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'So in Love': A Conversation with Kelli O’Hara of ‘Kiss Me, Kate!’

Category Broadway

|by Matthew Wexler |

The Broadway legend shares what drew her to Cole Porter’s classic

One of the Golden Age's most celebrated musical comedies receives a refresh this winter when Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase star in the Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate! O’Hara, who recently returned reprising the role of Anna in The King and I in London, has also been spending more time in front of the camera. She received an Emmy nomination for her role in The Accidental Wolf, a thrilling web series about an affluent New York City housewife who finds herself caught up in a military cover-up, and also appeared in the second season of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. Those complex, dark stories are part of the reason why the Tony Award-winning actress decided to tackle this Cole Porter classic, which first premiered on Broadway more than 70 years ago.


Kelli O’Hara will soon star in Roundabout’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate!’ revival (Photos: Laura Marie Duncan; Roundabout Theatre Company)

Kelli O’Hara will soon star in Roundabout’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate!’ revival (Photos: Laura Marie Duncan; Roundabout Theatre Company)

“The general public doesn’t know what an actor has been researching or living in, which impacts our decision-making when it comes to career choices. I was ready to laugh and have fun,” says O'Hara of the intense work required of her recent on-camera projects. "We had such a blast doing the Roundabout concert a few years back, and when I got home from London, I needed to do something fun, and it couldn't be happening at a better time."

O’Hara also balances a busy schedule with husband Greg Naughton (son of James Naughton, who originated the role of Billy Flynn in the long-running revival of Chicago), two children, and life amid the tumultuous political and social climate.

"As actors, we have to look for balance,” says O’Hara of her choice to take on the dynamic dual role of Lilli Vanessi and Kate (from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) in this musical-within-a-musical. "It's not just ‘What do I think will be most impactful in my career?' but what will feel right emotionally."

Kiss Me, Kate! won the first-ever Tony Award for Best Musical, its integrated song and story structure still relatively new for Broadway. The real-life heated relationship between Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne served as inspiration for the piece, featuring a book by Sam and Bella Spewack, in addition to Porter’s music. But our insights about marriage and the roles of men and women in society have evolved since the show’s 1948 premiere. Amanda Green (daughter of writer-lyricists Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman) provides additional material for this new production, and Scott Ellis, who directed the benefit concert, is at the helm, along with choreographer Warren Carlyle.

O’Hara acknowledges the societal shift over the past several years as fuel for re-examining these classic works without reinventing them.

“The laughter felt really good back then, but it didn't feel dire," reflects O’Hara. “When we decided to do the show, we thought it’d be fun, but now we’re thinking about everything – the #MeToo movement, inequality – so it’s not just a fun romp of a night, but we’re thinking deeply, as we should.”

Kiss Me, Kate! is a big, bold musical comedy, and this production will have all the bells and whistles, thanks to a creative team that includes scenic design by David Rockwell (Pretty Woman: The Musical), costume design by Jeff Mahshie and lighting design by Donald Holder (Anastasia). But at its heart is its leading couple, and the story won’t resonate unless there’s truth beneath the tempers.

"Fred and Lilly are actors who met in the chorus of a show, but I don't want to throw that under the bus by playing them as shallow, egotistical spoiled brats," says O'Hara. "Maybe they once had a true love and time has gotten ahold of them. They started as equals, still love each other, and have made mistakes.” The actress is clear that she has no interest in portraying a version of the Svengali effect (named after a character in George du Maurier's novel, in which the lead character exploits and seduces a young woman to propel her success).

“Some girls come to New York City and work really hard and get cast, and they go on to the next show and the next show because they’re putting in the effort,” proclaims O’Hara, who studied voice under Florence Birdwell (who also instructed Kristin Chenoweth) at Oklahoma City University, and put opera on the back burner to pursue musical theater. While many see the luminescent star as one of Broadway’s leading ladies, she’s auditioned time and again to secure the roles that have made her a marquee name, even crashing an audition for Sweet Smell of Success early in her career.

Kiss Me, Kate! promises an opportunity to see O’Hara smartly tackle material from an era where the marital power struggle made its way onto the stage, and has subsequently often been seen through a time-stamped lens. This new production isn’t shying away from those themes but, instead, re-examining them with unforgettable melodies, humor, dance and drama.

“We don’t take it away,” says O’Hara. “We show it and ask, ‘Are we better?’”

For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in February 2019.

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