Having earned Tony Award nominations for her roles in “The Light in the Piazza,” “The Pajama Game,” “South Pacific” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Kelli O’Hara, who was born in Elk City and raised in Edmond, has become one of the brightest lights on Broadway.
To achieve that level of celebrity is even more impressive given the enormously competitive nature of the New York musical theater scene.
With her gorgeous voice and stunning good looks, O’Hara has become in such high demand that she rarely has to worry about future projects.
After spending the past year appearing opposite Matthew Broderick in the Broadway production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” followed by a concert version of “Carousel” with baritone Nathan Gunn and the New York Philharmonic, the Oklahoma native is preparing to start rehearsals for “Far From Heaven,” a musical set to open May 8 at Playwrights Horizons.
Based on the 2002 film starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert, the musical version of “Far From Heaven” features a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens”). It’s the story of a 1950s-era Connecticut housewife who faces a marital crisis and mounting racial tensions in the outside world.
“This has been a project I’ve been involved with for several years now,” O’Hara said recently. “We did it at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (in far northwestern Massachusetts) last summer, and word quickly got out that it was very interesting. People were very curious to see it. It’s a show that I’ve become really passionate about.
“When you’re in this business, you wait for some really great composers to say they’re writing something for you. Scott and Michael have written a beautiful role for me, and I’m so flattered to be a part of this project.”
In an interview posted on the Playwrights Horizons’ website, the creators were asked how they came to be interested in turning “Far From Heaven” into a musical. Korie responded that, “In New York, it’s always the right time for a musical about repressed homosexuality, spousal abuse and racial politics,” adding that his goal was “to create musicals about the America we live in but without making it obvious.”
While the Gershwin musical “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and Adler and Ross’ “The Pajama Game” featured lighthearted subject matter, “Far From Heaven” promises to stretch O’Hara’s already considerable acting skills.
“Like ‘Grey Gardens,’ ‘Far From Heaven’ is artistic and drama-driven, but Scott goes from light to darkness so easily because that’s what the story calls for,” O’Hara said. “The music certainly haunts me and stays with me all the time. You fall in love with all the twists and turns that aren’t expected. It has a lot of good energy.”
A busy fall
In September, O’Hara and her husband, Greg Naughton, will welcome their second child.
Big brother Owen, who will turn 4 in June, always relishes the opportunity to hang out at the Imperial Theatre, home of “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
“On two-show days, Greg will bring Owen to the theater, and we play hide-and-seek between shows,” O’Hara said. “The seats are just about his height, so the theater is a big maze for him. He has a pretty normal situation otherwise — going to school and just being a kid.”
Later this fall, O’Hara will go into rehearsals for a musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County,” which is scheduled to open on Broadway in 2014. Tony Award winners Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”) and Marsha Norman (“The Secret Garden”) are collaborating on the score.
“We wait for opportunities like these, and I’ve been lucky enough to do a few,” O’Hara said. “They’re both beautiful projects that are hugely challenging. It’s the reason I wanted to do a Shakespeare play last year.
“I had no idea if I would fall on my face, but you have to go do those things. If you don’t take risks, you’re asking people to keep staring at the same picture. When you do that, then you start to lose your invitation. I want to keep being invited, at least for a few more years.”