NEW YORK — Kelli O'Hara is back in the same theater where she made her Broadway debut in 2000. The name on it has changed — from the Plymouth Theatre to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre — and she's in the star's dressing room this time, not sharing one with the ensemble.
And here's something else that's new: a breast pump.
"Just finished," the singer and actress says cheerfully to a reporter before a recent preview of her latest Broadway musical, "The Bridges of Madison County."
That's right: O'Hara, about to officially perform what she calls "my biggest challenge," is also mom to a baby only 5 months old. "Sleep is a whole different thing for me now," she says.
The musical is based on the Robert James Waller novel, which was made into a 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. It's about a four-day love affair between a photographer and an Italian-American housewife called Francesca in 1965 Iowa. The music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, who has given O'Hara what she calls "some of the best stuff I've ever gotten to sing."
O'Hara received Tony nominations for "South Pacific," ''The Pajama Game," ''The Light in the Piazza" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It." She has also appeared on Broadway in "Dracula," ''Sweet Smell of Success" and "Jekyll & Hyde," where she made her Broadway debut with David Hasselhoff.
She's also a mom, who with her husband, actor Greg Naughton, welcomed a girl in September to their family, which also includes 4-year-old Owen. At the end of the night at the theater, O'Hara finds herself climbing into bed with her son to cuddle.
"I just don't want to mess up both things," she says.
The soprano, who is in talks to next star as Anna in a Broadway revival of "The King and I," spoke to The Associated Press about motherhood, Meryl Streep and Shakespeare.
AP: How are you juggling motherhood and Broadway?
O'Hara: I want to be a mom and I've been working on a career that has finally come to a good place — and it happened all at the same time. You either do it or you don't. My option was to do it.
AP: What does this role mean to you?
O'Hara: It's really important to me. I keep wanting to take risks and reinvent myself in certain ways, whether it be a good thing or a bad thing. And thankfully, I've just slid under the radar. It's like, 'She didn't completely ruin herself with that.' This one is probably the most in-your-face as far as me trying to step out of my box, my comfort zone.
AP: Have you seen the film?
O'Hara: I don't think I've seen the movie all the way through but I've seen parts of it on YouTube. I'm such a huge fan of Meryl Streep that it's hard to watch her too much and it's hard for me to stop watching her. So I try to take an essence of her and pray that it somehow washes over me in some magical way. I need it. I would love to have an ounce of what she has.
AP: This role has infidelity, not the usual subject of musical theater.
O'Hara: There are two kinds of characters: Either the audience wants to be you or they can identify with you and they don't like it so much. Francesca is another one of those. You have to understand her. I really want her to be understood so the audience can say, 'It's OK what she's doing.'
AP: Was that really you in 'King Lear' a few years ago at the Public Theater? That was unexpected.
O'Hara: I sought it out. I auditioned. I worked. I auditioned for a couple of things beforehand that I didn't get and I waited for the right thing to come. It's something I've wanted to do forever.
AP: Was it your first professional Shakespeare role?
O'Hara: Yes. It was on my bucket list. I'm telling you I sat in that room like a silly little schoolgirl learning about iambic pentameter and when to breathe and then learning how to connect it with an actual emotional thought. I loved every second of it. It was the most wonderful gift I could have and I was so nervous and so glad.