The last time Kelli O’Hara appeared on Broadway, she won a Tony for her performance as Anna in “The King and I.” Four years later, she’s back in an updated “Kiss Me Kate,” opening March 14 at Studio 54. The musical is about an actress feuding with her co-star, who’s also her director and ex-husband (Will Chase). Their backstage bickering mirrors their source material: Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
What’s different about this “Kiss Me Kate”?
It’s still the great Cole Porter score and the wonderful classic humor, but we’ve adjusted to take out some of the blatant misogyny. We needed to give the women more agency and more space to stand up for themselves. Lilli is a woman behaving with intelligence and with class but is commenting on what she’s surrounded by. She’s not just crazy.
Why does the story still resonate?
As a society now, we’re not prim and proper; we’re not holding anything back. We’re saying what we want to say, we’re doing what we want to do, because we’ve waited too long to do it and now it’s all coming out. I think this revival is right on time. We’re putting some misogynistic behavior out on display and looking at it as a real problem and saying, “Wow, I guess that is how we behave sometimes.”
You play Lilli playing Kate. What’s that like?
I like to think of Lilli as much more of a shell — much more vulnerable, more insecure — whereas I think of Kate as a woman who knows a lot. Layering these two women on top of each other, they enhance the other. Kate gives Lilli voice when she’s hurt and angry, and Lilli eventually gives Kate a softness and understanding.
Is preparation for a revival different from a new show?
I don’t ever study the way they’ve been played before. I don’t ever go back to visit it or watch it again. It’s no different than an original role. I think about it as this brand-new journey.
What challenges did you face developing this character?
I learned from this script that it’s pretty clear the female voice has been fairly underwritten. As a young person, especially playing the ingénue, I was always grappling with how to play something where I had no words — I was just playing the essence of something. As I’ve gotten older and have gotten to help create more roles, I’ve gotten to ask for more to say. We’re able to find more voices for these women.
With musicals, opera, film and TV, is there a medium that you haven’t tried?
Whether it’s good or not, I’ve tried to do everything. I’ve been doing theater for 25 years, and theater is where I breathe; it’s my life source. But I think it makes me a better theater actor to spread my wings and get into other things. I love the fact that I’ve been able to do all of it here or there.
What was your reaction to the Actors’ Equity Assn.’s settlement of its monthlong strike against the Broadway League?
I’ve done a million workshops over the last 25 years, but I don’t get residual payments or payouts from tours of a show I might have helped create. We sign a contract to do it at that time, but as actors, we don’t get the future out of it. It’s not expected. You get the moment when you’re working eight shows a week, and then it’s done. When you’re bringing not just your singing voice but your intellectual and emotional voice to create a piece, it doesn’t make much sense to not have some stake in that. It’s a hard fight to have as actors because we just feel so grateful to be working. But we become people who have children and mortgages, and need to be compensated for the time we put in. It was a bold and brave fight, and it’s an important outcome to have.
Things You Didn’t Know About Kelli O’Hara
AGE: 42 HOMETOWN: Elk City, Okla. NUMBER OF BROADWAY STARRING ROLES: 11 MENTOR: Voice coach Florence Birdwell FAVORITE ROLE: Francesca in
“The Bridges of Madison County” PRE-SHOW RITUAL: Yoga FIRST MUSICAL SEEN: “Oklahoma!” FAVORITE SCENE IN “KISS ME KATE”: Fight scene with Will Chase