The holidays are typically a huge family affair for Kelli O'Hara, but not this year. Instead, she and her husband and two children will be gathering with the rest of their clan via Zoom.
"It’s not worth it to us to risk anybody's health, especially my mom’s, so we’ll do the best we can," she said.
Luckily, O'Hara, whose graced Broadway in shows such as "South Pacific" and "The King and I," also gets to ring in the holidays in millions of living rooms when she appears in the PBS special "Christmas With the Tabernacle Choir," which premieres Dec. 14 at 9 p.m. on WNET/13. The show, which also features actor Richard Thomas, was recorded last year in Salt Lake City before an audience that included her father. "It was extraordinary. They, as a choir, are so unified, it sounds literally like one voice," she said.
O'Hara, 44, who will next be seen in the HBO miniseries "The Gilded Age," recently spoke about the holiday special as well as performing at Staller Center in Stony Brook just days before the pandemic lockdown.
This show is a holiday tradition. Given everything that’s happened this year, what do you hope audiences will get from it this year that maybe they didn’t feel in years past?
Because this was recorded the previous year, what you have is an offering that was done when people were sharing a big space — musicians and singers alike and the audience in this large hall. It will be an offering that is unlike anything we’ve had recently. … It will make people yearn for when they can get back to being together.
Once of your last shows before the pandemic was at the Staller Center Gala with Sutton Foster. What was that night like?
It was nerve wracking There were fewer people in the audience because people were starting to get wind of what was happening. But we went ahead with the concert and we were careful. We washed our hands a lot. … Sutton and I have known each other for a really long time and we had a great time. We did a few duets together, then I did my set and she did hers. It was fun to see how apples and orange our styles are and to put that together for a night of music. But we knew at that moment something was happening, and we thought, whatever’s happening let’s enjoy this.
Since you’re not performing as much these days, do you have to practice every day to keep your vocal cords strong?
I have to, it’s like any muscle. Your larynx needs to be treated appropriately in its sport, which is singing. I did a concert outdoors in Aspen and I did one with the New York Pops in September. I’ve done recordings for different [virtual] galas and fundraisers. It’s a little different singing in front of your computer. I’ve never done so much singing sitting down. [Laughs.]
One of your first jobs was chopping cotton, and you did it in a bathing suit. What was that about?
[Laughs.] I was a preteen and it was the summertime. I wasn’t going to the swimming pool and I wanted to get a tan as all my friends were doing. I grew up on a cotton and cattle and wheat farm [in Elk City, Oklahoma]. Chopping cotton means chopping the weeds in the rows, not chopping the actual cotton. My brothers and I, that’s what we did from 6 a.m. to noon, though not every day. My dad wanted us to be hard workers. Occasionally I would wear a bathing suit. I didn’t realize I had such fair skin and I ended up getting sunburned all the time.
You’ve performed with so many great people. Is there someone you're especially dying to work with?
One time there was a rumor going around that Julie Andrews was going to direct a production of "My Fair Lady" starring me. It was just a rumor, but it was the most beautiful rumor I ever heard in my life. I thought "Really? Sign me up." But it had no legs whatsoever. I’ve received a letter from her, but I’ve never met her. But knowing what she did for me as a child. literally planting a seed in my little heart, I would love to meet her or work with her.
I have to ask about the time you worked with Martin Scorsese on an industrial film early in your career.
It was a short film for a champagne company and it was a really extraordinary experience. It was made to look like a documentary, but they found this old footage of Hitchcock from a film that never got made. So we were to make a film as if it had been lost archival footage. … One of the neatest things was between takes he would say "Come over here" and he’d talk to me about his childhood and how he would sit and watch 35-mm films, and that’s how he got interested in filmmaking. He showed me how he worked and got his ideas. He was so passionate. I felt like "take a snapshot of this moment that you’re sitting here at this crazy beginning of your career and having this experience with this director."
Maybe he’ll call and offer you a role in his next movie.
I won’t hold my breath, but wow, from your mouth …
The full concert can be seen on BYUtv on Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. and then on the BYUtv app.