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Getting to Know ‘The King and I’ Star Kelli O’Hara

20 June 2018 by Emily Moulder
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Photo Credit: NATHAN JOHNSON

At a recent press event for the upcoming Broadway transfer of “The King and I”, London’s press got it’s first look at the production and cast, including Tony Award-winner, Kelli O’Hara.

Hearing Kelli talk about her role in the Q&A that followed, it was easy to see how she won the role of schoolteacher Anna in the first place. She’s soft-spoken and radiates warmth, but even a casual passerby could see that she has her wits about her, and will stand up for what she believes in. It seems she was a perfect fit for Anna, a woman travelling with her young son to Siam in the 1860s, on her way to the King’s palace to teach his children.

Kelli’s career prior to “The King and I” is littered with critically-acclaimed productions on Broadway. She began gaining real momentum after her first award nomination in 2005 for “The Light in the Piazza”, and she had done great work before that too, but it seems that, as is often true with performers, her love of theatre started at an early age.

“When I was 4 years old, my parents took me to see the musical “Oklahoma” at an outdoor theatre called Discoveryland near Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember being obsessed with wanting to go into the “house” which I later learned was just a facade which thrilled me even more.”

“By far the most influential teacher in my life has been Florence Birdwell, my voice teacher, but I have also had amazing role models like my Mom and grandmothers. My high school theatre teacher, Dixie Lee Jordan, was also integral to my journey here, and Bart Sher, my director, has been an important teacher for the last 15 years. Mrs. Birdwell called her technique “speaking on pitch.” I have never been able to sing a song since without speaking it first and understanding it as completely as I can.”

After winning a Tony Award for the role of Anna in “The King and I”, Kelli is returning to the role to make her West End debut. The Broadway production saw critical-acclaim and London fans are desperate to see this sweeping epic play at the iconic Palladium.

“I have always heard about the respect and love for the arts here, and the history of the arts here is so rich. To join that history in some small way is a true honour. I also just love being here and am looking forward to taking in as much of the area as I can with my husband and kids.”

Photo Credit: NATHAN JOHNSON

For Kelli and the Tony Awards, it was sixth time’s the charm, having been nominated for “The Light in the Piazza”, “South Pacific” and more over the years. So, where does she keep her much-deserved trophy?

“It’s on top of a shelf in a corner of my office. I’m very proud of it, and I know where to look when I need to, but it’s just out of the way enough so others don’t have to.”

In the break between Broadway and London, a lot has happened; the world has changed so much as Kelli spoke to how this could impact the show and it’s reception.

“I’m very excited to see how my last 2 years of life will affect my Anna. I think I have learned new things in the work I have been doing in between, and it all informs how I play her. My country is in a different place than it was in 2016, our world is in a different place as it concerns women, and these things affect our story as well and how audiences receive it.”

Photo Credit: NATHAN JOHNSON

Kelli won’t just be returning to the role, but she is reunited with her co-star Ken Watanabe who plays the King, or as Kelli has put it, he is The King. The sometimes sexual tension between Anna and the King is palpable, but offstage, the pair remain good friends, supportive and loving. When asked about something no one knows about Ken, she reveals his secret weapon, “He is a wonderful cook. He makes me delicious rice balls.”

Over the last year, we’ve asked many actors and directors why it is that they choose to work in theatre. Kelli’s answer is simple and to the point, showing that acting isn’t just a profession for her, but an obsession. “Why breathe?”

Want more? Quick Questions for “Red” star Alfred Enoch.

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