"She does everything like this," Ruthie Ann Miles said, describing her character in The King and I. Mies shifted her head slightly while moving her hand across her face. It's a small gesture, but a significant one, gauging from the responses of the other two women in the room: Kelli O'Hara and Ashley Park, who co-star with Miles in the acclaimed revival of The King and I.
First performed on Broadway in 1951, The King and I is frequently revived; productions have been mounted on Broadway in 1978, 1985 and 1998, and it is a popular choice with regional and local theatres as well. But despite theatregoer's familiarity with the show, which features beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein songs like "Getting To Know You" and "Shall We Dance?," Miles, O'Hara and Park explained how this production, directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher, takes a different approach to the story of Anna and the King.
"This is not a love story about Anna and the King, like it's been done in the past," said O'Hara, who plays the "I" in The King and I, Anna Leonowens, a widowed English schoolteacher who travels to Siam to teach the King's children. (The titular King, who hopes to aid his country's progression into the future through a scientific schoolteacher, is played by Ken Watanabe.)
When preparing to play Anna, O'Hara researched the life of the actual Anna Lenowens, a woman who recreated herself repeatedly throughout her life. She was very educated and widowed, and, O'Hara said, "had no other choice but to create a fictional persona." "To me, that is what made her a risk taker and gave her balls — excuse my words," O'Hara said. "She was probably scared to death, and that's what I like about her and that's what I like to remember all the time: the vulnerability inside the thin little eggshell. I love when it cracks open and she's OK."
Anna's strength is readily apparent in this production; she repeatedly stands up to the King, disagrees with him and refuses to abide by certain customs of his court. But this approach has been challenging for the cast.
"The strength that Bart has really pushed us to have in the show actually throws things out of balance a little bit in the way the show was built to work for all three of us," O'Hara said. "All three of us have spoken about how when you don't play it the way you played it in the 50s, then you have to backtrack and make the other parts work. We're actually finding difficulties because of it. Mine is: We come to 'Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?' and you've already seen me yell at the King. And 'Shall I Tell You…' is not as fulfilling. That's something I'm going to work out for myself and let it speak to the Anna I'm playing."
The King is husband to numerous women, and Lady Thiang, the head wife, is played by Miles. A crucial scene between Anna and Lady Thiang, in which Miles sings the famous "Something Wonderful," demonstrates the different approach to Anna's relationships, those with the King and Thiang. Anna has argued with the King and is preparing to leave Siam when Lady Thiang reveals to her that the King is struggling and in need of her help. But, O'Hara said, Lady Thiang's request is not directed towards Anna's feelings for the King. Instead, it is motivated by Lady Thiang's love for her husband.
Miles said the complexities of Lady Thiang's character surprised her when she first auditioned for the role. She had never seen the show or seen the movie and said she originally had an idea of what Lady Thiang should be: a subservient woman with quiet, inner strength, but who still is another servant in the King's palace.
"I went in there and [Sher] was like, 'Stop. What are you doing? Lady Thiang is Hillary Clinton. Lady Thiang is Imelda Marcos. Lady Thiang rules this roost, except she doesn't say a word. Think of it that way: Her head is always down. Her eyes are always lowered. But her ears are always going. And she may be the smartest person in the room, but she'll never open her mouth and tell you that,'" Miles recalled.
Following that scenario, which "turned everything on its head" for her, Miles and Sher discussed their families with each other. "I thought, 'I know who this woman is. I think I know her. I think I've met her. I know her heart. Now, can I do the audition?'"
"The more we got to dig into this — in a different kind of way than what I envisioned it to be — I started to realize that she's the ultimate feminist," she said of Lady Thiang. "She doesn't have a horn. She doesn't have a flag. She doesn't raise her voice. It's the most intriguing and powerful thing that I've had the chance to play."
Lady Thiang is introduced to a new perspective on love by Anna, who shares with the royal wives how deeply she loved her husband. A different kind of love — and strength — is portrayed in the musical by the character of Tuptim, a young woman given to the King as a gift from another ruler. Desperately in love with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora), Tuptim plans to flee the palace — a daring and dangerous decision. Before doing so, she publicly admonishes the King for the practice of keeping slaves in front of visiting politicians.
"I always remind myself of this: The three adjectives they used in the very first breakdown for Tuptim were 'beautiful, rebellious and daring,'" Park said. "And I don't think that in other approaches, the Joan of Arc mentality of Tuptim has always been at the forefront. I sing 'My Lord and Master' with an irony and a big 'F*ck you' at the end. Through this process we've had to find the humanity in the strength of our characters."
Park recalled that after singing "I Have Dreamed" at her first audition, "Bart immediately was like, 'OK, here’s the deal. All of them out there: They can cry. They can be pretty. You’re going to do something different. I need to see the other part of you.'"
That something different is the courage, and the fear, that Tuptim experiences after confronting the King.
"She has strength because she's challenging the King," Park said. "But in the moment, she really screwed up. Everyone in the room knows that maybe her claim for justice wasn't in the wrong, but her doing it in that moment was wrong. I think that the ballet is very much a pointed lesson for the King. It's not just an exoticized Eastern dance that we're putting on for these foreigners."
"It's a representation of how far she goes," O'Hara commented on Tuptim. "You're dealing with a triangle of one woman who has never and will never [confront the King]; one woman who could from the outside; and the youngster, the naïve one, who is right. There has to be one of these to create change." The new perspective on The King and I comes at a time when interest in the roles women play both on and offstage is rising. The activist group The Kilroys, which was formed in June 2014 to address the issue, released a list of plays by women that they recommend for production. Devotion to changing the status quo comes from The Kilroys and The Lilly Awards, which honored O'Hara in 2014 and recently collaborated on a series of play readings. (Read what Marsha Norman, who co-founded the Lilly Awards, has to say about women being forced to choose between family and career.)
"It really raises awareness," O'Hara said of the recent efforts to promote gender parity on Broadway. "I think there are a lot of things going on and a lot of women are writing things, a lot of women want to direct. I think it's really about opening eyes. And, really, it's about understanding. It's not about going to say, 'I deserve to be as good as you do!' Of course, we do. But that's not working. It hasn't worked. What works is, 'I understand who you are. And I love you for it.' Playing that game. Then you get in and change starts to happen."
"We've got to get out of each other's ways," O'Hara continued. "We blame men a lot. But we spend way too much time worrying about the other person. One thing I'm discovering as I get older [is] we're apples and oranges. We're not the same. There's room for all of us. We all think... there's only room for a couple. But life is like this. Go parallel. And encourage others. It's fun to have people with you if you're trying to get to the top. It's lonely at the top they say. That's the wrong top, in my opinion. It's only lonely at the wrong top."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)