‘I don’t know what happens after you win a Tony,” says Kelli O’Hara, the operatically trained actress who won a Tony Award two years ago as Anna in “The King and I.”
Against expectations, what’s happening is a calculated break from Broadway. Now O’Hara is in concert mode, which brings her to Fairfax’s George Mason University on Saturday night for a student benefit performance, accompanied by her pianist and music director, Dan Lipton. She phones from California, where she’s on the set of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” playing an advocate against bullying.
“The reason I’m doing concerts and TV now is because I know I’m coming back to theater very soon,” O’Hara says. Month after month of the eight-shows-a-week Broadway routine is something she wants to take on judiciously as she raises two young children with her husband, singer-actor Greg Naughton. When she returns, it may well be in the new musical that “If/Then” composer Tom Kitt is writing specifically for her. O’Hara says other stage projects will probably be announced soon, too.
The term “golden girl” has applied since her 2005 Tony nomination as the ultra-naïve ingénue Clara in Adam Guettel’s rapturous “The Light in the Piazza.” O’Hara then deliberately shifted gears with a funny, steamy “Pajama Game” with Harry Connick Jr., and clinched her Broadway stardom playing Nellie Forbush in the musically deluxe staging of “South Pacific.”
Yet O’Hara has always looked for ways to broaden her chances.
“As an actor, you tend not to turn down straight offers,” she says of being asked to join the controversial, suicide-themed “13 Reasons Why” for the show’s second season. “As a parent, yes, the show is very heavy. It’s a lot to think about. But I felt it was very important, and I recognized some of the things happening to these kids even from my own youth.”
The series showrunner is Brian Yorkey, Kitt’s lyricist on the musicals “Next to Normal” and “If/Then.” “We all have hands in a lot of pots, which makes it fun,” O’Hara says. “We all need to switch things up every once in a while to keep fresh.”
Another case in point: She’s also appearing at the Metropolitan Opera this season, singing Despina in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” O’Hara made her Met debut in the 2014-15 season’s “The Merry Widow”; opera had seemed her destiny when she studied at Oklahoma City University. O’Hara won a state Metropolitan Opera Competition but chose theater when she got an early impression of the professional opera world as more bruising and competitive than she cared for.
“Honestly, opera suits my voice,” O’Hara says. “I’ve taken 20 years away from it, but what happens is that I don’t think about where to place the voice or anything. I just sing. That’s why classical musical theater really works for me.”
She blended theater and opera playing the romantic Italian immigrant Francesca in the 2014 musical “The Bridges of Madison County.” “I encouraged Jason Robert Brown to write for my operatic background,” O’Hara says of the show’s composer. The new musical from Kitt (who played piano at O’Hara’s wedding) will be different as it deals with a kid who is into superhero comics: “It’s simple, broken, a folk-contemporary sound. It’s emotional, but it’s not operatic at all,” she says.
As for landing on Broadway and at the Met after being raised a million miles away in Oklahoma, O’Hara says, “Kids growing up right in New York City’s tri-state area — they probably think having a career is less possible. Not knowing too much helped me.”
George Mason University Concert Hall, 4373 Mason Pond Dr., Fairfax. 888-945-2468. cfa.gmu.edu.
Date: Sept. 23 at 8 p.m.