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.”