As Grounded as It Gets; Five’s the Charm for O’Hara?

Kelli O’Hara in “The Bridges of Madison County.” | JOAN MARCUS

Kelli O’Hara in “The Bridges of Madison County.” | JOAN MARCUS

What with the late breaking openings of “Raisin in the Sun,” “Cripple of Inishmaan,” “Of Mice and Men,” the delightful “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and the small and affecting, even if somewhat annoying “Violet,” this has turned out to be the best Broadway season in recent memory. Even the dreaded “Rocky” wasn’t all that bad.

However, a lot of the Great White Way is still consumed by shows that practice that bad old art of what I like to call “Broadway Bullying” — relentlessly assaulting you with desperate noise, flash, and a total lack of subtlety or taste, begging you to love-love-LOVE them. “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Aladdin” immediately spring to mind.

In such a climate, “The Bridges of Madison County,” with its varied, flavorful, and often powerful score by Jason Robert Brown, telling a simple, small-scale but extremely human story, seemed a genuine, but very welcome anomaly. Sadly, too good for the average man (and Times Square tourist), it is closing on May 18. However, the cast album is out on CD and it will be filmed live for Lincoln Center Library so, decades from now, people will be able to get some sense of what a very lovely thing it was.

With “Bridges,” Kelli wins another Tony Tony; proud Malcolm encores “Irma La Douce”

I interviewed its Tony-nominated star, Kelli O’Hara, in her cozy dressing room between her Wednesday matinee and evening performances and she told me, “It feels like people come in the door not knowing what to expect and somewhere along the way they get really quiet and by end they’re really surprised they’re so moved. [Director] Bart [Sher] was trying to keep our spirits up, saying, ‘We made a piece of theater for theatergoers, not necessarily for tourists.’ When I see the deep emotional response and weeping in the audience, sometimes I think, ‘What are you working out there?’ It scares people who may not want to face their demons, or it could be someone you know, or recognize your mother in me, or whatever. I love that.”

O’Hara is from Oklahoma, “So even though I play an Italian woman kind of standing on the outside, looking in, at the same time I’m the girl from Oklahoma who moved away. So it’s a little bit like looking back into my world and is very emotional for me and cathartic. I didn’t realize why I felt so good doing it but it feels like I do a therapy session every show. People ask, ‘How do you cry or be so emotional all the time?,’ but a lot of it is waves of gratitude.”

As Francesca, a farm wife who suddenly finds adulterous ecstasy and fulfillment in the arms of a hunky photographer (Steven Pasquale), O’Hara reveals a deep sensuality, never more so than in a nude bathtub scene that is both tasteful and subtly sexy.

She laughed, “Yeah, you know we talked about it and I’ve done it before when I was younger. But this time it meant so much. It wasn’t this vulnerable girl who was being the victim of something else and taking off her clothes. This woman is making a choice, looking at her self in the mirror and saying, ‘Could this be valuable to somebody?’ I wanted to do it in a way that evokes that emotion and not for display or shock value, but, emotionally, where is she right now? Imagine how many years has it been since she’s felt looked at or seen, not being this naked wet person but this powerful wet woman.”

This is O’Hara’s fifth and, hopefully, finally successful Tony nomination: “We did the Tony press conference this morning. I feel different about it this year and had a real good time. I wasn’t nervous and saw all these friends. You feel like we’re all here doing the same thing and not to put too much weight on it. That’s not good, but it is also not good not to enjoy it and allow yourself to feel relieved and grateful. I’m just going to embrace it, and all the girls in my category got together — we’ve all come up together. I’ve become really good friends with Jessie [Mueller]. It doesn’t feel like elementary school where there’s somebody waiting to stab you in the back. We’re all grateful to be where we are.

“I saw ‘Beautiful’ and Jessie was wonderful. If I didn’t want to win so bad, any other year she should win, that’s a performance for the ages. I haven’t seen the others, but Sutton [Foster in ‘Violet’] just knocks me over — I love her — and I haven’t seen Idina [Menzel in ‘If/ Then’], but I know she’s rocking in that show.”

Last year, O’Hara also created a new musical role of another unhappy period housewife in “Far from Heaven,” again with Pasquale: “Jason came around first with ‘Bridges,’ but then Scott Frankel showed up at my door with this music and a beautiful part. These two parts came up at the same time and sometimes the workshops would conflict and it was crazy. They waited for me to do ‘Far’ last summer, and I got pregnant but still did it.

“I guess we got lucky that I could do both, but if ‘Far’ had done better and moved to Broadway, we would have had a problem. I don’t know what it would have come down to because I dearly love both. Francesca was just a further step away from me and I felt really compelled to do it. These stories are hard to get through, but we as actors need to have variation. I can’t always sing ‘I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,’ which I do in my concerts because I love it, but I’ve got to pair that with other things.”

O’Hara to me is like a modern Mary Martin (who famously turned down “My Fair Lady”), with writers and composers fighting to write material just for her: “It feels good to be that girl, and you can get a big head about it, but oh God, in the larger scheme of things! Anybody can get way too involved with what a big shot they are, but something like this Tony thing this morning will put you right back in your place: ‘Kelly, could you please stand aside? Bryan Cranston’s going in,’ or ‘Idina Menzel’s here! Let’s take her now!’ You just have to be really happy with what you’re doing.

O’Hara is also looking forward to making her Metropolitan Opera debut on New Year’s Eve as Valenciennes in “The Merry Widow,” with Renee Fleming and Nathan Gunn, directed by Susan Strohman. In the meantime, she will be happy to spend more time with her two little children: “My husband has been taking care of them, as have three girls, all aspiring actresses. I called my college three years ago and asked for some girls who want jobs but can be flexible so they can do their auditions and callbacks, because I want that for them.

“Sometimes we have master classes and I work with them, but they are beautiful women and love taking care of my kids and call each other, if they have an audition, to take over. They come down here and the kids get to be around the theater, so it’s a win-win!”

Joan Marcus Malcolm Gets in the Encores! production of “Irma La Douce.”| JOAN MARCUS

Joan MarcusMalcolm Gets in the Encores! production of “Irma La Douce.”| JOAN MARCUS

Malcolm Gets just appeared in the Encores! revival of “Irma La Douce,” and, as always, it was a total pleasure to chat with this super intelligent, super nice utter charmer during rehearsals for the show: “I haven’t seen the movie, but I love [its director and star, respectively] Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. I play Bob the bartender and participate in five or six songs. It’s definitely an ensemble piece, and my third show with [director] John Doyle. When they called and asked if I wanted to do a show with John, I said, ‘Yes, the role doesn’t matter.’ That’s how I feel about him. It’s very much a French piece, not written by Americans, and I think it’s a wonderful, different color for Encores!, with 12 instrumentalists instead of a full orchestra.”

Gets thoroughly enjoyed doing the HBO film “Grey Gardens,” although, in the year before shooting it, he faced extraordinary hostility at every dinner party from people wondering why they were doing it, who were they kidding and how Drew Barrymore could pull it off.

“I was trying to deflect all that stuff but when I saw the premiere, I was blown away,” he recalled. “The bulk of my work was with Jessica Lange, an extraordinary actress I became smitten with. I thought Drew was spectacular and also saw another side of her, the producer, putting herself out so far in that part, and then to come in on her days off. I saw what a really smart producer she is.

“I absolutely researched my role of Harold Gould, talking to people who knew him, and even wore a watch fob that belonged to him. What I instantly liked about our director Michael Sucsy was him saying, ‘Everybody says Gould was gay,’ but he thought it more interesting if he and Edith had a genuine sexual relationship, even if he was still attracted to men. He lived with her but did have male friends in New York, and eventually went to Paris and lived with a man. He came back to Easthampton and spent the last days of his life there in penury. A very conflicted man but we tried to get as much as we could of that in because we didn’t want it to seem like Edith was just hanging out with some gay guy who was using her.”

Gets himself was never officially in the closet, and publicly talked to the press about his sexuality back in the 1990s.

“I had never hidden my life and was always open in the community,” he said. “I have never ever regretted making the decision to talk to the press as my feelings as a humanitarian are as strong as my desire to act, especially in the 50-something years I’ve been alive and seeing all the discrimination.”

Gets’ parents are British and came to the US in 1952, living on the South Side of Chicago, “the only white couple for miles around. My mother was always very liberal and for years I’d call her, furious about something going down, and she would talk me down, saying, ‘You can’t see how things are changing but this is what it was like in the 1960s.’ So much has happened in the last two years, I, as an actor, can only think how terrible it is to be who you are but to feel you are not going to get jobs for being who you are.

“I teach now at NYU, and a few years ago some of the younger people in the drama division asked if they could have a symposium about this, and I put together some workshops where I got other openly gay actors and actresses to come speak to them. We always say to them, ‘It’s your choice.’ I have such admiration for Matt Bomer, who came out. He’s having his moment as an actor and from what I understand a large majority of the public still wanted him to play the lead in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ He didn’t get it, but the public spoke and they don’t care who he’s spending his life with.

“I know how much I wrestled with so many demons of my own because there was no one to help me though it. Now I want younger people to have people who are leading somewhat healthy lives to look at. Ellen Degeneres had such an effect on me when she came out. I thought she seems to be a healthy, happy person in a long-term relationship. I think that’s one of the strongest things we can do. I’ve been in my relationship for 15 years — we’re an old married couple and have the support of our families. Dominic is a fantastic person, with a furniture company and real estate holdings. Not in show business!”

Contact David Noh at, follow him on Twitter @in_the_noh, and check out his blog at