Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James Reunite for ‘Days of Wine and Roses’

Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James Reunite for ‘Days of Wine and Roses’

When, in the fall of 1958, J. P. Miller’s Days of Wine and Roses aired on CBS, under the banner of the anthology series Playhouse 9src, Americans watched at home with a mixture of rapt fascination and quiet horror. Centered on a handsome couple in the thrall of alcoholism, the teleplay’s main framing device was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, something little-seen on television in the 195srcs. Joe Clay (Cliff Roberton), a former public-relations man, was up at the lectern, relating the story of his 1src-year marriage to Kirsten Arnesen (Piper Laurie), a former secretary at his firm: after a heady first meeting (at a sodden cocktail party) gave way to a swooning romance, the pair quickly married, had a child, and slid into a vicious battle with addiction that tore their family apart. 

Though positive, critical reactions to the drama—with its straight-shooting script and committed performances from Robertson and Laurie—reflected the abrasive social mores of the time. “Mr. Miller wrote a play of ascending power that carried its two principal figures steadily down the road of degradation, yet left a closing moral,” Jack Gould noted in the New York Times. “For the alcoholic who will help himself, there is redemption; for the weak, only continuing despair.” 

Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson in Playhouse 9src’s Days of Wine and Roses (1958).

Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Four years later, Miller would adapt the piece into a feature film, directed by Blake Edwards (with a gorgeous score by Henry Mancini, his recent collaborator on Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Despite the reservations of studio heads, who, according to Lemmon, were worried that no one would want to see “some downbeat, terrible story about a couple of young drunks that can’t get over it,” Days of Wine and Roses became one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, and earned Oscar nominations for both Lemmon and Remick. (In the end, the movie only came away with best song.) 

A poster for Blake Edwards’s Days of Wine and Roses (1962).

Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Here is where Kelli O’Hara enters the picture. Growing up in western Oklahoma, the Tony-winning soprano—known for her roles in shows like Nice Work If You Can Get ItThe Bridges of Madison CountyThe King and I, and Kiss Me, Kate—was steeped in the movies of the 196srcs. “This is what we watched full-time in our house,” O’Hara explains. The stories (and the costumes) of that era still appealed when she started working, and was cast as Susan in the 2srcsrc2 Broadway production of Sweet Smell of Success, set in mid-century New York. O’Hara was so taken with the world that it conjured—and with her co-star, Brian d’Arcy James, whom she had seen two years earlier in Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party—that shortly after Sweet Smell of Success closed, and she joined the first workshop of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s The Light in the Piazza, she pitched Guettel an idea. “I thought, I wanna do another show with Brian, and I wanted to sing more Adam Guettel music,” she recalls. “And I said to Adam, ‘You should make a really dark, opera-type, dramatic musical of Days of Wine and Roses for Brian and for me.”

And so began a lengthy conversation that will culminate, some 21 years later, in the Off-Broadway opening of Days of Wine and Roses at Atlantic Theater Company on Monday. (Previews began in May.) Directed by Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen), with music and lyrics by Guettel and a book by Lucas—their first collaboration since Piazza, which happens to be at New York City Center later this month for an Encores! presentation led by Ruthie Ann Miles—the show represents a fascinating hybrid of forms: a 9src-minute musical with an operatic score that confronts the ravages of addiction with a directness still rarely seen in live theater. (Though an altogether different project, a 2src2src-set production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, underlining Mary Tyrone’s opioid addiction, did arresting work in this space last year.) 

O’Hara (as Kirsten) and James (as Joe) in Atlantic Theater Company’s exclusive world premiere musical Days of Wine and Roses.

Photo: Ahron R. Foster

O’Hara can hardly believe that it’s finally happening. “I remember singing the first song [from the score] right when I had my second child nine years ago, and thinking, I think we’re gonna have something here,” she recalls. “It’s nice to put something into the world and, no matter how long it takes, have it come to fruition.” Besides, the experience has returned her to a little theater family that she treasures: not only with James and Guettel and Lucas, but also with Miles, a close friend, who has been in touch as she prepares to do Piazza, and O’Hara’s original Piazza co-star Victoria Clark, who did Kimberly Akimbo at Atlantic Theater Company a year and a half ago and checks in with O’Hara daily. “It’s pretty magical and comforting, to be honest.”

With his own deep connections to the show’s creative team—he sang Guettel’s score for Floyd Collins in the late 199srcs and was directed by Greif in Next to Normal a decade later—James felt like he went into Days of Wine and Roses “a couple steps ahead of the game,” he says. “That’s always helpful, when you’ve leapt a couple of hurdles in terms of communication, and everyone’s kind of aware of each other’s processes,” he adds. “And I adore and respect them all so much.” 

To appear opposite O’Hara again has been a particular pleasure. “I’ve been such an admirer of her since we met,” he says. “We’re kind of inextricably linked throughout this thing, and it’s nice when you really, really, really like the person that you’re doing it with.” The feeling is mutual for O’Hara, who looked up to James when she was first getting started in New York. “I have quite a bit of experience under my belt now, and we’ve known each other for all of these years, and been friends and done concerts together, but I still, in the beginning, had to remind myself that Brian and I were coming in as peers,” she says. “But we already had the friendship, the trust. And so we dove in pretty fast.” (Helping to round out the show’s central cast are Byron Jennings, as Kirsten’s brokenhearted father, and 11-year-old Ella Dane Morgan, as Joe and Kirsten’s precocious but patently traumatized young daughter.)

Ella Dane Morgan (as Lila), James, David Jennings (as Jim Hungerford), and O’Hara in Days of Wine and Roses.

Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Even so, both actors have managed to surprise each other a little. Although Joe and Kirsten can be placed in conversation with certain other roles in James’s and O’Hara’s repertoires—as the Baker in Into the Woods, for which he is up for a Tony this season, James played another man whose wife is tragically wrenched away from him; and in The Hours at the Metropolitan Opera last fall, O’Hara’s Laura Brown was another beleaguered 195srcs housewife—the creeping darkness and incisive dialogue of Days of Wine and Roses draws out compelling new colors in both performers—O’Hara especially. “What I love about this show particularly is that it asks her to do some things that she doesn’t normally get to do onstage as a character,” James says. “That’s exciting for me to witness every night.” 

It’s just as exciting for O’Hara. When she first approached Guettel all those years ago, she was about the age that Piper Laurie and Lee Remick had been when they played Kirsten. “But I cannot tell you how I know for sure that I wouldn’t have been ready,” she says. Now 47, her approach to the character is worlds different from what it would have been back then. Where Laurie and Remick had to be aged up over the course of the story—evolving from wide-eyed, pleasure-seeking 2src-somethings to brittle and broken 3src-somethings—O’Hara is taking the opposite tack, and shedding layers rather than adding them. “I’m now able to play the end and let go for the beginning in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to [initially],” she says. “I’m a mother now. I have a daughter the same exact age as the character that I’m mothering in this show. The idea of going through some of these things in my real life—it creates such a weight. I am not this person or this character, but there are things that I can bring to it that are absolutely realistic.” 

After playing the ingenue for most of her career, there is also, for O’Hara, a power and poignance in portraying women—like Kirsten and Laura—who have dropped their façade, and stopped pretending to be okay. “They’re being honest, in some way, as opposed to putting on lipstick and making the best of whatever it is that they can do, which is what we’ve been expected to do for centuries,” she says. “We’re seeing two versions where the woman—or the person, the human—didn’t hold it all together today.” In James’s mind, shows like this, Into the Woods, and even The Hours all ask an age-old question: “How do you deal with the biggest problems in your life? Whether it’s loss or, in this case, addiction. I think that’s why people want to tell these stories. It’s why people want to go to them. We don’t know the answer to these predicaments, but maybe we’ll find a little glimpse of an answer in our storytelling.”

Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Shifting from jazzy recitative to fizzy duets and searching solos, the show’s music folds in yet another layer. Water is a theme (Joe and Kirsten first fall in love staring into a harbor, and more than once they blithely trill that they are “two people stranded at sea”), and Guettel’s restless, undulating melodies easily evoke tossing waves—sometimes playful, sometimes dissonant and discomfiting. “Whenever you add music to a story, it somehow elevates it,” James says, “and when the score is being written by Adam, who is just masterful, it speaks volumes that aren’t available through the spoken word.” 

To be performing this piece Off-Broadway, in such an intimate house (the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater seats just 199), is proving singularly special for both stars. There, the work feels especially urgent, immediate, resonant. “It’s probably totally incomprehensible, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier than I am right now,” O’Hara says. “It’s so satiating. When you add together all this work and this difficult music, which makes me feel alive, and then you hear someone in the audience go ‘Huh!’ or ‘No!’—I’m making somebody feel something. And this is what I want to be a part of always.”

Days of Wine and Roses is at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through July 16.

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