Over the past decade, Kelli O'Hara has earned critical acclaim as one of Broadway's most talented leading ladies. With a bell-like soprano, she most recently graced the stage at Lincoln Center playing the iconic role of Nellie Forbush in the Tony Award-winning revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific."
Prior to that, she wowed audiences in "The Light In The Piazza," "Sweet Smell of Success," and playing opposite Harry Connick, Jr. in a revival of "Pajama Game." To date, she has collected three Tony Award nominations in addition to numerous nominations for Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.
"South Pacific's" Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher has said, "Kelli has such heart, and such deep sensibilities. She has the insights and imagination of a very, very great artist. And she has the most beautiful soprano voice in American musical theater."
From June 9 - 11, she'll be appearing with Keith Lockhart and The Boston Pops in "An Evening of Cole Porter." Also on the bill will be Broadway's Jason Danieley plus Fellows from the Tanglewood Music Center.
Born in Oklahoma, Kelli is married to actor-musician Greg Naughton. Together they have a son, Owen James, who'll celebrate his first birthday later this month. Speaking by phone during a busy day in Manhattan, she talked about her work, her music, being a new Mom and her surprise return to Broadway in August. Here's a condensed version of our conversation.
BIR: I've read you started out studying opera. So how did the girl from Oklahoma wind up center stage on Broadway?
KO: Well, the truth is that I did love Broadway music, but when I went to school I had the great fortune to work with a teacher named Florence Birdwell, and she was very big in voice teaching, especially in opera. She kind of encouraged me to (study towards an) opera degree, which I did for four years . . . (But) I never lost that love (of Broadway). I remember (in) my senior year, there was a choice to continue my studies . . . or just move to New York. I remember just knowing in my gut that I wanted to move to New York.
BIR: You've had a chance to work with some very talented leading men, who, by coincidence, are very easy on the eyes.
KO: (Laughing) Believe me, I've been very lucky that way.
BIR: What was it like doing "Pajama Game" with Harry Connick, Jr.?
KO: I was working on "Light in the Piazza" when that came up. As much as I love Broadway music, I also grew up on Doris Day and the Great American Songbook and Frank Sinatra . . . I just thought, "I can do this, I can do this ‘Pajama Game' thing." Meeting Harry Connick, Jr., was like the icing on the cake. Not only because he's so easy to look at, but also because I wanted to be around that kind of musicianship. I wanted to learn from that genre . . . Meeting him was exactly what I thought it would be . . . He taught me so much. He helped me make my first album. He was so generous to me, and still is . . . I really, really couldn't be more grateful for that particular time in my life."
BIR: And how about Paulo Szot, your "Emile" in "South Pacific?"
KO: I didn't know Paulo Szot at all. He was from Brazil. He had been in the opera world. I remember they had me come and audition with him, and I thought, "Well that's going to be easy . . . He just sings like a bird." But more than anything, I have to tell you about Paulo, he's one the kindest, most generous people I've ever worked with. I just adore him. We're still doing concerts together. I'm actually going to go back into "South Pacific" for the last two weeks of its run in August. We're going to film it for PBS. I wanted to be a part of that film, but also just to close the show. It's going to be nice to be back with Paulo. He's one of my very favorites.
BIR: So tell me how the concerts with The Pops came about.
KO: I've always wanted to sing with The Boston Pops . . . They called and I was just so thrilled . . . Those phone calls are my favorite – when you've been wanting to do something for a long time and then it appears.
BIR: Is this your first time on stage in Boston?
KO: My first job was with "Jekyl & Hyde" and we came through Boston on tour. I also have some family there, so I've spent time there, just personally. I really, really love the city of Boston. I'd like to spend more time there.
BIR: Since you've been doing concerts everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Cafe Carlyle, do you miss the routine of eight shows a week? Or does having a one-year-old at home change all that?
KO: (Laughing) You know, I said doing a show (on Broadway) was going to be too much, so I left "South Pacific" to spend more time with my baby. And I have to laugh because I've never been more busy. I'm almost wanting to be back in an eight-show-a-week show because when you're doing concerts, you never know what your schedule is going to be. You have rehearsals and you have meetings and you fly to different places.
BIR: Aside from your stage work, you make an appearance in the new "Sex and The City." Talk about high profile.
KO: I'm barely in it, really. I'm in the very top of the movie. But it was just so fun to be there on the production and sit through the read-through with those actresses and get into the life of it a little bit. I've been watching it for years. So that was a great thrill, just to be a part of it in the small way that I am.
BIR: Tell me a little about your family. Your ancestors go back to County Clare?
KO: There are lots of stories that have come down through the years. I do know that my great-great-grandfather and his three brothers came over in the late 1800s to farm, to find land in Oklahoma. And that's where we've been ever since. I grew up on the same farm that they found. I've been back to Ireland once, but not for long enough. I'd love to go back. We take great pride in (our history), but I need to know more.
"An Evening of Cole Porter," featuring Kelli O'Hara and Jason Danieley, with Keith Lockhart & The Boston Pops, June 9-11, Symphony Hall in Boston. Tickets: 888-266-1200;www.bostonpops.org.