In 2013, Lisa O’Hare originated the role of Sibella Hallward in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” on Broadway. Now, she’s returning to a character from her past: Eliza Doolittle. O’Hare will play the role in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “My Fair Lady,” which opens April 28. This will be the fifth production in Lyric’s American Musical Initiative.
Make It Better spoke with the Broadway star about the musical, motherhood, and a cause close to her heart.
Make It Better: What are you looking forward to the most as you start preparing for “My Fair Lady”?
Lisa O’Hare: I’m absolutely thrilled to be doing “My Fair Lady” again. It’s been years since I did my last production. I was on the U.S. tour of “My Fair Lady” for Cameron Mackintosh in, I think it was 2007-2008. So it’s quite a few years now since I’ve been involved with the show. It’s one of my absolute favorite musicals of all time. Arguably my favorite piece of musical theater of all time. It’s one of those rare roles that just sort of works every muscle of an actor’s singing voice and body. It’s emotionally exhausting in the best possible way. And I had some time off because I had my baby [daughter Cielle] … so I’m just so excited to be playing [this role] that I have a history with after having this time off with my little girl. It’s really quite thrilling.
How do you prepare for a show like this?
Gosh, there’s a lot of preparation that goes in. It’s not so much of a dancey role, but she’s very physical, Eliza, so you have to make sure that you’re physically in check. But yes, it’s a lot of reading, it’s a lot of sitting down, reminding yourself of the character, doing research online and looking at interviews and various things. It’s one of my favorite parts of doing a show is the preparation and gathering all the information and going into the rehearsal room feeling as prepared as possible. I like to start working some of the scenes on my own and reading some of it out loud, especially for this piece because it’s so much about dialect and phonetics. Just really making sure I have that really in my body and in my mouth because it’s very specific, that Cockney sound. And it needs to be understandable to the audience members, but also it needs to be authentic. I was actually listening recently to an interview with Audrey Hepburn and as they were about to go in and watch, I think, the first screening of it, she hadn’t seen it yet and she was so worried that people wouldn’t understand her. She tried to strike this balance of this authentic Cockney accent but also something that people would understand. That’s really important and it’s always a bit of a fine tuning thing that we’ll obviously work on in rehearsals. But yeah, I love it. It’s all part of the fun of being an actor is doing all that kind of work. It’s what makes it so fun.
How did you get started in theater? Where did your passion for theater come from?
Well, I began in ballet. I was at the Royal Ballet School of Training, so I moved away from home when I was 11. My aunt used to take me out on the weekend and take me to see different shows. And although I had seen theater, I had never seen professional theater like it is in the West End of London and I just absolutely fell in love with musical theater. And I think I knew quite early on that ballet, as much as I had a passion for ballet, I think musical theater was really where my heart was. So I started focusing my energies more on acting and then I actually went to drama school. I think that’s where it began, when I went to go and see musicals when I was young, about 13, 14. I saw “Phantom” and I saw “West Side Story.” [My aunt] was actually just saying to me the other day, “I remember when you saw ‘West Side Story’ and that was it.” The light went on for me. That was what I wanted to do. It felt very far from my reach, but it was what I wanted to do.
There was just something about it, a really, really beautifully written musical. And “My Fair Lady” is one of those. It’s arguably one of the best written musicals. It is one of those things where you’re sitting there and the songs don’t just come out of nowhere. It’s almost as if you need the song in order to forward the story. You can’t express what you need to express without the music. I think all good musicals, brilliantly crafted musicals, have that. The music is there in order to serve the piece, not just there arbitrarily, just plonked there because we feel like doing a musical number. We learn about the character. We need the music to see the piece. That’s why “My Fair Lady” is such a joy to play because it never feels clunky. It’s seamless. When you go from dialogue to music, you almost don’t notice.
What are your hobbies or interests outside of theater?
My little girl is pretty much my whole world at the minute. She’s 16 months old, so soft play and parks and zoos are our life really. I don’t have a lot of time for hobbies and things outside the theater because my work and my family are every ounce of my time. But that suits me perfectly. We like hiking. We like everything outdoors. When she gets a little older, we’d like to do a few more camping trips and going on bigger hiking excursions because that’s something we really enjoy, but she’s a little small for that yet. We don’t have any energy for that at the minute.
Do you have any tips or advice for new moms returning to work?
Yes. For the longest time I just didn’t know if I was ever going to feel ready to go back. I thought it was going to be this very clean cut thing that when I was sixth months postpartum I was going to be ready and I would just slip back into a job. And for some people it is that way and for me it wasn’t and I just didn’t feel ready for quite a long time. It was a year, really. And then when I did feel ready, I had this enormous guilt that went with it. I felt extremely guilty for wanting to go back to work because everybody else was saying, ‘Oh, I could never do it, I can never go back.’ And I felt very guilty.
I think it’s important to know that you can love your child unconditionally with every ounce of yourself and still, you’re an artist and you deserve to be able to fulfill that part of your life and it’s a big part of who you are. Certainly is a huge part of who I am and I want her to know that side of me. I want her to know mummy as someone who has this enormous passion. And I long for her to have something in her life when she grows up that is as fulfilling as my career is. But it really wasn’t an easy transition. It was very, very difficult and I felt as though I had lost a limb at one point when I wasn’t working and I was waiting for the right thing to come along. And actually, this is one of the first jobs that fell into my lap after having her and I couldn’t be more grateful because, like I said, it’s a very fond show for me. It has great memories. It basically launched my career when I was 21 years old. So I’m eternally grateful. But yes, it’s a bumpy ride and I think it’s ok to know that it’s going to be a bumpy ride and to rid yourself of the guilt because everybody goes through it.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re in Chicago?
It’s such a fantastic city for families, so I can’t wait to go and explore with Cielle, do the museums. I mean, I will have to sort of lay low a little. My husband will be keeping her extremely busy and then on the odd occasion I’ll be going out and doing things with them. I can’t wait to be there, really. It’s been lots of years since we were there and I think it’s going to be really lovely to go back and have a new experience with Cielle.
Are there any nonprofits or causes close to your heart?
CURE. Our friend Miguel Cervantes, who’s playing Hamilton in Chicago, his daughter suffers from infantile spasms and I know that that is the charity they are really pushing at the moment to try and get a lot of awareness around it, so it would be that. She is the same age as my daughter, just a couple of months younger, so I’ve seen them go through an awful lot on that journey with her, so yes, the more money and awareness we can raise around that the better really.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m absolutely beyond thrilled to be doing ["My Fair Lady"] and the cast sounds absolutely phenomenal. Bryce Pinkham, we’ve already worked together in “Gentleman’s Guide,” so that’s going to be really thrilling to play against his Freddy. I’m just really excited about all of it really. Richard E. Grant (Henry Higgins) is going to be glorious, I just know it. I’m just really excited.