Shortly before he left The King and I, in July, Ken Watanabe, who played the monarch, told me: “The truth is that the smartest actors in the show are the kids.” I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to confirm his comment until this past week, when, after a Wednesday matinee, I sat down with three of the talented child actors: Christie Kim, Olivia Chun, and Ethan Halford Holder. They are members of the universally talented ensemble, playing royal children to the King of Siam.
I knew I was in the presence of intelligence when I asked all three to name their favorite subjects in school and two of them immediately replied, “Math!” I mentioned that my own favorite subject, all through grade school, was recess. Olivia, who is starting third grade, and Ethan, who’s going into seventh, said that they, too, liked recess, except when it took place immediately after lunch. “When you are supposed to run around right after you’ve eaten,” Olivia said, “that’s gross.”
As for the royal children’s onstage exercise, Christie, who is beginning second grade, said, “You get used to all of the activity up there. Some days, I get a little tired during the evening show. But it’s very exciting to be on Broadway, so I don’t mind.”
I asked the children about balancing schoolwork with their performance schedule. “It was harder during the rehearsals,” said Ethan, whose bio includes Nine, Oliver, and Peter Pan. “Because we were here at the theater and out of school every day.” Added Olivia, a veteran of Alice in Wonderland and a Nutcracker, “We did tutoring every day, but it isn’t the same as being in school, because everyone in the room wasn’t at the same grade level.”
Backstage, the younger children are five to a dressing room, and the older children three. “Having a lot of kids in a room probably makes it harder to do homework backstage,” Christie confessed. “I always say that I’m gonna do my homework,” Olivia commented, “but sometimes I get distracted.” For his part, Ethan said that he tries to stay a day ahead of his homework assignments, while concurring that it’s easy to be drawn in to all the backstage activity.
And just what is that activity? “People sing a lot,” Ethan explained. “Usually pop songs.” Such as? “’Titanium’ was popular for a while.” Diplomatic pause. “Maybe too popular.” Olivia elaborated: “It’s true that we like to sing a lot, but not just pop songs. Sometimes, we make up songs and raps. It’s very creative.” Christie said that making music with other children wasn’t a new experience for her. “I’ve been singing with my older sister for many years.” Her sister’s age? “She’s nine and three-quarters.”
It isn’t all singing in the royal children’s dressing rooms. (For the record, when asked to name their favorite song from The King and I, all three instantly shot back, “Shall We Dance?”) “We read, too,” said Christie, who offered that one of her favorite books was “The English Roses,” by Madonna. Olivia mentioned that she liked the “Harry Potter” series, and Ethan, being older, displayed more mature tastes. “I’m reading a lot about World War II. I’m also reading Shakespeare, and I’m looking forward to reading ‘Lord of the Flies.’”
Christie, Olivia, and Ethan agreed that being part of a large ensemble is filled with excitement, though none was sure that, after leaving a workplace they share with a dozen or so other children, they’d like to go home to a house with quite so many siblings. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with that many people all the time,” Olivia said. “But my grandma had 11 brothers and sisters, and she turned out fine.”
Sensing that all three children were growing hungry – remember: no recess (or performance) right after a meal – I asked a final question: What is the best part of being in The King and I? “Making new friends,” Christie answered. “Yes,” Olivia agreed. “Making new friends, and the fact that no show is the same as any other show.” Added Ethan: “Being disciplined enough to be in a show eight times and week and still do well in school and be part of a great family. That’s a lot to feel proud of.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.