Make no mistake — Tony-winning actress Kelli O’Hara may kick butt onstage but she’s no shrew.
That’s the take-away from the new Roundabout Theatre Company revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” the classic musical with a score by Cole Porter, lyrics by Sam and Bella Spewack, starring O’Hara and “Nashville’s” Will Chase as feuding exes trying to stage a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The show, which opens at Studio 54 on March 14, is known for hit tunes like “Too Darn Hot” and “So In Love.” Also … some awkward plot points — like Lilli (O’Hara) getting spanked for being an outspoken diva. The producers hired Tony-nominated lyricist and composer Amanda Green to tweak some lines and lyrics to make it more palatable for the #MeToo era.
That’s fine by O’Hara, 42, who’s been tweaking her own career of late. The soprano made a sharp dramatic turn starring in “13 Reasons Why,” and “The Accidental Wolf,” a thriller web series that earned her an Emmy nomination. She recently spoke by phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Let’s talk a moment about the opening number — “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” — which is pretty much the stage actor’s anthem.
For parts of the song, your character watches the cast sing. What’s that like for you? Because, well, it IS another opening of another show.
When I first saw it, Warren [Carlyle, the choreographer] had staged it, and his assistant was sitting in for me — I started crying. In that moment, it does hit me — that I’ve dreamed of this, and I’ve gotten to work. But [I’m playing] this person who’s sort of a diva. Which … that’s something I never went after or felt.
So that moment feels familiar … yet not.
Every role I’ve played, like Francesca [in “The Bridges of Madison County”], or Anna [“The King and I”] — those aren’t me at all. But it’s a funny thing to play someone who’s close. Just a little bit.
An actress … playing an actress.
Yes. But [unlike Lilli] I’m NOT one of those girls who went to Hollywood, tried my hand at that for so long, and now is coming back to the theater.
No. Although you’ve had success lately with non-stage work. Like “Accidental Wolf.” You played a housewife caught in a military cover-up. Will there be a season two?
Yes, I just watched a screening. It’s done. This was a labor of love. An experiment that ended up with an Emmy nomination. Very unexpected. Because it’s a web series, there’s no timeline — [creator] Arian Moayed can release it whenever he wants. I learned a huge amount the first season. I learned how to do something meaty [in front of the camera], as opposed to “Oh, take three of these and call me in the morning.”
You mean the typical one-liner roles actors get on, say, “Law & Order: SVU?”
Those are the things theater people often do on TV and it makes us feel like never going there again. When you’re in love with the punishment of theater — that gorgeous feeling of ripping yourself open every single day — TV can seem like a snooze factory. Till you do something like “Accidental Wolf.”
“Kiss Me, Kate” is the next musical to get a cultural update. What’s that process been like?
We don’t want to fix what’s not broken. Like my song “I Hate Men” — we’re not changing anything about that except I’m not flailing about, like a crazy woman, so you discount me. I’m just singing the words. Listen, I don’t hate men. I’ve got a great husband. Granted, I’ve had some doozies in my life, to be sure. A producer or two ….
My last song — which is the Shakespearean speech, “I’m ashamed that women are so simple” — we have something changing in that every single day. (The song is now called “I am Ashamed that People Are So Simple.”) I’ve been able to voice opinions. I remember the days I had no voice. It’s like all my voice that I’ve held in for years has finally come out with a roar in this. (She chuckles.) But I think there was already a lot of power in my character. There was a lot of language in the play “Taming of the Shrew,” that they cut (in the original musical production), stuff that has great agency, great intellectual wit. So we added some of that back in. And Will (Chase) has fought for some changes, too. You know, he has two grown daughters looking at him every day saying, “You better be woke.” So it’s been a process that’s been fun. (We’ve) taken these minute details and changed a word here or there that really just changes the whole thing.