“Any story about a world leader who realizes the only way to protect the country is not by extending walls but extending a hand of friendship to a foreigner—I find that very profound,” Jose Llana says, speaking from the touring Lincoln center production of The King and I.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to do two generations of the show,” Llana continues. In 1996, he made his Broadway debut playing Lun Tha, opposite Lou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy.
Twenty years later, the Filipino-American actor was cast in Lincoln Center Theater’s critically acclaimed revival, this time as the King of Siam himself, playing opposite Laura Michelle Kelly, which is onstage now at The Kennedy Center through August 20.
“When I was Lun Tha, I was 18 and a fresh newbie in New York. I was so eager to work and be on Broadway that I didn’t have the awareness to see the whole scope of the show and focused on my part. Now with the King, I’ve been working for 20 years and I approach the show and my part with a much wider perspective, which you have to have to understand the show.”
As an older person in the company and a leader in the cast, Llana acknowledges that in 2017, the show is being told at a time when politicians and world leaders are questioning what it means to welcome outsiders in the world, and he’s approaching it all with a mentality he didn’t have when he first did the show 20 years ago.
“People forget how prognostic Rodgers and Hammerstein were—almost all their shows are about racial tension, strong feminist voices, and I think that’s why their shows hold up over time. In Trump’s America right now, to tell a story about friendship with another country could not be more relevant.”
That’s why, when the Broadway run ended, Llana stayed on as the King for the national tour, directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher.
“Shows that get revived are revived for a reason and successful for a reason. They are good and are either reflections of contemporary society or they challenge society,” Llana says. “Any good play will provoke thought and will make the audience appreciate what they have or acknowledge that things need to change and The King and I does that. The show is about the human spirit and an ability to make friends with people you fear. It’s a powerful message.”
Llana also praises Sher for going back to the original inspiration of the piece, which, over time, had sort of been edited out in terms of political overtones.
“He really wanted to bring those back, the lines about Cambodia and how the Western world was circling Asia as far as colonizing. The relevance of that in today’s world cannot be ignored,” he says. “As an Asian American, it’s really important to me to play roles that are positive influences on people of color. I have a niece and nephew who are 5 and 7, and I want them to see strong Asian characters on stage and Asian Americans who make choices that are proud of their heritage.”
Born in Manila, his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, when he was three and settled in Springfield, Va., Llana’s introduction to The King and I was seeing the popular Yul Brynner movie on TV.
The King and I
closes August 20, 2017
Details and tickets
“Obviously, what struck me about it was that it was about Siam, but I was annoyed that there weren’t many Asian people in it,” he says. “Later on, when I went to college, I had the chance to audition for the ’96 production and I revisited the story and learned the music, and that led to my Broadway debut.”
He was attending the Manhattan School of Music at the time, studying classical voice, and once he left to appear on the Great White Way, his Broadway resumé grew and grew. Llana went on to star as Angel in Rent, Jessie-Lee in Streetcorner Symphony, Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song opposite Lea Salonga, and most famously, originated the role of Chip Tolentino in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, taking home a 2005 Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble Performance.
“I look for honesty and truth in a part. I look for important stories,” he says. “I am attracted to stories that have relevance to the year and date we are telling the story. Are we telling a story that’s important or just fun that lets people escape from the harshness of life? What drives me is good material. I’ve thankfully been able to focus in on work I think is good.”
As long as he can remember, he has been singing. “My biggest running joke is that I think all Filipinos are born with a karaoke mic in their hand. Entertaining is a big part of our culture. My dad sings—not professionally—but I would sing Beatles songs with him on Saturday mornings around the guitar,” he says. “And I was lucky enough to grow up in the Fairfax County School system, which had an incredible arts program. [He went to Thomas Jefferson High School].”
He also felt blessed to have the Kennedy Center, the National Theatre and the Ford’s Theatre at his disposal and his family often went to see shows.
“It afforded me such a wide pallet of opportunity. The first show I ever saw was at the Kennedy Center. My parents took my sister and me to see Raggedy Ann and Andy the Musical when I was around 7, and I was hooked,” Llana says. “There was a moment when one of the characters went into a box on a bed and when it opened, he was gone. I could see the trap door underneath the set, and I was mesmerized and fascinated by the trickery happening.”
From there on in, he knew he wanted to be on stage. He discovered Broadway cast albums at the local library and continued to see shows that came through D.C.
“I saw all the touring productions—those were the people I fell in love with,” he says. “I wanted to be in Cats, Les Miz, Miss Saigon—they all inspired me to do this.”