Five-time TONY nominee, Kelli O'Hara has had a busy year and it's not going to calm down any time soon. Last seen starring in the Broadway musical The Bridges of Madison County, in December O'Hara will play both Mrs. Darling in the live NBC production of Peter Pan and Valencienne in The Metropolitan Opera's The Merry Widow. She'll then head back to Broadway once again next Spring in the much-anticipated revival of The King and I.
O'Hara has also carved out time for The New York Pops, for whom she serves as Co-Chair of the PopsEd Ambassador Panel, with two appearances - including an intimate performance next week at NYC cabaret venue, 54 Below. Titled "Kelli and Friends," this one-night only event will benefit both the organization's PopsEd programs and The Ronald McDonald House New York.
I caught up with O'Hara to ask about her support of The New York Pops' programs that bring music education to children across New York City. We also talked about her upcoming schedule that will take her from TV to the opera, then a few blocks south to prepare for her next starring role on The Great White Way.
In all, we covered a range of topics but there was one line that seemed to set the tone, providing insight in to both O'Hara's own success and her hope to give back to children in need. Speaking of her vocal teacher, renowned educator Florence Birdwell, O'Hara says, "She taught me that [music] could be a life, not just a love."
Arguably one of Broadway's greatest talents, and most certainly a megawatt star, O'Hara explains that growing up in Oklahoma, "music wasn't huge in our house." "I had a love for it," but her exposure was generally limited to her grandfather's record collection of American standards, which he left to her upon his death. The love was there, but O'Hara says, "I didn't really know that it was possible - that it could be your life like people around here [in New York City] do."
It wasn't until college where she met mentors like Birdwell that O'Hara realized her own potential as a performer. That is where the bridge seems to span between her personal path and desire to bring music to others - so that they too can develop a love, and maybe a life, in the performing arts.
"I'm so busy with my schedule, but I remember saying that I would love to be involved so that I can help with things like education and The Ronald McDonald House," O'Hara explains about being asked to co-chair the PopsEd Ambassador Panel. "I love what I'm able to do," she says genuinely, without pretense. "If I'm going to give back in any way, I want it to be with kids - for kids - who don't have as much of an opportunity than others." "This particular benefit [at 54 Below], is one of the ways I'm able to help... and they're going to sing with me, the kids, so that will be fun."
Not just fun, "I think that when we have a chance to sing, communicate something through a song or through a character - to embody a character - it's a cathartic experience," O'Hara says particularly in relation to children having a difficult time or affected by disease, like those served by The Ronald McDonald House New York. "It allows us to really wring out a lot of things inside of us that we wouldn't normally do. It's an allowance. That's why I think music and art are so magical when it comes to healing. It's therapeutic," O'Hara continues, "I think everyone needs it and they don't even know it. It's a key that unlocks certain doors that have been closed. I hope that for kids they can find that outlet by being exposed to music."
Following this benefit, O'Hara will return to Carnegie Hall in December with The New York Pops for a holiday concert with her Light in the Piazza and South Pacific co-star, Glee's "Mr. Schue," Matthew Morrison. O'Hara says, "We're really excited. It's going to be magical because we already have that rapport, that chemistry and friendship."
In addition to the concert with Matthew Morrison, O'Hara will continue her jam-packed December with her debut at The Metropolitan Opera in The Merry Widow, and appearance as Mrs. Darling in the live NBC production of Peter Pan.
O'Hara, who has done both TV and films before has primarily earned her fame on stage, measured by accolades including an incredible five TONY nominations. When I asked if she felt the role in Peter Pan would introduce her to an even wider audience, we shared a laugh when I posed if it was possible she would rival the performance of friend and Broadway star, Laura Benanti in last year's live production of The Sound of Music. One of the show's smaller roles, Benanti's stand-out performance as the Baroness earned stellar reviews and a collection of humorous meme's featuring her dramatic expressions.
O'Hara says, "I think this particular role, Mrs. Darling, is great for me right now... It's not a very big role, so I'm not going to do any reaching to be as impactful as the Baroness was last year, but I will do my best.... I just don't plan to make any waves." She continued, "I'm going to do my job and be the mother that I am in real life and to these little kids" (characters Wendy, Michael and John). Sweetly she adds, "I'm a believer too... I'm one of the people who starts to clap for the fairy, so I'm going to be there with bold, genuine appreciation of the situation."
Finally, the last stop on her scheduled tour-de-force, O'Hara spoke about taking on the starring role of schoolteacher Anna in The King and I, helmed by her Bridges of Madison County director Bartlett Sher, which begins previews in March 2015. Having already starred as Julie Jordan in Carousel with The New York Philharmonic, and as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific at Lincoln Center, as well as in a special evening of songs with The New York Pops, O'Hara is one of today's most recognized female interpreters of works by Rodgers & Hammerstein. In that, she is much like Julie Andrews and Shirley Jones before her, whom she claims, "inspired me more than I can probably say." About keeping the great musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein vibrant and alive today, O'Hara says "I think that it's something that must be kept going, to celebrate the roots of what we all love here in musical theater. So, I'm going to always be passionate about trying to carry it on in a new and fresh way."
Growing up where she did, O'Hara adds - slightly tongue-in-cheek - "naturally the first musical I ever knew was Oklahoma."
For information about Kelli O'Hara's appearances with The New York Pops and details on the PopsEd programs, visit www.newyorkpops.org. For information about O'Hara's other performances, visit www.kelliohara.com.