Kelli O'Hara is a Broadway star with operatic training. Nathan Gunn is an opera star with a great love of Broadway. And next Monday, they will be joining forces with the New York Philharmonic for a one-night-only concert at Avery Fisher Hall to celebrate Broadway's Golden Age, with songs by Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Comden & Green, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. (For the record, the last two are the most contemporary of the lot, with 1957's West Side Story as the most recent show featured.)
The concert will be notable not only for pure star wattage, but for the blending of two distinct styles of music. "Nathan and I sang together at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors as part of the Barbra Streisand tribute," O'Hara remembers. "I've always wanted to sing with him again, and mentioned it to my manager, Erica Tuchman, who made some calls, and here we are."
Once Ted Sperling was in place as conductor, the three selected songs to suit the voices. Gunn, who has never done an all-Broadway concert before, relied on Sperling and O'Hara to help him select what he would sing-and on his wife, Dr. Julie Gunn, who is also well-versed in musicals. "I love bridging the worlds, LOVE it!" Gunn says enthusiastically when asked about the two artforms. "I find it less challenging than most people would think, but this may be because I was taught by a man that did it himself." Gunn's teacher, William Miller, made his career singing oratorio, opera, and American song live on the radio. "He stressed being able to sing well in English and that healthy singing was synonymous with good diction," Gunn recalls. "The style comes easily to me because as I sing more and more of this music I realize that I grew up listening to it."
For her part, O'Hara says that she is excited to sing with Gunn again. "We've never sung an entire program together," she notes. "The repertoire will also highlight parts of our voices we don't often get to use."
As an actress, O'Hara acknowledges some challenges in taking to the stage as herself rather than a character. "To play a character is to inhabit the world and the life of that character," she says. "Concerts are made up of as many worlds as there are songs. Each song is a moment in time, and so I tend to invest more in my personal interpretation of each song in a concert rather than into each and every character. Some songs depend heavily on the character, but, for the most part, a great song begs for reinterpretation every time it is sung, even when in character."
Gunn agrees. "I find moving from one scene to another and changing characters difficult sometimes. For example, going from a character that wishes he had never married and mourning his bachelor years to a character that is in love and thrilled to have found his soul mate a little tricky." On the other hand, he adds, there are some upsides to performing a concert, too. "The positive side about doing a concert is that you can create your own story through your choice of repertoire. This adds a creative element that you otherwise would not have."
"I think they complement each other," O'Hara says about concerts and scripted shows. "Playing characters allows me to do things I may not always do while singing in concerts allows me to really find my own voice and grow. The pros and the cons are the same depending on what you are doing when asked."
Having taken on several musical theater roles in recent years-most notably, Lancelot in 2008's Camelot at Avery Fisher Hall, Gunn is eager to try some more. "There are a number of characters I'd love to perform on Broadway," he says, "and they are almost all from classics like Carousel, Showboat, Oklahoma, South Pacific and others. But I'm also very interested in some of the new pieces, the shows that are being written now by people such as Adam Guettel. Creating a character is something that interests me in both the musical theater world and the classical theater world. The biggest obstacle to this is scheduling. The two worlds don't play well together," he quips.