Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Interview with Jose Llana
The King and I Tour
David Edward Hughes

Also see David's review of The King and I and Spencer's review of Mack and Mabel

Jose Llana
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Jose Llana just opened as the King of Siam in the Lincoln Center Theatre touring production of the Tony winning Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, but his Broadway career began with playing the role of doomed young lover Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of the show which starred Lou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy. Jose has since been in such varied projects as the David Henry Hwang revisal of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, Here Lies Love, Frank Wildhorn's Wonderland, Rent, and quite memorably as Chip Tolentino singing "My Unfortunate Erection" in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This wildly talented native of Manila, Philippines, recently took a few moments to discuss the wild and happy ride he has been on over the past two decades.

DEH:  You cut your Broadway career teeth playing Lun Tha, followed up in Los Angeles and New York as Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song and have now ruled as the King of Siam both at Lincoln Center and in this first national tour of the splendid 2015 revival. One might think of you as being RH positive with such connections to those musicals.

JL:  You bet! I think as a kid growing up listening to R&H, to have been embraced by their musicals in my career is a real treat and an honor. The King and I started it all off for me 20 years ago, when I played Lun Tha.

DEH:  How daunting was it to step into the shoes of Yul Brynner, and more on point Ken Watanabe when you replaced him for four months in this role?

JL:  It's daunting to step into any role, and particularly the role of the King. I had talks with Bart going back about two years ago about reprising Lun Tha in the Broadway production. But we both realized I wasn't going to necessarily fit, that I wasn't really Lun Tha anymore, and we just sort of let it be. I was invited to the opening night of the revival of the show, and then a few weeks after that I was contacted and told that Bart was interested in seeing me, and possibly replacing Ken. I think my journey with the show has been really overwhelmingly positive. Though there was a certain part of me that had to get over seeing the show from the young lover's perspective for the past 20 years, and then to shift completely into seeing it through the King's eyes, it has been a profound and kind of sentimental experience for me.

DEH:  And then playing first with Kelli O'Hara's Anna and now for a longer run Laura Michelle Kelly's Anna—has that required adjustments?

JL:  It has given me the golden opportunity to play two slightly different King's; my King with Laura (who is incredible, by the way) plays differently than my King with Kelly. That's the beauty of the script, this is a really smart and beautiful play that really allows the actors in it to flex their own muscles, and because Kelly and Laura are two very different Mrs. Annas, it made me re-think some of my approaches to the King, and it made this production really exciting for me, as exciting as going into the New York production.

DEH:  Have you toured with a show before?

JL:  I toured with Martin Guerre which never got to Broadway, and a mini-tour of Flower Drum Song post-Broadway, but this is my longest and most complicated, and there's no better show to tour with than The King and I.

DEH:  This is not really a singer's role, but it's rich in drama and relationships. What is your approach in that regard?

JL:  With this production Bart Sher really wanted to bring up the political aspects of what was going in that time period. My approach has always been, whether it's a revival or something I have done before, really going back to the text and to the history of where we are. The King was a young leader, and I want to use my youth and energy to my advantage in the part. The script is very playful, and we talk about the kind of tango that the King and Anna do, trying to figure each other out, and they both try to dominate each other, and they both want to find a common ground. It's challenging and it's part of what I love about doing this. Working with Bart, Michael Yeargan, and Catherine Zuber, that team is just a dream to work with. They have a magic touch together, and it was an honor to work with them.

DEH:  Let's talk a bit about Flower Drum Song, and what that meant to you.

JL:  It was life-changing. I was very young when I did it, and with the new script by David Henry Hwang, one of my heroes, it may have been a revival but it was like doing a whole new show. To work with him, and the R&H people, and our director Bobby Longbottom was amazing. And that it was an Asian-American story, and to play a character so similar to myself. The theme of Flower Drum Song has always been how do you find truth and peace between two different cultures within yourself, and that is what I grew up with being a Filipino American. How do I honor what I come from and yet be myself? When my family saw the show it was a very personal story.

DEH:  I love, love, love The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. You were so funny in that. Yet there was so much heart and truth in it as well.

JL:  That was our writers, William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin, Jay Reiss, and our director James Lapine. They knew it was so funny, but they also realized after the first 45 minutes if we didn¬ít invest in the characters that the audience would turn off. It was sweet and touching, and those kids are going through some of the toughest experiences of their adolescence. It was a joyous experience, and to this day some of my best friends are from that original company.

DEH:  Here Lies Love, the musical about Imelda Marcos the former First Lady of the Philippines, is as fascinating to me as it is relatively unfamiliar. Where does it fall within your career experiences, and what does Seattle have to anticipate when it comes here in a few months?

JL:  I am excited for you to see it. It is probably the artistic highpoint of my career so far. It is bout Imelda, it's about the corruption of power, but there's a lot of fun too. It is a difficult show to describe, but once you've seen it I look forward to talking to you about it. Almost the whole Public Theater original company is coming to Seattle, except for me and Ruthie Ann Miles.

DEH:  Anything on the burner after this tour as the King?

JL:  I'll be out on the road for awhile, through the fall, and they've asked me to continue after that so, we'll see!

My review of Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in The King and I is linked with this interview, and having just seen it I can only say, Seattle don't miss it! For more information on the tour, visit

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