NEW YORK — In an industry that has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, Kelli O'Hara is the rare performer who has enjoyed the unique position of being in constant demand. Since making her Broadway debut more than a dozen years ago, the Oklahoma native has quickly risen through the ranks from ensemble member to musical theater star.
O'Hara is currently appearing opposite Matthew Broderick in the Broadway production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” In this new Gershwin musical, O'Hara plays a bootlegger who unexpectedly falls in love with a wealthy New York playboy.
Between 2004 and 2009, O'Hara worked nearly nonstop in musicals ranging from “Dracula” and “The Light in the Piazza” to “The Pajama Game” and “South Pacific.” She earned Tony nominations for her roles in “Piazza,” “Pajama Game” and “South Pacific.”
After the birth of her son in the summer of 2009, O'Hara decided to trade the rigors of an eight-performances-a-week schedule for less demanding commitments that would allow her to spend as much time as possible with her son. For two years, she filled her schedule with cabaret and concert performances.
Kathleen Marshall, a director and choreographer with whom O'Hara had worked on “Follies,” “The Pajama Game” and “Bells Are Ringing,” hoped to lure O'Hara back to Broadway with “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” A farce with a love story, “Nice Work” is being called an “old school show.”
“With the concert and cabaret appearances, I was constantly having to learn new music,” O'Hara said when we spoke in her dressing room at the Imperial Theatre last month. “So even when I was at home, I felt like my brain wouldn't turn off.
“I decided when I returned to Broadway that I wanted to do something fun and lighthearted. Matthew (Broderick) had already signed on and that was a huge draw because he's generous and adorable. And the music was a winner because I love Gershwin.”
In “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” O'Hara makes her first entrance dressed in a shirt, vest, pants and a tweed cap, a stark contrast to the ultrafeminine ingenue roles she's so often played. Billie Bendix, O'Hara's character, is a rough and tumble bootlegger with a working-class accent.
Later, she masquerades as a Cockney maid, complete with an accent that wouldn't be out of place in a production of “My Fair Lady.” I asked O'Hara which accent posed the greater challenge.
“I'm not sure how great I'm doing with either,” O'Hara said. “I had done a Brooklyn accent in ‘Bells Are Ringing,' which I loved. And I've done ‘My Fair Lady' so the Cockney was there. But it's funny to go back and forth between them. It's like, ‘Where am I? Who am I?' It's a comedy so you go with it.”
The Gershwin estate is known for taking a very hands-on approach to any new project that features songs by George and his brother Ira. When “Nice Work If You Can Get It” was being discussed, the estate offered the entire Gershwin catalog except for “Porgy and Bess” (which is playing one block away from “Nice Work”) and “Of Thee I Sing.”
“Joe DiPietro has done an amazing job of making these songs work within the story,” O'Hara said. “And (director/choreographer) Kathleen Marshall likes to use the verses to the songs and not just the choruses. The verse sets everything up and then when you hear the familiar chorus, you can sit back and enjoy it.”
Honing in on strengths
O'Hara has high praise for co-star Broderick, an actor who has enjoyed considerable success in the theater. He's had starring roles in “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “The Producers.” Broderick won Tony awards for “Brighton Beach” and “How to Succeed.”
“This show is so engineered for Matthew,” O'Hara said. “Jimmy (his character) is a playboy and a drunk. If he was too slick, you wouldn't trust him but, since it's Matthew, you love him. They've really honed in on his strengths.”
O'Hara's character in turn takes quite a journey in “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” She gets to play the tough broad who keeps her heart well hidden. But as Billie falls under Jimmy's spell, we gradually see that rough exterior melt away.
“I'm sure guys have hit on her but she's never been open to the idea of finding love,” O'Hara said. “She realizes she has to stick with her bootlegger guys and help them out. But ultimately, it comes down to the fact that she's just a girl who wants things (like love). Jimmy unlocks that world for her which is really nice.”
Staying on target
While the 1992 musical “Crazy for You” borrowed a few plot elements from the Gershwins' 1930 comedy “Girl Crazy,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It” features a new storyline that is enhanced by the inclusion of nearly two dozen Gershwin tunes.
“The gentleman who wrote a book about Ira Gershwin's lyrics has made sure we're all on target,” O'Hara said. “We've been allowed to change some minor things: a shift of pronouns in ‘I've Got a Crush On You' and replacing the word ‘ever' with ‘never' in ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.' Since those things don't change the melody or the sentiment, the Gershwin Estate seems very happy.”
Clearly, O'Hara is responsible for much of the estate's positive view of the show, with a handful of solos and duets that showcase her gorgeous voice. While “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “But Not for Me” are standouts, it's the little-known but hauntingly beautiful “Will You Remember Me?” that reminds people why O'Hara has become the toast of Broadway.
“In the theater, we love to make people think and feel emotional, but there's something special about getting to make people happy,” O'Hara said. “We see kids smiling and people of the generation who love Gershwin's music. I think this show is a combination of all the best things about classic musical theater.”