In the summer of 2014, Brian Rivera, a member of The King and I cast, was appearing in a production of the centuries-old Chinese epic The Orphan of Zhao at the American Conservatory Theater, in San Francisco. At one point during the run, Rivera told me the other day in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont, he noticed that several members of the Zhao ensemble, which included several Broadway veterans, had received thick packets from their agents back in New York.
“They were about this upcoming production of The King and I,” Rivera said. “I looked longingly at that material, wishing that I had received it, too.” When Zhao ended, Rivera found himself between acting gigs. He’d done different kinds of work to make ends meet since he graduated from San Francisco State with a bachelor’s degree in drama.
“I’ve been a bouncer a lot,” Rivera told me. “After Zhao, I was working as a security guard at a cannabis club in San Francisco” – a dispensary for medical marijuana. “You meet a colorful array of people in a place like that.”
While striving to keep order in this place devoted to buds and plants and edibles Rivera heard that LCT’s The King and I was holding an audition in San Francisco. Conveniently, it was taking place at ACT, where Rivera that same year had appeared not only in Zhao but in a production of Shaw’s Major Barbara that was, he said, emotionally significant for him. “On the final night,” he explained, “my character, Bill Walker, has a breakdown. I was having my own little breakdown – I was sad that the run of this play, in which I’d learned so much, was ending.”
If Rivera was comfortable at the theater at which The King and I audition was held, he felt less certain after it was over. “I wasn’t sure how I’d done,” he confessed. “But I got a callback down in L.A., with Bart,” he went on, referring to the production’s director, Bartlett Sher. “And eventually I got the job and I was thrilled.”
As part of his contract, Rivera was to be one of the understudies for the roles of the King, the Kralahome, and Captain Orton. (He also knows the role of Sir Edward Ramsey.)
“During the rehearsal period,” Rivera said, “I observed carefully all the roles I had to learn, and took notes.” He added, “After we opened, we would have a couple of understudy rehearsals per week, and I looked forward to them.”
Over the past year, Rivera has played the Kralahome several times. But until Sunday, February 28th, neither Rivera nor Paul Nakauchi, who also covers the King, had gone on as the monarch.
Rivera was informed shortly before curtain that he would be performing the King. “In retrospect,” he said, “I’m grateful I didn’t know beforehand. I would have lost a lot of sleep the night before.”
“I couldn’t have gotten through the show,” Rivera said, “without the total support of the cast and crew. We all know that a show this size is a giant team effort, but you really feel the full weight of that when you have to go on like I did.”
Rivera performed the King three more times the week after his debut in the role. On Sunday, March 6th, he found out that he would be performing the part again that following week. “I contacted my parents, in Sacramento,” Rivera said, naming the California city in which he grew up. “My mother and sister had come to see the show last July.” His father was ill and unable to make the trip.
On Tuesday, March 8th, however, both his father and mother were able to fly to New York. The next day, at the matinee, they watched their son perform one of the greatest roles in musical theater on a Broadway stage. How did they react?
“My parents are supportive,” Rivera said, “but they are not always talkative right away about what I’ve done.” He added: “But when they got back to California I found out that they were buzzing about my performance to all their friends. That’s when I really knew they were proud of me.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.