It wasn’t Alice or the White Rabbit or The Mad Hatter that made everyone go ‘gaga’ the night I saw the new musical Wonderland on Broadway- it was a tail-swinging, tail-playing Jose Llana wearing a ‘purrfectly’ outrageous kitty outfit – that drew the loudest laughter and applause from the appreciative audience.
I have been a fan of Jose Llana since I first heard his beautiful tenor voice in the revivals of The King and I in 1996, in the Off-Broadway musical on the town in 1997, Flower Drum Song in 2002, and in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005. It was a thrill hearing that glorious voice ringing out in the theatre.
Joel: It’s so nice seeing you back on a Broadway stage in Wonderland. Welcome back! When did you first get involved in Wonderland?
Jose: I joined the Wonderland family for our first out-of-town tryout in Tampa during the winter of 2009.
Tell me about El Gato.
Jose: El Gato is a fun, silly cat. Our Latino version of the Cheshire Cat. I was given a lot of room to play when I created this character. Frank had written a few songs and Jack Murphy was generous to let me play and contribute to who this character was during rehearsals. His job in Wonderland and in relation to Alice is to get her to relax and go where life takes her.
It looks like you are having so much fun playing El Gato on the stage, and your song “Go With The Flow” is tons of fun. The audience the night I saw the show laughed and applauded after you finished singing it. Set the song up for me.
Jose: You know, I have a ball singing this song every night. My character appears early in Alice’s journey in Wonderland, right after she meets the Caterpillar. His message to her was to look inside and ask herself who she was. My goal is to get her to relax and have some fun. I have a fantastic group of dancers to back me up and get her to dance some salsa. It’s an energetic piece and if we do it right, we’re doused in sweat afterwards.
Is your performance based on a friend, family member, or am I a little off base if I said it reminded me of Carlos Santana?
Jose: You would be right to think of Carlos Santana! He was the musical inspiration when Frank Wildhorn wrote the song. Besides Santana, I’ve thrown in a little Ricky Martin, Puss in Boot (from Shrek) and a sprinkling of my own father, who is a pretty silly, fun guy himself.
On the 2009 Wonderland concept CD, there is a song written for El Gato called “Keep On Dancin”. Did you ever get the chance to sing it on stage?
Jose: “Keep On Dancin’” was Frank’s first song for El Gato. It never made its way onstage but we had a ball recording it for the demo.
Tell us about the outrageous costume that Tony Winner Susan Hilferty has designed for you. Is there a ‘tale’ behind your tail?
Jose: Susan Hilferty is a genius. She created such a beautiful vibrancy in my costume that only adds to the definition of my character. There have been numerous “meetings” about my tail in the costume department. It swivels and there are actually 2 tails – one for each costume I wear in the show. With all the movement I have in the show the tail has almost broken off at times but they are always on top of it to make sure that doesn’t happen!
Wonderland had two productions in The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida, and at Alley Theatre in Houston. Broadway previews began on March 21st and the show opened on April 17, 2011. What changes were made to El Gato and the song(s) you were given to sing in the show from Tampa to Houston back to Tampa and then to Broadway?
Jose: The biggest change in my character has definitely been my involvement in the rest of Alice’s journey. In earlier scripts, El Gato only appeared at the beginning and end of the story as did the Caterpillar. Once we put it in front of an audience, our writers realized that the audience wanted to see more of both characters and now we stay with Alice throughout her journey in Wonderland.
What changes to the book, cast, and score are we seeing in this Broadway production that are different from the pre-Broadway second Tampa production?
Jose: We’ve clarified the story and streamlined Alice’s journey. The challenge to any “Alice in Wonderland” adaptation is taking a book that is in itself confusing and making clear the story we want to tell.
How would you describe Frank’s score for Wonderland?
Jose: Fun, fun, fun. Frank has allowed the diversity of the characters in Wonderland to dictate the musical styles that define the songs. He gets to flex a lot of different musical muscles in our score and it’s fantastic.
How difficult is it to sing this score?
Jose: To sing in a Frank Wildhorn musical means bringing you’re A-game. He loves his singers and writes songs to showcase their talents. It also means he’ll push you to sing the song in the best “pocket” of your voice which most of the time means in its upper sweet spot. That’s challenging to do 8 times a week. But I guess that’s what they hire us for, right? Anything worth accomplishing requires hard work. Work… and warm tea and honey.
This year, very few new musicals have received the seal of approval from the NYC critics, and these critics were not very kind to Wonderland, and, as in the past, they had very few compliments for Frank Wildhorn’s score, which I think is among his best work. Why do you think Frank’s work is underappreciated, misunderstood, and/or disliked by the NYC reviewers, but loved by theatregoers and his many fans?
Jose: You know, it’s not my place to comment on reviews. Most performers and writers don’t read them. What I will say is that Frank writes from the heart like all artists and creative people. Art is subjective. Some people click with certain things, others don’t. It’s not our job to ask why either one happens. It’s our job as artists to create the work and let it shine. And maybe touch a few hearts while we’re at it.
You are appearing in a cast that consists of exceptional singers including Kate Shindle, Darren Ritchie and Kate Shindle, and Edward Staudenmayer, and Carly Rose Sonenclar as Chloe. What do you like most about working with them?
Jose: I’ve known of most of the principles before we met on Wonderland through the Broadway circles. Janet I absolutely loved her in In the Heights. Darren I’ve seen in about a dozen of his previous Broadway shows. I’ve been a Karen Mason fan since And the World Goes ‘Round, and I’m blown away every day by the talent and maturity of Carly Sonenclar.
When did you record the Original Broadway Cast Recording for the Masterworks Broadway label, due to be released on May 3rd?
Jose: We recorded the cast album during rehearsals for Broadway. The entire Broadway score was recorded but Frank also added some extra musical styling and sounds to make it special for the recording. There are also some tracks on the album that aren’t in the show so that those who buy the album get a little something extra.
You were born in The Philippines, moved to NYC and then to Falls Church, VA. Your friends and fans in the DC/VA/MD theatre community are proud of you send you best wishes. What kind of music, vocal, and theatre training did you receive at Thomas Jefferson High School that helped influence your decision to attend Manhattan School of Music?
Jose: My mentor in High school was my Choir teacher, Laura Clark, who is now Laura Edelbrock. She was the person who inspired me the most to follow my passions and pursue my dreams of becoming a performer. She not only provided a fun and safe environment for us choir and drama geeks, she also was a close friend and constant cheerleader. She motivated many young people during her time at TJHSS&T and I was lucky to be one of them.
Like everyone in the theatre world, you have appeared in some hits including The King and I, opposite Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips, where you played Lun Tha, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where you played Chip Tolentino, and came in to play Angel in Rent. You’ve also appeared in some short-lived productions: The revival of Flower Drum Song, where you played Ta, and Streetcorner Symphony, where you played Jessi-Lee. I became a big fan of yours when I saw you in The King and I and have attended your performances in NYC not only because you have such a gorgeous voice, but because you always give 200% and put so much passion into your performances. Of all these performances, which one was your favorite and why? Which character was so much like you?
Jose: Nothing will ever match the excitement of your first Broadway show, which is why The King & I will always have a special place in my heart. During the re-writing process of Flower Drum Song it became very clear that my character “Ta” was very similar to me. There were times during that show that I felt like I was telling MY story, not just my character’s. And, of course, nothing will match the fun and silliness of Spelling Bee. “Chip Tolentino” is as accurate a representation of my childhood as I could ever describe.
You were cast in The King and I in your freshman year at Manhattan School of Music. Tell us about that journey. What did you learn from that experience?
Jose: My dreams literally come true for me at a very young age. I was lucky enough to have my big break come at the right place and right time. But the only reason I was ready for that big break was practice, hard work and a lot of courage. That really is the key for any young artist to remember. You can practice and study all you want but if you don’t put yourself out there to fail you’ll never find the opportunities where you can succeed.
David Hwang’s ‘revised’ Flower Drum Song had a short run in NYC, and Martin Guerre, which was here at The Kennedy Center never ‘returned’ to Broadway and closed in DC? Why do you think that happened?
Jose: There are many reasons why a show doesn’t click with an audience. In the case of Flower Drum Song , we opened on Broadway in October and fell victim to a musician’s strike that closed down all of Broadway for a few weeks. Martin Guerre was the victim of too many chefs in the kitchen and the storytelling never really clicked. In both cases the companies were amazing and I’m still great friends with many of them.
In hopes of stirring up some interested to mount a new production – tell my readers about Streetcorner Symphony and Jessi-Lee who you played in the musical and why this is a great time to mount a ‘revival’?
Jose: Streetcorner Symphony was a short-lived Motown Review with about 2 dozen Motown songs from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It was a lot of fun and I was able to sing and dance to some of my favorite songs.
Since you performed in The King and I and Flower Drum Song, do you think there have been more or less or the same amount of opportunities for Asian American actors to find work in the theatre? What do you think about multi-ethnic casting?
Jose: Definitely more. As more and more artists of diverse backgrounds come into their own as writers and composers, the more material is created to tell their stories. Just in my 16 years of working in New York I’ve seen dozens of new Asian American writers break the ice in the theater world. Not just them, though. Even writers of non-Asian backgrounds are telling their stories that happen to INVOLVE characters of Asian-American backgrounds. As the world becomes more diverse, so do the stories.
Multi-ethnic casting is fantastic when it happens, especially in revivals. But it is always the prerogative of the writer, director and producer to hire whomever they want to tell the best story they want to tell.
You have been very successful in your career. What is it about Jose Llana that has given you the strength and confidence to continue to work and succeed in a very difficult and unpredictable occupation?
Jose: My goal has always been to sustain myself as a performer and artist for as long as I find passion in it. I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many inspiring people in my career. My job is to keep myself as open to as many different styles of music, dance and writing styles that may be thrown at me. I’ve also learned to appreciate and nurture the family, friends and relationships that sustain me beyond my work life.
You are an advocate for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Why is it so important to support this organization?
Jose: Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is the secret no one tells you until you join the Broadway community. It’s a truly magical organization that has done so much for AIDS awareness and has provided health and human services for so many people inflicted with and affected by the AIDS crisis. The dozens of fundraising events during the year allows the Broadway community to come together and appreciate each other for what we do. It’s the backbone of how the Broadway world has become a community. A real family.
Your solo debut CD “Jose Llana” was a smash hit in The Philippines and is now available on cdbaby. Tell me about the songs you selected for the CD and why you chose these songs?
Jose: The songs were picked by myself and by my record label in the Philippines. They are all classic Filipino pop songs that are familiar to most Filipinos. It was a great way to introduce me to the Filipino Record Industry and a great way to brush up on my Tagalog (Filipino language).
Is Wonderland a show for the entire family?
Jose: You bet! The kids will love it and have a great time. The adults will laugh and find themselves rocking in their seats, too!
What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing Wonderland on Broadway?
Jose: I want them to take the message of Wonderland with them: To always remember your inner child, to always remember what is important and to not sweat the small stuff.
Wonderland plays at The Marquis Theatre -1535 Broadway in New York City. Buy tickets here.
Jose Llana’s website
Watch cast interviews and highlights from Wonderland here.
Watch a video of the recording of the Wonderland Broadway cast CD. Jose and Janet Daca record “Go With the Flow”.
Watch a sneak preview of Wonderland here:
Jose tells Seth Rudetsky about his audition for The King and I and sings “I Have Dreamed” here.
Listen to music clips from Jose’s CD, and purchase the CD here.