BWW Interview: Laura Michelle Kelly of THE KING & I at Winspear Opera House
Laura Michelle Kelly's impressive body of creative work ranges the West End, Broadway, television, and film. She won an Olivier award for her performance as Mary Poppins and most recently starred on Broadway in the new musical Finding Neverland. Her latest musical theatre project is portraying Anna Leonowens in the Lincoln Center touring production of The King and I which will play the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas during the 2017 holiday season.
My conversation with Kelly felt strangely familiar and natural; Once Upon a time, as a young actor, I served as a standby for the role of Anna in a touring production of this iconic musical. (For those of you not versed in theatre terminology, a 'stand-by' is an actor whose sole purpose is to perform a particular role if the regular performer is not present.) That experience forever bonded me with a deep love for Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic tale based on the true story of the British governess Anna Leonowens and her relationship with the King of Siam and his royal children. Recalling that creative endeavor made for a delightful chat -a sisterhood of the traveling hoop skirts, you could say. Check out our conversation below!
Sarah: You've created many memorable performances of interesting women in your career. What led you to this particular production of The King & I? Was there an aspect of the role of Anna, or the show itself, that was particularly interesting to you?
Laura Michelle Kelly: I had previously played [the role of Anna] at the Muny [Theatre] in St. Louis. I wanted to play the role because I knew it was going to be a challenge. I always go for the challenging roles-whatever scares me -I run towards it. I really gravitated to Anna's powerful presence and her activism. In her real life, [Anna Leonowens] created a college for women!
In the midst of [Anna's] convictions of what is right and wrong, she realizes there's a lot she doesn't know about the world the second she meets the King of Siam. She tries to get [the King and his children] to be on her wavelength, but she needs to understand their way of life and get to know them. So Getting To Know You is such a beautiful song that describes that journey she's learning.
On a daily basis, it can be a very intimidating and challenging thing to come on stage and know that [the character of the King] is not fully for you. How do you win someone like that over?
S: That's such an interesting perspective!
Are you enjoying touring life?
LMK: I knew [touring] would be exciting and an adventure, traveling from place to place. In order to do it, you have to really believe in what you're doing and I really believe in the message that this story brings to a new generation and to a new audience every week. [Its] a message of unity, and how you communicate through division.
S: In previous interviews, you shared that you sometimes read Anna's real-life memoirs before performing the show. How is it to be performing a role based on a real-life woman and experience?
LMK: [Yes], there are so many books! I have [her book] in my road case, and it comes to every dressing room with me. Sometimes when I'm feeling like I need [inspiration], I go to it and get something new. Her language was so romantic and descriptive! It was written like a diary, in some ways.
S: The role of Anna is emotionally life-giving, but can be difficult and draining to play in terms of the size and scope of the role. What do you feel is the hardest thing about playing Anna? Is there a specific thing that you've learned through taking her journey that you've applied to your own life?
LMK: I think in real life, I've learned not to be intimidated by someone else's disagreement with me. Don't be so arrogant as to think that you must always be right. There is always someone else's perspective to consider. Jose [Ilana] is an incredible dueling partner onstage. Its a challenge every night. You have to come in every day with a good attitude.
Sarah: I'd love to hear about your experience working with Broadway director Bartlett Sher.
LMK: That was one of the main reasons I took on this project. He wasn't expecting me to be like Kelli O'Hara [the Tony award-winning actress in the Lincoln Center Revival of The King & I], who is wonderful. He was trying to bring out a new version [of the role] with me, and I loved that. I felt very supported and experienced such an atmosphere of encouragement. This journey has been great, I'm so glad that I took it!
Sarah: How have you enjoyed working with Jose Ilana as the King?
LMK: Jose is definitely this generations King, and I love working with him! He's so elegant in the way he portrays him. He plays [the King] very thoughtfully and intelligently. I think you'll enjoy his performance!
Sarah: How have you enjoyed working with children onstage who portray the King's royal children?
LMK: They are wonderful and are such incredible professionals! They're far more mature than I was when I was their age! They have an amazing attitude and its such a testament to their parents. I remember as a kid the passion I had [for theatre]. I used to go to school, then go to the theatre. These children get to do both - they go to school on the road, and then they perform.
Sarah: Did you perform in theatre as a child actor as well?
LMK: Yes, I started at age 11. I remember thinking "This is normal" and it wasn't normal at all!
S: I love to ask actors about their creative process. I'd love to hear about your tips and tricks to keep up your stamina in performing this role.
LMK: I try to keep a level head and get good sleep. You've got to not overdo it and really listen to your body. I try to fill up my soul and fill up my rest tank. I really miss the gym and I love yoga!
S: Speaking of stamina, aren't the costumes for Anna somewhat legendary? I've read that the hoop skirt, dress, and corset can weight up to 40 pounds or more!
LMK: Yes! People are always interested in how heavy the dress is! Its a challenge of course, but if anything, it makes it more authentic. Jose is incredible in the dance we do together. He's so elegant in the way he manages the weight [of the dress] with me, he's so good at that!
S: I can't wait to see that moment in the show!
Being such an iconic show, what do you think is something that the audience will love about this particular production of The King & I?
LMK: I think they'll see a brand new version of the show every day, in the sense that it is a live performance, so whatever you bring to the table is going to be new. City to city, the personalities are different, the culture [of each city] is different. Each city receives the show in good ways and in different ways. That's the beauty of live theatre!
S: Have you been to Dallas before?
LMK: Dallas is going to be exciting, I've got good friends in Dallas! I love the city, I've been many times, but I've never spent Christmas there. We have Christmas Day off, so I can spend it with my cast family.
S: It was such a joy to talk to you!
LMK: Thank you!
The King & I plays The Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Texas December 19 - 31st, 2017.