Blow the bugle, sound the cymbal: Kelli O’Hara is coming back to Broadway. The six time Tony nominee (who won the 2015 Tony for playing traveling educator Anna Leonowens in The King and I) is costarring in the revival of Kiss Me, Kate, starting previews next month. She will be Lilli Vanessi, the actor playing the fiery Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, who’s at war with Fred, her costar and husband (played by Will Chase), just as Kate is with the boorish Petruchio. That’s a whole lot of warring going on—but it’s witty stuff, so brush up your Shakespeare.

Anyone with half a brain is expecting a seventh nomination for Kelli—and if you’re counting, her other ones were for diverse work in The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, South Pacific, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and The Bridges of Madison County, thank you.

And on Monday January 14 at 8pm EST, Kelli will do a one-night appearance in the Broadway@TheTownHall series, hosted by SiriusXM personality Seth Rudetsky. Seth will elicit songs and stories out of Broadway’s leading lady for a spontaneous romp that could be subtitled “Kiss Me Kelli.” I just spoke with the musical star for an interesting look at her career and personality.

Hello, Kelli. What exactly will you do at Town Hall?

Seth Rudetsky and I have been doing a few of these around the country for several years, and they’re the most fun. It takes all pressure away from the narrative of it. He likes to find the most fun stories that he’s been building up with whoever he’s playing with. We’ve been talking for 20 years. We used to walk our dogs together. He’d always say, “Tell me the story about your first audition or your most embarrassing moment.” He has all these in the back of his head. He’ll ask one of the best ones, then I’ll sing a song that goes with it.

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Kelli O’Hara in The King and I.

Well, I’ll ask you some questions of my own, but you won’t have to sing the answer. You’re from Oklahoma. Even your birthplace is a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, right?

I’m sitting in Oklahoma right now. I was born and raised here and moved to New York when I was 22.

You studied opera.

Yes, I got my degree in opera. My teacher encouraged that part of my voice because that’s what I actually lean toward. But I wanted to pursue acting. I was singing opera and still sing opera because my voice feels the most free when I sing classically—that’s why Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Lerner and Loewe feel the most right. I’ve wanted to sing like Whitney Houston—and Sutton Foster—but you do what your musculature and capabilities allow you to do. I wanted to be an actor, and opera doesn’t allow for that. A lot of opera singers are great actors, but now that I’ve done more professionally, I understand that that can’t be the priority. In opera, there’s no microphone, you have to get your voice out there, and it’s a very archaic storyline. I wanted to do Shakespeare and a Neil Simon play and be an actor and not just act out the music.

Well, you’re getting to do some Shakespeare in Kiss Me, Kate. But The Taming of the Shrew, which it springs off from, isn’t done much anymore. The last time I saw it, they had a woman (Janet McTeer) playing Petruchio in order to satirize the character’s blustery machismo. Is Kiss Me, Kate doable?

 


We’ve been talking a lot about this. We brought Amanda Green to look at the script. We’re working with the estate to bring the show not away from where it is—it’s set where it’s set, and so on—but to allow these characters to be more…If Petruchio or even Fred is misogynistic, we’re going to see that as a fault, so it’s a lesson for all. We’re going to see her shrewishness as a result of the way she’s treated by men, not just that she’s a “difficult woman.” We’re acknowledging things that are wrong and we’re taking things out that are blatantly terrible and adding a feeling of If you’re gonna spank my bottom, I’m gonna kick your balls. I don’t want it to always be that these men are big and strong and we’re victims, but if they make choices to be disrespectful and misogynistic, what can we do about it and how can we defend ourselves? Not just physically, that’s a different story—that’s Carousel—but how about intellectually?

So, Amanda Green is tweaking the script?

She’s got such a great ability to be respectful of what’s there, but she’s very contemporary in her own person, so she’s touching it with these golden hands and not reinventing the wheel but making it so we can embrace it for what is while also making the fun and games 2019.

Back to 2015: This is a stupid question, but with six nominations, were you starting to feel like the Susan Lucci of the Tonys?

In a way, I was, because you start to think, How awesome it is to be nominated so many times, but then you start to wonder, What am I doing wrong? But when it finally happens, it’s not that you feel I must have done everything right, but you don’t care and just feel grateful. It was wonderful to get up there and thank my parents, my husband, and all my teachers, but you can’t depend on it to change everything. You have to go on just as you’ve gone on. It doesn’t do anything. You have to be exactly who you were and keep working as hard as you can. It’s just a moment in time. I want to keep working.

 

I know that doing one of your nominated performances—as the lovesick Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County—was a very special experience for you.

You never know if you’re going to win at all. There are years you feel that if you were going to win, in a dream, it might be for something that was as big in your heart as Bridges was for me. It wasn’t a revival, it was a new show. I helped build it from the ground up. But that show closed. My passion wasn’t equaled by the ticket sales. Sometimes you’re shocked by the way things turn out. It’s really painful when you care about something so much.

But it definitely made an impression.

I’ve gotten more comments from young people about Bridges than anything in my life. That will always be the most important aspect of it. There’s a group of kids called the Bridges Kids. There are young women who’ve been on the brink of suicide or had a relationship with mothers that needed understanding. I can’t even explain it, but that show developed a passion in young women, and that is more reward to me than any trophy you get on a stage. That’s why we do our work.

And The King and I? Was that glorious for you?

I so loved doing it, but it was easier, it was classic, it was already built for me. Other women had broken the ground in playing the part before me. It’s funny, you win an award for something so beautifully easy. I was taught as a young girl, Work, work, work—and only when you work hard, you deserve something. And The King and I didn’t feel like work, it was fun. It feels a little like I got lucky and I got handed it.

Larry Busacca/Getty

I don’t think people see it that way. What is your relationship with the LGBTQ community?

My relationship is love. What I do for a living, in my opinion, is a representation of love is love is love—openness. I’ve been raised to live and love and let love and live. It’s heartbreaking when my friends aren’t treated like equal citizens of this world with the same abilities to love and be loved. I think that Clara in The Light in the Piazza was a representation of that, even though it’s a heterosexual story. It was about wanting to be able to be loved. That’s what Bart [director Barlett Sher] wanted and we played it that way. We live in a community which is different from where I’m sitting right now. I’m proud to be in my community, where we support the LGBTQ community and all our friends and lifestyles. I don’t see any problem and I don’t understand why people do. If people conjure the bible and say, “Thou shalt not,” I say, “Thou shalt not judge.” I like to say, “It’s none of your business.” My main issue is when people aren’t educated about anything. They don’t understand anything because they’re not educated and it’s easy to not see people as human beings. That’s one of the problems with what we’re living in now—the word ignorance comes to mind.

Have you seen the movie Green Book? It shows how opening oneself up to different types of people can melt someone’s prejudice.

I have, my friend, and I loved it. I was bawling. These two people are changed, especially Viggo Mortensen’s character. They change each other. We have so many hurdles and we’ve gotten to a place where we’re all so angry and it takes one patient interaction, two people trying to be fair, to change things. We wonder why people are angry, and it’s because they’ve been treated with so much ignorance. The movie started with, “I’m just gonna do my job,” but by the end of it, he was a different person. I love the possibility of that.

Drag Race, the College course

via GIPHY

Moving on to an Emmy winner, RuPaul’s Drag Race is not only a long running phenomenon, it’s now a college course too. This spring, the New School (in New York City) is offering a class called “RuPaul’s Drag & Its Impact,” taught by longtime scene documenter Joe Jeffreys. According to the official description, the course will deal with the hit show “and its representations of concerns including gender, race, body image, community and style, as it places the show into larger contextual histories of drag performance.” The main concern? “What is the public’s ongoing fascination with drag and how does RPDR foster and reshape it?” Students will be also be treated to video-viewing and guest speakers—and if I make the cut for admission, I will finally get an A-plus in something!

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.

@mikeymusto