After her Tony-nominated performance in South Pacific and appearing in several concerts honoring their work, Kelli O'Hara would seem to be one of the premier interpreters of Rodgers and Hammerstein scores in the theater world today. And next week, she will check off another prime R&H role when she plays Julie Jordan in the New York Philharmonic's production of Carousel opposite opera star Nathan Gunn as Billy Bigelow.
"I am so proud to be associated with Rodgers & Hammerstein is such a positive way," O'Hara told BroadwayWorld just before rehearsals began, adding that while this is the first time she has taken on the role of Julie, it is not the first time she has performed in Carousel. "I played Carrie in high school and loved it," she says. "I always wanted to play Julie, but I knew there would be challenges with understanding her."
Carousel is, today, considered somewhat controversial in terms of its attitudes on domestic violence: In the musical, Julie Jordan opts to stays with Billy Bigelow even after he begins hitting her--a decision that was viewed as positive in 1945, but is much less sympathetic in 2013. O'Hara, for her part, is trying to balance the character with modern sensibilities.
"It isn't so much about sympathizing (although I do) as it is about just trying to tell her story so it's heard and learned from," she explains. "I may not know it directly, but I know that these problems have always existed and still exist so often, and judging them doesn't make them disappear...Not behind closed doors at least. But we need to hear them. Everyone's story is different and we can't really be inside them. I think (or at least hope) audiences understand that and still find the beauty is one person's specific journey," she adds. "Whether we like it or not or agree with it or not, what Julie deals with--and, more importantly, chooses to deal with--is a real, existing and very complicated thing. And exploring it is an important part of healing it."
While she has wanted to play Julie for years, O'Hara feels that her increased experience--both personally and professionally--has helped her find a stronger connection to the role. "When I was younger, I would have held the innocence and naïveté naturally, but the emotional growth may not have been there," she muses. "Now, I feel the opposite, like I have lived and loved enough to know more about her as she ages but grows continually away from her innocence. But, overall, the feelings are universal and will hopefully ring true in the wonderful writing no matter what."
As she prepares to bring Julie Jordan to life, O'Hara claims that she has less of a "process" for creating a character as opposed to familiarity with--and "true love for"--the material. "It's like the soundtrack of my childhood, so I guess I try to bring that closeness and joy into the roles. I love them," she says. "The Carousel overture has always been one of my all-time favorite pieces of music. So standing just off-stage listening to the NY Philharmonic play it might just be my favorite [moment in the show]. But the bench scene would be a close second."
O'Hara last performed with the Philharmonic in 2007 when she starred in My Fair Lady with Kelsey Grammer and Charles Kimbrough--an experience that she describes as "among the most glorious" of her life. "The fact that it was so fleeting but seemingly so perfect (in my little heart:), made the whole experience extremely joyous. It's like I savored every minute. Singing with the huge orchestra is always otherworldly, and the adrenaline rush that comes from that is so powerful. I am so excited to be there again with such a special show and such amazing people."
Carousel will run from February 27 to March 2 at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall.