more just the acting.”

In reality, she adds, “Any one of those things scares me at the moment that I'm doing it because I'm being asked to use different tools. And that’s exactly why I love it. I'm just not one of those people who can do the same thing all the time.”

“For me, it’s all about the truth, but sometimes the truth is a whisper and sometimes the truth is a yell.” — Kelli O’Hara

After a string of high-profile network and cable television guest roles, O’Hara recently joined the Broadway-heavy cast of Julian Fellowes’ new HBO period drama “The Gilded Age.” A veteran at hopping between the stage and small screen, she says transitioning from Broadway broadness to more subtle TV work isn’t particularly difficult.

“I never thought of it as a choice that I was making to be bigger or [smaller],” O’Hara says. “I was always just trying to find some sort of truth in it. For me, it’s all about the truth, but sometimes the truth is a whisper and sometimes the truth is a yell.”

Being in the musical theater world for so long and at such a high level has afforded O’Hara plenty of opportunities to collaborate with giants of the genre, including late greats Stephen Sondheim and Marvin Hamlisch. Although working with Sondheim on a revival of “Follies” was “one of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” she has a special fondness for Hamlisch, with whom she also did occasional symphony concerts. (O’Hara keeps her set lists under wraps, but it seems likely that she’ll perform songs from one or both composers in Chicago.)

“The very next thing I did [after ‘Follies’] was a brand-spanking-new musical written by Marvin,” O’Hara says. “Building a show together is different than stepping into a revival. He really opened up his arms to me as far as being a mentor and being kind. Years after I was in the show with him, my parents received a phone call one day from Marvin that was not even connected to me. I’m not sure how he found the number, but it was just to check on them after a tornado in Oklahoma. He was that kind of guy. He had every right to have the biggest ego of all, but he was incredibly sensitive to the emotions of the people around him and just an extraordinary person to know.”

From his example and Sondheim’s, O’Hara learned early on how to stave off the negativity that is ever present in the cutthroat business of show. After treading the boards night after night for years on end, she also learned how to summon negative emotions onstage without putting herself through hell to access them. In order to cry on cue, for instance, she now might think of her beloved children rather than something horrible that happened. The audience, O’Hara notes, can’t tell tears of joy from tears of pain.

“I’m not going to sacrifice the show or myself. Those were lessons I learned the hard way as a younger person. And I couldn’t quite let the show go when I went home. I knew I couldn’t afford to be that person,” O’Hara says. “Young people aren’t quite sure what’s real and what’s fiction, and that's natural. It’s why I also really support the idea of having something else besides the art in your life, something that's not dependent on the art for some sort of self-worth. It’s not dependent on an audience or a number of followers or strangers.

“We all need to remember how important real human connection is outside of what we create.”

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