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The King and I
Photograph: Paul KolnikThe King and I

Give the Tony Award to the most deserving: Kelli O’Hara

Written by
David Cote

Two days ago my esteemed colleague Adam Feldman uttered a cri de coeur rallying Tony voters to support Kristin Chenoweth, dammit, because she is so amazing in On the Twentieth Century and it is a crime—a crime—that she has never gotten a Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Musical. He made a strong argument.

RECOMMENDED: See complete Tony Awards coverage

But I disagree. I believe Kelli O’Hara deserves to win the Tony for her immaculately poised and richly modulated performance as Anna in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The King and I. Weighing all the elements—vocal brilliance, acting subtlety, conception of role, support of artistic vision and that X factor of a star challenging herself—I find myself more impressed by O’Hara’s achievement than Chenoweth’s admittedly delightful turn.

Of course, like all talent contests at this high a level, the race is inherently silly, comparing apples and oranges—or perhaps, apples of equally complex savor. Chenoweth is in terrific voice, she’s funny as all get-out, and Lily Garland is precisely the kind of role she can do with both hands tied behind her back. What’s more, Chenoweth is clearly, on some intangible level, channeling the wonderful Madeline Kahn—who originated the role in 1978. What’s not to like?

And yet O’Hara is giving a smart, deeply felt performance that is by turns radiant and restrained (when it needs to be), centered and nuanced, humor mingled with melancholy. She is the anchor in a production that revisits a Broadway classic that, in 64 years since it opened, has become a politically delicate cultural property. O’Hara’s sensitive but steely turn opposite Ken Watanabe is imbued with intelligence and moral clarity, yet Anna is still a feeling, fallible woman of her time. And that voice. Whereas some Broadway performers think that pyrotechnics and belting are essential features, O’Hara melts the distinction between speaking and singing, which impeccable diction and phrasing. She makes playing Anna look easy, natural and unforced. She and the role are one.

Perhaps the distinction I’m dancing around is this: O’Hara is serious and glorious in a revivified masterwork, and Chenoweth is being her deliciously brassy self in a retro romp. The choice between Chenoweth and O’Hara inevitably recalls an earlier one: between foghorn dame Ethel Merman and the primmer, delicate Mary Martin.

For diva worshippers—those who value idiosyncrasy over clarity and flamboyance over depth—the statue should be handed to Chenoweth. All I can say is that O’Hara’s achingly beautiful performance in The King and I and other recent projects have shown an artist committed to challenging herself in new work (Far From Heaven, The Bridges of Madison County) as well as exploring classic titles. She disappears into roles rather than wearing them like old-timey ball gowns cast quickly aside. She is doing her bit to push the art form ahead. If Broadway’s brightest musical minds can’t write good post-Wicked material for Chenoweth and get it on Broadway, that may not be entirely their fault.

However, to argue for one woman’s victory by denigrating the work of her competitors (including the formidable Beth Malone and Chita Rivera) is futile and unseemly. Yes, O’Hara has been nominated six times before and it’s time she won. Yes, Chenoweth’s single Tony was for Supporting Actress and that was 16 years ago. Yes, they are both insanely talented superstars at the peak of their careers with years ahead of them.

But no, they can’t both win. Give it to Kelli, who shows that a diva should be measured not by the showy extravagance of her style, but by the complexity and soulfulness of her character.

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