Kelli O’Hara sings the songs she loves

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 23, 2010


Growing up in western Oklahoma, the youngest of three children of a farmer turned lawyer, three-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara (The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game and South Pacific) describes herself as the black sheep of the family.

"There were a lot of music lovers in the family but no one else was a performer," she says. †

So how did this sweetheart of the stage, now 34, come so far, so fast from such an unlikely corner of the heartland? EDGE spoke with O'Hara as she prepares for her second extended nightclub run, this time at Feinstein's at the Regency through October 30th. †

The Oklahoma connection

EDGE: What is in the drinking water in Oklahoma that produces all these great singers? I mean, Oklahoma brought us Reba, Carrie Underwood, Kristin Chenoweth, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Blake Shelton . . .†

Kelli O'Hara: I'm so glad to be a part of them! So many Oklahoma girls want to come up and do Broadway. Our imaginations have led us to dream of the grand white way. It's a generalization, but in Oklahoma, the guys aspire to be sports figures and the girls want to sing. I think when we get here, we're more hungry.†

EDGE: Growing up in OK, did you imagine the life you are now having?†

Kelli O'Hara: There were always signs of me wanting to be a performer but I never thought of it as a career until I went to Oklahoma City University. I always thought I'd teach, but I saw that others at college had become successful as performers, so it seemed possible. I never came to New York until I was twenty-one.†

EDGE: Who were your idols?†

Kelli O'Hara: Julie Andrews. Shirley Jones. I watched a lot of the old movie musicals. It was a different time and I ended up being kind of old-fashioned. You become a part of what you are surrounded by. You start to feel what it is that you sell best. †

EDGE: What do you consider to have been your big break, when you knew you were on your way? †

Kelli O'Hara: Probably Light on the Piazza. Being nominated for a Tony makes people turn around and notice you. But I had already been here for five or six years and had already done three or four Broadway shows. Of course, I knew I had been working from the beginning.†

Story continues on following page:

Watch Kelli O'Hara and Paolo Szot perform from South Pacific on The View:

Biggest misconception?

EDGE: I think a lot of people fantasize about being a musical theater star. What is the biggest misconception people have about the profession?†

Kelli O'Hara: Being successful in theater is not at all like being a big movie star. People think I have a lot of money or power. I still have to audition for things. It's like any other thing: what is perceived is not what someone feels.†

EDGE: How often do you work on your craft?†

Kelli O'Hara: All the time. Everything I do, every song I learn, is a new exercise. I still take voice lessons. I teach master classes in Washington DC. But the best school is experience. Working is my best education.†

EDGE: You're probably the envy of many women and gay men because of the leading men you've worked with. What is the one word that comes to mind when I say the name Paulo Szot?†

Kelli O'Hara: Well, everyone would say sexy. But I'd say generous. He's one of the most generous people I've ever worked with.†

EDGE: Harry Connick Jr.?†

Kelli O'Hara: Genius.†

EDGE: Matthew Morrison?†

Kelli O'Hara: Adorable. †

EDGE: How has marriage and motherhood affected your work choices?†

Kelli O'Hara: The balance is hard. I had a baby because I wanted to be a mother, so I want to make time for him. This year, I chose concerts and not a show so I could be with him. Now that he's a little older, I will take the best things for me artistically because that makes me feel better-and if I feel better, I'm a healthy mother, and that's healthy for my son. It will be a balancing act for the rest of my life, but it's so worth it. It sure is a change from when it was me, me, me all the time.†

Cabaret’s appeal

EDGE: We all know there is no money in cabaret clubs. What is the appeal of that kind of work?†

Kelli O'Hara: I never considered myself a cabaret singer, but that is how singing started for me, singing in living rooms and small showcases. The draw is to keep singing and keep communicating about yourself through the arts. It's a bit more of a one-on-one. And I can pick songs I love; I get to pick and choose. I never realized how much I loved it until I did the Carlyle.†

EDGE: Some folks might be surprised to know that you're also a songwriter. Any original songs in the show or other surprises you can give us a hint about?†

Kelli O'Hara: I'm not going to sing any of my songs this time. I wanted to get back to songs I love across the board, by characters I will never play-including men. I always try to do songs by both established composers and new composers. There will be some new songs, including two that were written especially for me. †

EDGE: What's coming up next? Any thoughts of going Hollywood?†

Kelli O'Hara: [Laughs.] It's so interesting what I can and cannot talk about. Having the patience to wait for projects to come about can be frustrating. Hopefully, I'll be back on the Broadway stage next year. No thoughts of Hollywood right now.†

EDGE: Final question: Tell us a little something about behind-the-scenes Kelli O'Hara. Any unusual hobbies or things you like to do that are unrelated to your career?†

Kelli O'Hara: I'm a Food Network fanatic! I have dreams of having my own cooking show, or at least going around the world and tasting different foods! Also, I'm a jogger and constantly outdoors. [Laughs.] I guess I need to develop some more interesting hobbies. †

Kelli O'Hara appears at Feinstein's through October 30th. Go to for more details about times and prices. †

Watch Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick Jr. perform from The Pajama Game on The Today Show:

Story continues on following page:

Watch Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick Jr. perform from The Pajama Game on The Today Show:

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).