'South Pacific' star Kelli O'Hara is Broadway's Irish Colleen
The beautiful and talented Tony Award-nominated actress talks about her Irish roots and growing up in Oklahoma.
Published Sunday, March 15, 2009, 12:02 AM
Updated Thursday, June 27, 2013, 7:58 PM
The score of “South Pacific” is familiar to many – but the current Broadway production the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic nevertheless manages to make a well-known story sounds fresh.
And while being utterly true to the original intent of the show, Kelli O’Hara as Ensign Nellie Forbush, Paulo Szot as French planter Emile de Becque, Matthew Morrison as Marine Lt. Joseph Cable make up a cast the New York Times called “flawless.”
“I could feel the people around me leaning in toward the stage as if it were a source of warmth,” wrote that paper’s theater critic, Ben Brantley. “It’s the fire of daily life with all its crosscurrents and ambiguities underscored and clarified by music.”
O’Hara, who recently finished up a long run a Broadway in "South Pacific" to take maternity leave, talked to IrishCentral about her family history and heritage.
Talk to me about your Irish background.
I’m proud to be Irish. I was born and raised in Oklahoma. Both sides of my family came there during the time of the land run in 1889.
My great-grandfather, Peter O’Hara, was born in Ireland, I believe in Co. Clare. His father, my great-great-grandfather, had actually come to America a generation before when times were very bad in Ireland. He worked in the Pennsylvania area and did well with horses and farming. My great-aunt, who is in her nineties, told me the story.
She said that he went back to Ireland, either to get his family or to live there with his newfound wealth, but he was actually forced to leave. Something happened and he had to take his family and nothing else and escape at night. This would be at the end of the 19th century. Three of his sons, my great-grandfather Peter and his brothers James and Michael, split off from the rest of the family to go find land. They landed in western Oklahoma and participated in the land rush. We still farm the land that they found. My dad’s brother Robert lives on the original farm. My father and brother are both Patrick O’Haras. Our family has a long wonderful history of Irish lineage that I’ve enjoyed learning about, though I don’t know enough.
Tell me about your hometown.
Elk City is in western Oklahoma near the Texas panhandle and both my parents grew up there. We’ve had our land since 1889. We just celebrated the centennial of our statehood in 2007, an event that Rodgers & Hammerstein celebrated in Oklahoma. Life is a strange bit of circles, isn’t it? We didn’t have much formal theater.
My dad was a farmer. He went back to school and he’s now an attorney. My mom is a teacher. There was singing in church and at weddings. We were Catholics in the Baptist Bible Belt. Our church, St. Matthew’s Catholic, was central to our lives. I grew up singing in church and I loved it. I went to Oklahoma City University where my teacher, Florence Birdwell, helped me think outside the box.
When I graduated, I could have gone on to grad school or studied more music, but I eventually found myself packing two suitcases with no clue and moving to New York City ten years ago. I think it scared my parents a lot, but they put me on that plane. I just had a feeling that if I didn’t try I would never forgive myself. Somehow I wasn’t even afraid. But then, look at my great-great-grandfather and all the Irish who headed out into the unknown. When I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, I thought, I know these people. I understand their humor, their endurance, their strength.
And now after your great successes in “The Light in the Piazza” and The Pajama Game, you have made Ensign Nellie Forbush come to life. Could you talk about that process?
I find everything through personal connections. I have pictures in my dressing room of my grandmother on my mom’s side, who was English. She was from right outside Little Rock, Arkansas. She was blond. She was feisty. She grew up in the time before civil rights, when children were “carefully taught,” as the song says. She was the person in my head when I started thinking about Nellie.
When you go to acting school, everyone wants you to say what your big problems are so you can weep. But I’m not going to lie about the fact that I had a good childhood. I had two sets of grandparents in my little tiny town and I walked barefoot down the street and everyone knew whose daughter I was. I’m proud of that and I’m using it. I suppose there are a lot of reasons to be jaded or sarcastic or bitter in life. But I hang on to the reasons why life is beautiful. It helps to have a history to think about, to remember those who came before you, to help you be in this place. I feel very fortunate. I don’t feel held down, or that I need to create angst in order to be a good artist. I feel like my artistry comes from the things I do believe in. I’m very happy. The longer I play Nellie Forbush, this cockeyed optimist person, the better I feel about that.
Have you ever traveled in Ireland?
It’s my biggest goal to visit there. I did spend a night in Ireland one time. It was the most surreal experience, because I’ve always wanted to see the countryside of Ireland. I was coming from London and it was winter and there was a storm here in New York City that kept the plane from crossing the Atlantic. We were diverted to Shannon Airport. It was kind of a scary moment – they took us to this hotel in the middle of nowhere. It was dark, late at night. It was about two years ago. I sat with several Irish couples and they told me about Ireland and how they grew up.
They were about my own age. I had a pint and went to bed. And when I woke up, I looked out the window and I was in the middle of the Irish countryside. There were rock walls and sheep and rolling green hills. It seemed unreal because it was so what I’ve imagined. You know, when you go to a country and imagine what it will be but it’s not, it’s just like New York City? Well, this was as I’d imagined. Then they took us back on a bus and I flew away. It was almost like I’d been magically transported to an essential version of Ireland.
Later I found out that I’d been looking out at the hills of Co. Clare where the O’Haras are from. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents, my brother Patrick, and my sister Anne Marie. I’m very proud of my family.
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