BWW Interview: Jose Llana as the King in THE KING AND I on Tour
The success of THE KING AND I over the years has been nothing short of remarkable. The movie version from the 1950's brought Yul Brynner to center stage as he played the role of this famous king. With so many incarnations of the iconic musical there have been quite a few actors who have worked hard to shed the Brynner version of the King and portray him in the way it's most comfortable for them. One such actor is veteran performer Jose Llana. BWW had the opportunity recently to chat with Llana as he is out on tour with THE KING AND I.
Tell us a little more about how you got to be interested in performing in the first place.
I always say that I'm Filipino and there's always a joke that Filipinos are born with a karaoke mic in their hands. There was always singing and music in my house. My dad was a weekend singer. He would play his guitar on Saturday mornings and I would sing along with him. Then I was lucky enough - growing up in Virginia, I grew up just outside of DC - The Kennedy Center and The National Theatre were at my disposal. My parents brought us to see shows. I remember some of the first shows I saw were the national touring of CATS and LES MIS. So, it's just a real honor that I get to be one of those touring companies that goes through a city. That was very much the direct inspiration for me to say, "Hey, what are those people doing? That looks interesting. That looks fun. Maybe I can do that." So, I bought cast albums and that's where it all started; my love of theater. I was one of the lucky people in my high school in particular, I remember I found my tribe of crazy people called the theater department. When I met them, all my best friends today are my best friends from drama club. Most of us have gone onto to careers in arts.
And you went to university?
I did. I went to a conservatory the Manhattan School of Music. I went for classical voice.
I noticed you have your own music. You're not only interested in the stage. You like to try other things. Tell us a little about your solo album.
I recorded a pop album in the Philippines many, many years ago. That was due to my association FLOWER DRUM SONG I did on Broadway with Lea Sangola. Lea is obviously a massive star both here and in the Philippines. I recorded an album there and it had a moderate success in the Philippines but I was not willing to move to the Philippines to pursue a career there. I was given a beautiful opportunity about two years ago before my return to THE KING AND I. Lincoln Center, American Songbook Series, asked me to do a concert for their series. It was a huge honor. It came out of nowhere. I did an evening of music dedicated to composers I sung for in my career. The evening was very successful. That evening it led to an album. I recorded an album in honor of that. I'm really proud of it. It's called ALTITUDE. It's basically just the first 20 years of my career.
Tell us more about how you got involved with THE KING AND I and the tour.
THE KING AND I has been a part of my professional DNA since the very beginning. I was lucky enough to make my professional and Broadway revival in 1996 with Lou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy. I was the young lover in that production. I was a spritely 19-year-old and a freshman in college when I landed that first job. Many years later, THE KING AND I was announced at Lincoln Center and I knew that I was no longer Lun Tha. That part was for the younger me. I knew the Ken Watanabe had already been cast. All my friends were being cast in the production. My concert at Lincoln Center was the same night as their first preview and it was across the street. So they opened and I actually had come to the opening of THE KING AND I. I was there supporting my friends. It turns out that Ken Watanabe was only going to be in the show for a few more months. He already had commitments in Japan for his film career in Japan. The search was on for his replacement. Bart Sher, our director, called and said, "We'd like to have Jose come in and audition for the King." It was an incredible opportunity to come back to a show that made all my dreams come true 20 years ago. Before THE KING AND I 20 years ago, I was just like every other kid moving to New York hoping to make it on Broadway. THE KING AND I made that happen. And now, to replace Ken in the Broadway company and now to headline the tour around the country. We just passed our one year anniversary which is incredible. I've been able take this show to my hometown. We were in DC five months ago. I get to be with the touring company that maybe inspires young kids the way that show inspired me. It's really powerful. On a political note too, the U.S. politics are so divided now and the world is so divided now. It's given us an extra sense of purpose to tour a story about a world leader learning to become friends from someone from another country.
Of course we all know that Yul Brynner was the best known King from the popular film. Did you see the movie and get inspiration from his portrayal of the King or did you make it your own?
With any actor, it's one thing to try to emulate another actor which is fine, but I think for the purposes of my king and our show with Bart, we have to go directly to the source and talk about the material. I think it would be a definite trap if I tried to be Yul Brynner in the movie and try to emulate him because it would be false. It's not who I am. I'm also much younger than most people expect the king to be. It's a beautiful linage to be a part of and to honor. I think that the story is strong enough and the writing is strong enough that whoever plays the king or Anna can make it their own.
Have you watched the movie since you've been in THE KING AND I?
I've purposely stayed away from it. The movie is very much a part of its time period and I think if you made that movie today, I don't think you would be able to cast Rita Morena as a Burmese girl. I think the movie is a classic but it's very much a product of its time. It was in the late 50's but I think our version of THE KING AND I is very much updated in terms of how we tell the story in 2017.
What advice do you have for anyone thinking about getting into show business?
Train, I think. And try to open yourself up to as many different kinds of art as you can. It's easy when you only love musical theater. Inspiration comes from so many places of art; opera, ballet, performance art. I think the beauty and the strength of some of our creative team, especially with their association with Lincoln Center, (is) that Bart jumps between musical theater and opera all the time. Our costume designer, Catherine Zuber who's won a bunch of Tonys. She's designs for opera. So, I think for young people, especially since someone wanting to do what I do today has something called the internet that I never had in my in my early teens. I think the access to art just from your computer is so incredible today. And I always tell young students of theater, just be a sponge. See as much as you can.
Don't miss THE KING AND I as the actors are in the city of Austin from December 12-17, 2017 only. It's fine family entertainment and one that everyone can enjoy. Tickets can be purchased by going to Austin's website: Texas Performing Arts.
PHOTO CREDIT: Matthew Murphy