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‘King and I’ Star Kelli O’Hara Recalls Big Break in ‘Jekyll and Hyde’

Kelli O’Hara, who just opened on Broadway in “The King and I,” first gained mention in Variety in the 1999 national tour of Frank Wildhorn’s “Jekyll and Hyde,” where she moved from understudy to lead, then segued to the Broadway production. In the 16 years since then, she’s earned five Tony nominations — and, as she points out, has seen the world of theater change radically.

Had you read this review?

No, so it was fun to read now. I have very positive feelings about that tour. We were treated very well, and some of my best friends are from then.

What was your audition like?

Jason Howland, who’s now the musical director on “Beautiful” on Broadway, was Frank Wildhorn’s right-hand man. I owe Jason a lot. It was an audition for a pop musical, but I came in with something from an operetta. I got a callback, which was actually a work session with Jason, who coached me. He saw I could do more of a pop feel; he would say, “Can you do this? Can you try this?” Jason worked a lot with me, and gave me a chance.

What’s the best career advice you got?

My teacher (from Oklahoma City U.) Florence Birdwell was my mentor. “Jekyll & Hyde” was a pop musical, and I was trying to fit into that, singing in a way that didn’t feel comfortable. She came to see the show and said: “Let’s get to work. Your voice is an instrument, so learn to play the instrument differently. It’s hard to make a living, so do whatever you need to do creatively. Don’t limit yourself.” She helped me to not fear, and to make a new sound.

Do you ever give advice?

I give master classes, and I find such joy in that. I try to give advice that’s practical. I don’t say, “You should never do this.” I say, “Let’s make it work, change the key, do what you have to do; become the best version of whatever you are asked to be.” It reminds me how much I’ve learned from her.

Has theater changed in 16 years?

I don’t know how kids do it today. They can’t get seen (for an audition), and if they get in, they are told, “Give me eight bars.” People are looking for that money note. I’m not an “American Idol” type singer; I don’t have that one note to make people fall out of their chairs. If I have only eight bars, I won’t get the job. With my voice, I need to tell a story. I wouldn’t be here today if the world had worked that way then.

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