It’s been a big year for women on Broadway, with strong, female creative voices permeating the scripts, scores, and stages of this season’s plays and musicals. Yet while 70% of Broadway’s ticket buyers are women, female playwrights, composers, and directors are still greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts. Leading up to the Tony Awards on June 8, we spoke with three power women behind thriving Broadway musicals this season—five-time Tony-nominated actress Kelli O’Hara, Pulitzer Prize finalist and four-time Tony-nominated composer Jeanine Tesori, and five-time Tony-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman—about life on and behind the stage, their nominated projects, and being a woman in today’s theatre.
Today, we sit down with actress Kelli O’Hara, who recently received her fifth Tony nomination for her role as Francesca in Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s The Bridges of Madison County (also the only new production on Broadway to feature a script by a woman). You may have watched her a cappella performance of Bridges’ “To Build a Home,” which The New York Times In Performance video series turned into a viral hit last week. Bridges tells the story of Francesca, an Italian immigrant living in Iowa, who begins an extramarital affair when a photographer, Robert, visits town—and, in an interesting subversion of the Robert Waller novel on which it’s based, does so from Francesca’s, rather than Robert’s, point of view. As one of Broadway’s preeminent leading ladies, O’Hara has also received Tony nominations for her last four consecutive major shows and, this winter, will make her Metropolitan Opera debut in The Merry Widow.
Congratulations on your Tony Nomination for The Bridges of Madison County. This is your fifth nom but the first for a role with so much stage time—Francesca is in almost every scene. Is it a new experience?
The actual size of the role doesn't make the experience that much different. But the weight of carrying the bulk of the message of the piece is a greater challenge. I really care about this show as a whole and how everything works. I’ve made that a passion of mine, and my heart has gone into that very deeply.
I saw that a lot of young women, especially women in their twenties, posted actively about your role, Francesca, on social media. Why do you think her character resonated with them?
That makes me so happy. We want so much for Francesca to be a woman of confidence. It's all about the choices she makes when she is young and the way those affect everything. It’s about choices. And to make choices, and let them be the most positive thing they can for you even if they lead in a direction you didn’t plan on. Francesca’s affair with Robert [the photographer played by Steven Pasquale] is only one part of her journey. I think that was something very important to Marsha Norman, who adapted the original Robert Waller book. She specifically changed it to make our version her story as opposed to his. If 20-something women are seeing value in this, that is our goal and makes me very happy.
Bridges was both theatrical and cinematic. What was it like melding those mediums?
I love the way the show was directed by Bart Sher so that scenes flow from one to the next and flashbacks happen on a stage. It’s incredibly fluid and in the moment to work this way. I think it's new and unusual, and it let's theatre magic blend with absolute realism. We needed to tell this particular story that way.
Despite positive reviews, Bridges closed early.
Bridges is probably closing because it was hard to market what we really had. The famous name put a stamp on us that we couldn't erase. And what was found inside those theatre doors wasn't something you could put on a billboard. It’s not just about the affair, it’s about a woman’s choice. I think we made a very interesting new piece of art to take in. When people came, they always left surprised and, usually, full of unexpected emotion. As artists we must always have these experiences in our lives because they’re the ones that feed the soul.
In the past, as a blonde soprano, you’ve been labeled an ingénue, but every character you’ve portrayed has had dimension and agency. What drives you to dig deeper than expected?
I've always wanted my characters to have more dimension and realistic cores than the ingénue material often provides. It's been a challenge. But I'm blonde, I sing soprano, and I guarantee there is more to me than that. So these characters deserve a realistic portrayal. I think it can be a good idea to know what you do well and use that to open the door for yourself. Once you open the door, close it behind you, and start to make changes.
A lot of the biggest names in musical theatre performers are women. Why hasn’t that resulted in more shows being written and directed by women?
I'm honestly not sure. I would think the theatre, of all places, would be an especially good place to break the mold. Maybe we need more female producers, like Stacey Mindich, making decisions. I’m involved with the Lilly Awards [honoring women in theatre] this year and a lot of the women involved with that are writing plays. I know this disparity exists in all of theatre, but maybe musical theatre is a good place to start. I’ve worked on musicals with [director] Kathleen Marshall many times, and I’m excited to work with Susan Stroman at the Met this winter. Marsha’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and she writes books for musicals to great success. I would embrace and love to do more work of women. It’s something we should encourage more.
Do you find different questions directed at you than at male co-stars during interviews?
I talk a lot about my family, being a mom, and the pressures of balancing that with work. And Steven [Pasquale, my co-star in Bridges] is a father, but it never really comes up, and he hates that. I don’t mind talking about my family and how to balance it all. But, in today’s world, we should probably be asking both women and men about work and family and how to balance the two.
How would you like to see gender equality improved on Broadway?
As an actor, I feel very lucky that I probably have more of an equal stand in the workplace than in many other professions. But I realize that’s not the case for others in this field. I think asking questions about this topic is important and something we should do more of and to more people. The larger the discussion, the larger the chance of finding a solution. I’m very proud of what I do, and very passionate about it, and it’s important to me make sure that anyone who wants to be involved in this art form has doors open to them.
Victoria Myers. (2014, June 3). Broadway's Leading Ladies: Actress Kelli O'Hara. Retrieved from Harpers Bazaar: http://bit.ly/1kNcMIX
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