BWW Interview: Tony Nominee Ruthie Ann Miles Holds Court in THE KING AND I
Miles recently participated in a talk-back with scores of students after a matinee, and was surprised by some of their reactions. The play traces the story of Anna Leonowens, a widowed Welsh woman (radiantly portrayed by Kelli O'Hara) who journeys with her son Louis (Jake Lucas) to Siam to teach the many children of the king (Ken Watanabe). A significant subplot involves the star-crossed lovers Tuptim (Ashley Park) and Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora).
"They loved the kissing parts," Miles said, describing the students' reaction to the play.
Some students were vocal during the romantic encounters. "It was when they are meeting for the first time and talking about having a relationship and saying to the world 'We're in love' and Lady Thiang caught them embracing. It's a very quiet scene and it happens at dusk, so everyone is very quiet," she said. "Remember, this was a student audience. So when they noticed Lady Thiang watching them, one girl interrupted and said, 'Oh she found you, here she comes, here she comes,'" Miles said with a laugh.
"What some of the boys took away was that people were equal even though the men seemed to rule," Miles said. "But the girls-they got it. One asked me, 'How does it feel watching yourselves grovel?'" That led to a heated discussion about the wives' role in the palace, polygamy and sexism in today's world. "One of the kids said men and women need to be equal and even today, people aren't equal. This is a 15-year-old moved by it," she said.
The revival, which hasn't been on Broadway since 1996, features 55 actors, including a brood of charming children, and all manage to avoid collision, thanks to choreographer Christopher Gattelli. The show, set in the colonial 19th century, remains timely for so many reasons, Miles said.
"Rogers and Hammerstein II were such a genius pair. They were able to touch on subject matter so far ahead of its time," Miles said. "It's relevant now because, smart women in the Middle East and parts of Asia are simply not being able to voice their opinions."
Miles has read and re-read the book on which the play is based ("Anna and the King of Siam," by Margaret Landon) and has been invigorated by it. "There are chapters in the book that focus on women's daily lives and reading this book was really fascinating," she said. "It's a particular challenge for American women to play this kind of role," she said of her part. "It's hard, it's a fun challenge. The only time you get to hear what the wives are thinking is when the men are out of the scene.
"Everything is for the king. I need Anna to go and talk to him because Anna has his ear," Miles said. Even though she is the king's first wife, Lady Thiang is not allowed to talk to him in that way. "Lady T can seem harsh and strict, but everything is done out of love for the king."
Despite Lady Thiang's need to obey the king's every whim, Miles believes Lady Thiang has the upper hand. "I think she's the ultrafeminist and is all about women's rights. That's why she pushes Anna to speak to the king" at the play's moving conclusion.
"Lady Thiang doesn't idolize him as a god, she's saying he's weak, he needs Anna and it's very warming and empowering," she said. "It's a different flavor of feminine. We don't say things like, 'I am a woman, I have power.' I can rule without raising my voice."
At its heart, The King and I is about the imperfections of love, she said. "There's a recognition that he's not perfect, but he needs me and I need him. Her everything went to support him, and when he dies, she dies," she said figuratively. And knowing her son, Prince Chulalongkorn (Jon Viktor Corpuz) is heir apparent, she also knows that Siam will begin to shed its chauvinistic ways under his more democratic-leaning rule.
"As a mother I would say it is very sweet to watch her son mature. In the beginning he was such a spoiled, entitled child," she said. At the play's conclusion he has matured, ready to take charge. "If people become introspective after the show," she said, "I think we've succeeded."
The King and I is playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, 50 Lincoln Plaza.
Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik