Speaking with me the other day about The King and I, Jose Llana, now portraying His Majesty, said, “Everything for me started with this show.” In fact, everything vocational for Llana started when he was 12 or 13, and saw a touring production of Les Miserables, and got bitten by the theater bug, and everything personal started when he was born, in the Phillipines, in 1974, and his anti-Marcos family had to move to the United States when he was three.
But it’s true that as an actor Llana has been making a kind of “King”’s royal progress. “Twenty years ago, I made my Broadway debut in the show,” Llana said, “playing Lun Tha. And the musical has stayed with me. I hoped that at some point I would have a chance to play the King, and I am so fortunate that my wish came true, especially in such a wonderful production.”
For Llana, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., there is a profound connection not only to The King and I but to the Rodgers side of the Rodgers & Hammerstein legacy. Mentioning Adam Guettel, the musical-theater composer who is Richard Rodgers’ grandson, Llana said: “Adam saw me twenty years ago in The King and I and I was fresh in his mind when he was working to put together Saturn Returns.” (Saturn Returns is a Guettel song cycle presented at the Public Theater in 1998, and whose highlight, for me, was Llana giving an exquisite rendition of the song “Hero and Leander.”)
In 2002, Llana starred on Broadway in a revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. “On opening night,” Llana said, “Ted Chapin, head of the R & H Organization, sent me a note. It said, ‘We’re running out of shows for you to do.’”
I mentioned to Llana that I observe a direct line between the work of David Henry Hwang, who revised the book for that 2002 production, and the decision of Bartlett Sher, the director of the current The King and I, to include the number “Western People Funny.” “I agree completely,” Llana said. “David wanted to reclaim what some people viewed as the caricature aspects in Flower Drum Song and Bart wanted audiences to know that Lady Thiang and her fellow wives were in on the joke.”
These decisions by Hwang and Sher, Llana explained, reflect an evolution of Asian-American attitudes to The King and I and especially to Flower Drum Song. “In the 1950s, when these shows debuted,” he said, “many Asian-Americans were immigrants to the United States and might have been happy to see depictions of themselves in a show like Flower Drum Song because depictions in American popular culture were so rare.”
I pointed out that 25 or 30 years the prevailing view about Flower Drum Song and, to a lesser extent, The King and I, was that the representations of Asians were exaggerated.
“Yes, I think there was that criticism,” Llana said. “But now we have had another one or two generations who are aware of exaggerations in another way. We can either laugh at them or see them ironically or understand the creation of those characters in the context of the 1950s.”
Llana’s insight into Broadway musicals comes from experience, not just from having performed on Broadway in R & H shows and in Rent and On the Town and, off-Broadway, playing Ferdinand Marcos in Here Lies Love, but from his teenage years as a musical-theater aficionado.
“I had the luxury of growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C.,” Llana said. “I got to see all kinds of touring companies. I saw Cats and Fiddler on the Roof starring Topol.” He added: “What changed my life was seeing Les Miz when I was 12 or 13. I was hooked.”
Llana’s teenage interest took a very specific form: reading Playbills. “I was obsessed with studying the bios of actors. When I would notice that an actor from one Playbill was the same actor in another Playbill I was ecstatic.” Memorizing Playbill’s minutiae exposed Llana to such performers as Lea Salonga. “She was a huge star in the Philippines,” Llana said, “and when she won the Tony for Miss Saigon it empowered me to say, ‘I can do this.’” (Llana would go on to star opposite Salonga in that 2002 Flower Drum Song revival.)
Llana is now himself an inspiration to aspiring musical-theater teenagers, as is his King and I costar, Kelli O’Hara. “I can’t say enough about Kelli,” Llana said. “I didn’t have the benefit of original rehearsals with the company, and it was a little daunting stepping into such a big production. But Kelli has been so gracious to work with, especially about finding new beats between our characters. I’m grateful.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.