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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Kelli O’Hara, Actor

"I remember, sitting with Betty Comden, thinking that I finally knew my purpose."

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It’s been ten years since this happened, maybe 11. It was when I was doing The Light in the Piazza, toward the beginning of my career, when I was trying to figure out where my place could be and what I was trying to do. And I preface this by saying I didn’t grow up in the arts; I didn’t grow up seeing any live productions. I grew up in Western Oklahoma, and I only sang and performed for church or wedding or school functions. I wasn’t playing a character. It was about singing for a certain purpose — to make people feel better, or whatever it was, if you can see what I mean.

So when I was doing The Light in the Piazza, Betty Comden — who passed away shortly after this particular experience — couldn’t come to see it, and she really wanted to. But she was 89, and she was very, very ill. So I was asked Victoria Clark, who was playing the character of the mother, and the actor who was playing Fabrizio to go over to her apartment, which was a few blocks from Lincoln Center. It was the strangest thing. We walk into this beautiful apartment, and her awards for writing Singin’ in the Rain are on the piano, and she’d been put up in the living room, maybe kind of a hospice situation. She was lying there, and I sat on this chaise right next to her and held her hand, and we sang the score. We sang it just face to face with her, while holding her hand. The three of us were there and maybe our director. She had somebody with her. I don’t remember if it was a caretaker or a family member. And she was alert and responsive, but she definitely wasn’t able to be incredibly with us. But when we started to sing, there was kind of an acknowledgment; she responded to us. And we were emotional, because we knew that … you can probably imagine it, the way a person who is very much at the end of their life kind of comes to life by hearing things that they would respond to. In her case, music and lyrics, because she spent her life doing that.

Having done the show so many times on a stage with lots of huge ceilings and volume, I remember the difference and changing the songs to fit the moment. All three of us did that. We sang almost a lullaby version, which we had never practiced. We just went over there with the songs in our heads that we do every night onstage, but they became lullabies—because of the experience and the situation. If you’re doing a cabaret or something, you rearrange the song to make it have a different mood or a different impact, and I think that’s the same thing. You could take a heavy-metal rock song or a rap, and if you were holding a baby in your arms, you would tear the song apart, slow it down, and hold out certain words that mean more to you. That’s the beauty of music, in that even though it’s written on the page, you can do whatever you want to do to help the story of the song. I remember it being a challenge, because I hadn’t thought of the songs in a different way before. After that show, I made an album where I rerecorded and rearranged one of the songs from that show, “Fable,” Margaret’s song, in a somewhat lullaby fashion, and that’s probably why I did it, because it wasn’t one of the songs I sang in the show. It’s Vicki’s song! Vicki will always be Margaret to me. I just thought it was the most literal fable, fairy tale, type song.

As young artists, we get caught up in how the song should sound based on who has sung it before. I often work with college students, and I think about how if you come in with, say, eight bars of Wicked, and if you don’t belt it or scream it the way Idina Menzel does, does that mean you’re unhireable? The idea of learning to do a song is to make it work for your story, and your voice, and your capabilities. You wouldn’t ask an opera singer to sing “My Funny Valentine” the same way a jazz singer would sing it, but both are very valid, beautiful things, if they’re done with conviction and with heart. But young people don’t always do that right away. What they do is look on the page, and they read it or they take the preconceived sound of it—a Julie Andrews sound, or whatever it is—and they have to do it just so. The minute someone takes a song and tears it apart and makes it something else, it means something personal. The listener perks up. People want to see what we as individuals have to say, as opposed to trying to copy each other.

That was what was kind of magical about that moment with Betty Comden and led me to a future of trying to find ways to affect people differently, because we are always singing new things, but we’re also asked to sing the old ones as well. I remember, sitting with Betty Comden, thinking that I finally knew my purpose. I remember thinking, This is exactly why I am doing what I am doing. It all came full circle for me, because I am in a professional show playing a Broadway role, but I’m using it to do exactly what I did when I was a kid — which is to sing in someone’s living room for a personal reason. And I made it my M.O. since then, when I sing, to be very personal and to tell stories about why I’m able to communicate through my singing, as opposed to it being like, I can stand up onstage or I can hit that note. That to me was the pinnacle of the certainty that I was in right place, to have chosen to do such a crazy, crazy thing. This was less of a discovery that “Yes, I can sing” and more why I should sing. It was a confirmation of what I thought my musical life should be about. She died a few months after that. “Make Someone Happy” is a big song of hers, and I always sing it at the end of my solo shows in honor of her. I’ve literally sung it about a thousand times. I’m not kidding. Five thousand times? It has such a good message, and it really represents how I feel about things.


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