There’s a certain bit of irony that theater star Kelli O’Hara grew up a big fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but was never exposed to “South Pacific” or “The King and I” — the two revivals she’s played on Broadway. She starred in “South Pacific” in 2008 and is now headlining “The King and I,” now in previews at the Lincoln Center Theater.
amNewYork spoke with O’Hara, 38, about the musical, where she stars as Anna, a governess taking care of the children of the King of Siam (played by Oscar-nominated movie star Ken Watanabe).
What’s your relationship with “The King and I”?
Now it’s pretty deep and lovely, and I’m in love with it. I didn’t love it before. I grew up on what I thought was all things Rodgers and Hammerstein almost, meaning all things that were on my radar. I didn’t grow up with a couple, which are this one and “South Pacific,” and it’s funny because I’ve ended up doing both of those now. I really fell in love with “The Sound of Music” and “Carousel,” and “Oklahoma,” obviously, because I’m from Oklahoma.
How is it working opposite Ken Watanabe?
Gosh, I feel like I just get luckier and luckier with these leading men. He’s just the most generous, beautiful soul. He loves to cook and he makes these rice balls. I think he feels they’re not medicinal, but they have good energy in them. And every day I come into my room and there’s one right on my table waiting for me. So he takes care of me and he really worries about my well-being and my health, how I’m doing. He’s just very lovely to work with.
And you’re reuniting with director Bartlett Sher.
Well, Bart and I, this is our fourth — not including out-of-town productions — time together. When you’re comfortable, and you trust someone so much, it just allows for free creativity, and I’m so grateful for that and I’ve realized more than ever on this particular thing, how much of a teacher he’s been for me in the last 10 years of his life, or 12 years of my life, which has been my whole professional career basically. He’s just been my graduate degree and my teacher. It’s been wonderful.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
I think it’s going to change a lot. I still have so much fun singing with the kids and doing stuff in the “Getting to Know You” number. That’s a really nice moment to have with all of the kids and wives. … I get to watch the ballet from the front as an audience member and that to me is a beautiful thing because I get to see every little source of discipline that these dancers are using and the way they move their bodies. It’s going to be one of those shows that continually gets more interesting to me.
Are there other productions from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog that you’d like do?
Oh gosh, the great thing about their catalog is I’m shocked by how relevant all of their stories seem to me. They wrote this one in 1951 and here we are talking about equal rights for women and for people in general. It just feels relevant today, just like “South Pacific” did. We were at war at the same time we were doing “South Pacific.” I never have performed “The Sound of Music.” I did “Oklahoma” once. I did “Carousel” a couple of years ago with the [New York] Philharmonic. I wouldn’t say no to any of it. I always find it relevant and wonderful and challenging. But I don’t really have any agendas.
Siam is now known as Thailand. Where’s your favorite spot in the city for Thai food?
I like Land Thai, because I live on the Upper West Side. Let’s see. I think that’s one of my favorites. I always order a curry, a green curry.
If you go: “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I” plays through July 5 at the Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater. 150 W. 65th St., lct.org.