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Kelli O’Hara, Brian d’Arcy James on Bringing ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ to Broadway: ‘There Deserves to Be More Things That Are Challenging’

It happens after almost every show.

As “Days of Wine and Roses” stars Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James are leaving the theater they will invariably run into an audience member with a personal connection to the story they’ve just acted out. “I’ll be signing autographs, and inevitably someone will come up to me and say, ‘Eight years’ or ‘Twelve years sober,’ and it’s incredibly moving,” says James.

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Like the 1962 Oscar-nominated movie and the 1958 teleplay that share its name, “Days of Wine and Roses” follows the marriage of brash public relations executive Joe Clay and his wife, Kirsten, a relationship that is fueled and later destroyed by their addiction to alcohol. It’s searing stuff — a story that doesn’t shy away from the wreckage that drinking can leave in its wake, from neglected children to ruined careers to severed family ties. It’s also the kind of bruising, adult drama that Broadway avoids, at least in musical form, where escapism is the prevailing approach to storytelling.

“Kudos to our brave producers for feeling like there is a space in the commercial Broadway world for us,” says James. “But there should be more space on the menu. There deserves to be more things that are challenging and demanding.”

It wasn’t guaranteed that “Days of Wine and Roses” would be on a Broadway marquee. The show got its start Off Broadway at the 199-seat Atlantic Theater Company; it’s now playing at the less-intimate, 1,000-seat Studio 54. Both O’Hara and James were worried that something would be lost in the transfer.

“At the Atlantic, you felt like you were in someone’s living room,” says O’Hara. “But at Studio 54, it breathes in a different way. In a smaller space you felt almost oversaturated. This is a dark tale, but performing it here, there’s a little more air and lightness. But by the end of the show, you still walk out feeling overwhelmed.”

It’s also a chance for O’Hara to show a different side of herself. Onstage, in shows like “The Pajama Game” or “South Pacific” that made her a Broadway star, O’Hara portrays whirling dervishes of optimism. Here, Kirsten, who starts off as a teetotaler before descending into a boozy abyss, requires O’Hara to hit notes of deep despair.

“It’s not the norm for a woman to play such deep and challenging things,” says O’Hara. “I never get asked to portray a character like this who is heavy and heart-wrenching and beautiful. I’m not just being asked to stand there and look a certain way or feel a certain way.”

The show reunited longtime friends James and O’Hara on Broadway for the first time since 2002’s short-lived musical adaptation of “Sweet Smell of Success.” After that show closed, O’Hara began working with Adam Guettel on “Light in the Piazza,” the musical that would earn the actress her first Tony nomination. As they workshopped “Light in the Piazza,” O’Hara urged Guettel to turn “Days of Wine and Roses” into “a strange, weird opera” that she could star in alongside James. “I was young and green and an ingénue, and I wanted to stretch myself,” she says.

Guettel enlisted Craig Lucas, the book writer for “Light in the Piazza,” and over the decades the collaborators fine-tuned the show, not knowing if it would ever celebrate an opening night. “I’ve been involved in a number of workshops for shows that never happened,” O’Hara notes.

A long development process wasn’t the only hurdle the actors needed to overcome. They were playing roles firmly associated with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon, who gave career-best performances in the film.

“I am very aware of the shadow that Jack Lemmon casts on everything,” says James. “But I’ve just decided to try to redefine the character and create something new. There’s enough in this story to give this show its own path. The relationship between Joe and Kirsten is so complex that there’s plenty of things for an actor to discover.”

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