WASHINGTON — It was an ahead-of-its-time social statement disguised as a catchy musical.
Now, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King & I” comes to the Kennedy Center (July 18-Aug. 20), marking a very special homecoming for its leading man, who grew up in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I made my Broadway debut 20 years ago in the last revival,” actor Jose Llana said. “I grew up here in D.C., went to Thomas Jefferson High School and when I moved to New York, my first job was in that revival of ‘The King & I.’ So now, I’ve got all of my friends and family here in the D.C. area seeing me in ‘The King & I’ again. … It’s really a special, sentimental return home.”
Set in 1862, British schoolteacher Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) is hired by the King of Siam (Jose Llana) to modernize his country in the face of Western colonialism. Upon meeting the King’s countless children and many wives, including Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), Anna clashes with the King’s outdated culture before the two develop a mutual affection for each other.
The original 1951 Broadway production won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Actress (Gertrude Lawrence) and Best Featured Actor (Yul Brynner), while the 1956 Hollywood adaptation earned Brynner an Oscar for Best Actor and Deborah Kerr a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
“I saw [the film] when I was 10 years old growing up here in D.C.,” Llana said. “I discovered the library of R & H musicals — ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Carousel,’ ‘King & I’ — all at the same time.”
The current version at the Kennedy Center is based on the 2014 Tony-winning revival, starring Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe. Replacing O’Hara is actress Laura Michelle Kelly, who won the 2005 Olivier Award for Best Actress for her role as “Mary Poppins” on London’s West End.
“Backstage, she’s amazing,” Almedilla said of Kelly. “On stage, she’s just so magical to watch. She does different things every night. You never know how she’s going to say her lines.”
Of course, the big star is the music, featuring an iconic songbook by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
“I still hear people say, ‘Oh! That’s from that show,” Almedilla joked, to which Llana added, “They don’t realize how many of the songs have become American staples. … In the show, there are more songs than the movie. The movie cut some songs. The young lovers have two songs in the show — in the movie there’s only one — and Lady Thiang now has two songs.”
Indeed, Lady Thiang gets to shine with “Something Wonderful” and “Western People Funny,” but Almedilla’s favorite remains a more famous tune that she sings with her real-life son.
“I love ‘Getting to Know You,'” Almedilla said. “I’m a mom; my son is also in the show. He’s 8 years old and plays one of the royal twins. … It embraces how every kid is unique.”
While Anna sings “Getting to Know You” during her initial meeting with the children, she later joins the King for the waltzing duet “Shall We Dance” that symbolizes their growing trust.
“Those two songs I think are the central themes of the show,” Llana said. “‘Getting to Know You’ is about encountering a stranger. What do you do when you encounter a stranger? You get to know them, as opposed to putting up a wall and walking away. Once you’ve met them, ‘Shall We Dance’ is [about] can we collaborate and get along? … To dance with someone, you literally have to find common ground with them — as you spin around in a big ballgown!”
As Llana and Kelly twirl across the palace floor in costumes designed by Catherine Zuber, you’ll notice a purposefully bare atmosphere conceived by set designer Michael Yeargan.
“In past productions, there was always a sense of orientalism,” Llana said. “Not a lot of Americans knew what Asia looked like, so there was a lot of garish, ornate, shiny stuff. [We] wanted to go back to what it’d actually look like in a palace: big, bare floors of wood panels.”
Not only is the set more accurate, the story plays up the historical importance.
“Prince Chulalongkorn goes on to become the most important king in contemporary Thai history,” Llana said. “Chulalongkorn University exists in Thailand. He was the king that brought Siam/Thailand to become the only country in Asia that wasn’t colonized in the 19th century.”
Amid this historical backdrop, the show oozes the social commentary of changing times.
“People forget that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were very progressive writers,” Llana said. “Almost all of their big shows either deal with race relations or with a strong feminist protagonist. The overwhelming theme of all their shows has been outspoken women saying what they want — and being hit with the current culture that doesn’t allow that.”
This comes to a head during the climatic ‘show within a show,’ as the King’s servants perform “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Serving as narrator, slave Tuptim (Manna Nichols) calls out the King for keeping her captive and forbidding her to run off with lover Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).
“It was pretty genius,” Llana said. “Using Tuptim as a talking head, they were able to make a very loud political statement about slavery. … Our amazing choreographer Chris Gattelli took the original Jerome Robbins choreography, [meaning] the ballet is just as lavish as the rest of the show. It’s big and beautiful and makes the bold statement right to the King’s face.”
Looking back, “The King & I” only grows in stature with each passing year, not only for its songs, but for its themes, its guts, its insights, its commentary, “et cetera, et cetera.”
Click here for more information. Listen below for our full chat with Jose Llana and Joan Almedilla: