As I left the dressing room of Ashley Park, after a conversation with her between matinee and evening shows the other day, a phrase from William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” flew into my head: “Such, such were the joys.” I had begun my conversation with Park by asking her to enumerate what was joyful about playing Tuptim in LCT’s The King and I.
She hesitated. “Joyful is a tricky word, because I don’t want it to seem as if being in this wonderful production, among a dream team of talent, is easy.” She continued: “In fact, one of the most joyful things about my work right now is how challenging it is. When I get through all the obstacles of a performance, and emerge feeling good: that’s joyful to me.”
Park, who grew up primarily in Ann Arbor, and has a BFA in musical theater from that city’s University of Michigan, went on to list some of the other happy advantages of being in The King and I. “I get to be part of an iconic show. I get to be part of a story based on fact. I get to tell Tuptim’s story, which is an honor. I get to tell a story that has relevance to girls and young women all over the world today who are eager to free themselves through the power of reading and education.”
I mentioned to Park that Bartlett Sher, the director of The King and I, has said that he is drawn to projects that have “change agents,” and that Tuptim is one of them in this show. “Tuptim is a primary catalyst in this story,” Park responded, “and she and Anna make the story relatable.” Park added: “Anna understands Tuptim’s love for Lun Tha.”
Park explained, however, that her character “is so much more than a young lover or an ingénue. She’s an ingénue with an edge. We approached her like that – almost as a Joan of Arc, with a fervor for change – from Day One.”
This female warrior from Burma is worlds removed from the two professional roles Park did after graduating from Michigan two years ago. “I made my Broadway debut in Mamma Mia!, in February of 2014,” she said. Then she did Gabrielle in the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. “My character in that R & H show,” Park said, “couldn’t be more different than Tuptim. Gabrielle has crazy hair and glasses.”
On the subject of Richard Rodgers, Park said, “My favorite parts of his scores are the overtures, because no one’s overtures are as beautiful as his. When I was learning these parts, or auditioning for these parts, I didn’t like to listen to the singing on other versions. I listened to the overtures, over and over.”
After her evening show that night, Park emailed me. “When you asked, ‘What are the biggest joys’ that I get from all this, I think I may have left out one of the most obvious ones: Getting to sing Tuptim’s songs every night with our full orchestra right beneath my feet. These kind of experiences are rare these days, and the fact that I get to sing these songs everyday as my job brings me joy, truly.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.