In terms of its score, The King and I makes brilliant use of the reprise. In terms of its casting, the LCT production has been fortunate in another kind of repeat: in its casting for the monarch. Ken Watanabe originated the role in this staging a year ago, and last month he returned to Vivian Beaumont. As he entered his final week in New York, I visited him in his dressing room and asked why he wanted to come back.
“I had such a satisfying experience last year,” Watanabe said. “It is such a wonderful company. I received a Tony nomination. I developed a great relationship with Kelli [O’Hara].”
Watanabe said that all these memories faded a bit when he returned to his native Japan last July to shoot a movie. “I totally forgot about the show. I didn’t listen to the CD at all. “ He added: “I’ve never in my career returned to a role before. I wasn’t sure what would happen.”
By October, Watanabe started a gradual voyage back to Siam. “On Skype, I did some work with a dialogue coach,” he said. “I worked on making my accent a little more British. I wanted to breathe some fresh air into my character.”
Specifically, Watanabe wanted to deepen the King’s sense of isolation. “It was a difficult time in Thailand. The king felt pulled in several directions. When you are king, it can be hard to ask anyone for advice.”
When Watanabe returned to New York at the beginning of March, he had planned to work for several days on the characterization with Bartlett Sher, the production’s director. “I worked with Bart for a day-and-a-half,” Watanabe said. Then, he joked, “I became an understudy.”
What does he mean? When Hoon Lee, who had been the King in late 2015 and early 2016, was temporarily unable to go on, Watanabe set foot on the Beaumont stage earlier than expected. “It may not have been planned,” he said, “but it got me right back into the role.”
His work on the characterization has been noticed. “A few days ago,” Watanabe revealed, “Satch” – Satch Watanabe (no relation) is the actor’s assistant – “got an email from someone we know. They thought my playing the role in a new way meant that something wasn’t right with me. We had to tell them that everything was fine.”
Ken Watanabe is especially grateful for his well-being these days. In January, a visit to the doctor revealed that he had stomach cancer. After receiving the news, he said, “I still was determined to come back to play the King.” He decided to have laparoscopic surgery right away, and, if necessary, have follow-up treatment in May, after finishing The King and I.
“Luckily, the cancer was small and they got it,” Watanabe said. “I don’t need to have another operation.”
Watanabe survived two bouts of leukemia 25 years ago, so I asked him if the recent experience was different. “That time, I thought a lot about my life ending. This time, I didn’t have that same kind of fear. “
Is it odd, I asked, to be playing the King’s death scene after receiving such a recent reminder of his own mortality? “I go through so many emotions every night on stage,” he replied, “not just fear. There is also loneliness, love, anger. And during every show I’m feeling all of them more deeply now.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.