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Theatre / Feature
Kelli O’Hara will make her West End debut in The King And I – direct from Broadway. We caught up with her as part of our ongoing celebration of Women in Theatre.
In 2015, Kelli O’Hara won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Anna in the Broadway revival of The King And I. Having previously starred in (and been nominated for roles in) The Bridges of Madison County, Nice Work If You Can Get It, South Pacific, The Pajama Game and The Light in the Piazza, O’Hara had clearly earned her stripes.
Now, she’s riding high on the wave of this stunning new production – the review in the Wall Street Journal said “I doubt I’ll ever see a better production in my lifetime” – and as The King And I gears up to take over the iconic London Palladium, we chatted with Kelli about her experiences and how preparation for the show is going.
“There’s just something about the rush of the heart and the roar of the crowd when you’re working in theatre that is so exhilarating,” she tells us when we ask what inspires her. She goes on to explain that, even more consistently, the thing that keeps pulling her back is the gift of true collaboration between beautiful people both on and off the stage.
It’ll no doubt come with a sense of ease then that the London production of The King And I will see O’Hara reunited with Tony and Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe. In addition, the original creative team – Catherine Zuber (who won the Tony Award for Best Costume), set designer Michael Yeargan, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Scott Lehrer and choreographer Christopher Gattelli – are all back too, all under the directorship of Bartlett Sher, who also directed on Broadway.
When she accepted her Tony Award in 2015, O’Hara thanked the entire cast and crew of The King And I, calling them both proud and beautiful people. She said she’d be back… and, well, here she is.
“I was really attracted to Anna’s fearlessness” she tells us when discussing the role. And fearless Anna most certainly is.
Set in 1860s Bangkok, The King And I sees British schoolteacher Anna enter the royal house of the King of Siam to teach his many wives and children. What follows is the endearing, classic tale of their relationship, both unconventional and tempestuous in tone.
It surely takes a brave woman to enter such an intimidating world – but Anna rises to the challenge, notably illustrated through act one opener Whistle a Happy Tune, which sees Anna refusing to be cowed by the King’s prime minister.
“With Anna, there’s also her fears, her hunger, her flaws, and I love that she spends a lot of time with children,” O’Hara continues when defining the formidable woman she plays on stage. “There’s also her ability to grow and change.”
It’s notable that the role of Anna – and the story at large – has stood the test of time. Largely recognised as the greatest musical from the golden age of theatre – The King And I was first performed on Broadway in 1951 – the show features iconic songs such as Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance.
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This production – which comes straight to the West End from Broadway – also boasts a company of over 50 performers and is a testament to the lavish heritage of gloriously romantic musical theatre.
And, for a show over 60 years old, The King And I remains an oddly relevant. “Unfortunately, I think the theme of two different types of people coming together – whether it be race, religion, ideals, age or gender – and looking at what separates them will always be an issue worth exploring and improving,” O’Hara says.
“In this story, there is an eventual collaboration and respect, once earned, and that, I think, is a positive example that makes the show timeless.”
So what’s next for O’Hara? Is there a role she’s still itching to play?
She’s keeping her cards close to her chest. “I believe the role to look forward to is the one I haven’t met yet,” she says instead, gleefully.
And for young performers looking to make it in theatre? That’s easy. “I think Oscar Wilde said it best, ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken’.”
Kelli O’Hara stars in The King And I at the London Palladium from 21 June 2018. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.co.uk or take advantage of our exclusive Mother’s Day offer and pay no booking fees when you book before 11 March here.