Kelli O’Hara’s appearance Thursday at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, where she will converse and perform with pianist-interviewer Seth Rudetsky, is virtually certain to be less of a challenge than an earlier visit to the Boston area by the Tony-winning Broadway star.
Just before her solo performance at Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre three years ago, O’Hara experienced an unusually severe case of laryngitis. Nonetheless, like theater troupers from time immemorial, she went on with the show — and what a show it proved to be. Marshaling her inner resources and tapping into the expressive capacities of one of the most glorious voices in all of musical theater, O’Hara turned a potential disaster into a triumph.
In a Globe interview, O’Hara recalled that night in 2016 while also discussing her fervent desire to do a nonmusical play and describing how she adapted her performance in last year’s Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” to avoid the show’s gender stereotypes and reflect the issues raised by the #MeToo movement.
Q. When you engage in an onstage dialogue of the sort you’ll be taking part in with Seth Rudetsky, does it force you to pause and think more deeply about what you do, as an artist, and help you see the big picture of your own career? I would guess it’s hard sometimes to see that big picture when you’re hurtling from project to project.
A. Yeah, you’re right. In a way, as an actor, it’s probably a good thing not to get too involved with either how great or bad you’re doing. When I do this particular format with Seth, I find that it’s a release. It’s more fun, there’s a lightness to it, the banter. In my solo shows, I take a very personal journey through my past, through my experiences. It’s a one-sided conversation, a monologue. With Seth we go off on little tangents. It’s surprising what we find to talk about, even if we’ve planned it a little. By the time we get to the songs, they tend to be more lighthearted.
Q. Is Rudetsky adept at responding in the moment to what you say?
A. Absolutely. Some people just see him as kind of a comedian. [He is] very intelligent, and has an encyclopedic mind about this business and the history, and the other thing that can’t be discounted is that he’s one of the best pianists out there. His playing has definitely changed the approach to certain songs that I’ve been singing for years, just because he puts a different emotion to it. And he’s a great interviewer.
Q. In 2016 you sang at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge with a severe case of laryngitis, and somehow managed to deliver a hell of a performance. How did you power through that night?
A. I remember that well. It’s one of the very few times in my career that’s ever happened. I’ve never canceled a show, and I remember that morning thinking to myself “I’m not going to start now, but what am I going to do?” You just go out and be honest. I knew that night I had to say to the audience “This is what we’re in for, but I’m here. I showed up, and I hope it counts for something.” It actually went better than I thought it would. As long as I’m there, I’m trying to make a connection. I feel like it’s the best we can do, to give somebody some sort of evening of entertainment.
Q. When you and I spoke three years ago, you told me that you and your collaborators on “The King and I” were very much conscious of the issue of gender equality in the show, that that issue “permeated the production.” Fast-forward to 2019 and your starring role in a revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” in which the influence of the #MeToo movement permeated the production. Could you speak to how you and [director] Scott Ellis and [costar] Will Chase went about recalibrating “Kiss Me, Kate” for the #MeToo era?
A. In general, we don’t do shows unless there’s a reason to do them, especially revivals, unless you have some sort of atmospheric influence on it. You want to use art to talk and communicate. “The King and I” opened in 2015, right when Hillary Clinton was running for president. Bart [director Bartlett Sher] wanted to dig deeply into the power of the women in that story, not just Anna but Lady Thiang, being the wife of the king, how much control she had. So when I go to do “Kiss Me, Kate,” I had a lot of questions. Why would you do “Kiss Me, Kate”? We have a lot to think about here. As an actor who wants to be in the moment and speak on behalf of certain subjects going on, I really couldn’t see myself doing it normally: the men laughing [at Kate], misogyny all over the place, “ha-ha-ha,” so funny.
This wasn’t the time for that. It was a time to dig deeply. Little choices had to be made. I wasn’t going to be ranting and raving and throwing flowerpots so the men had something to point at, to say how crazy [Kate] is. [The song] “I Hate Men” has been forever sung as a rant. I thought the words spoke for themselves. Some of the words in that song seemed current to me in so many ways. I’ve always been the kind of person who just wants people to listen. So I didn’t try to throw things and kick things and march around the stage. I tried to sit still and speak the words. That’s the best version of that song I could come up with, it being problematic. The very end of the show, of course, we had to change that as well. I mean, there were certain things that do live in that space that makes you cringe these days.
Q. I’m fascinated by the thought of you and Renée Fleming performing together at the Met in “The Merry Widow” back in 2014. Did you and Fleming compare notes about your different realms, musical theater and opera?
A. She’s awesome, a lovely, grounded, down-to-earth woman. She really supported me in that very scary entrée into the Met world. That wasn’t the case with everybody. Likewise, she told me, “I’m going to be playing Broadway. How do I save my voice? How do I do eight shows a week? How do you rest? What is your schedule?” We had a very intimate conversation about our two very different worlds. There was no ego. If you’re smart, you lean on people you can trust and you know have the experience. I certainly leaned on her, and then she gave me the gift of leaning on me a little bit.
Q. You’ve acted in numerous dramas on TV, and I know you did “King Lear” at the Public Theater, but onstage you’re primarily known for musicals. Would you like to try your hand again at a stage drama or comedy, and, if so, what plays and what roles?
A. I talk to my agents all the time: “I want to do a play, I want to do a play, I want to do a play.” They say the same thing to me every time: “Then stop taking work. Free up your schedule.” I think people think we make a lot of choices for exactly what we want all the time. I make a lot of choices based on what’s necessary in my life. Sometimes financial choices, sometimes scheduling choices, to spend a lot more time with my kids. It would be great to go down to the Public and do a straight play again, where I could just work on my acting and become a better artist. As I get older, I really need to dedicate and make more time for that, even though it’s sometimes risky when it comes to just my life and my schedule. But that is absolutely what I want to do. I’m open to new plays, something more contemporary for myself, because I’ve been living in the world of revivals. I don’t ever shut the door on anything.
THE SETH RUDETSKY SERIES STARRING KELLI O’HARA
At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston, Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. Tickets $39-$109, 888-616-0272, www.EmersonColonialTheatre.com
Interview was edited and condensed. Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.