Sandy Duncan was 12 years old when she appeared in her first show, a summer production of The King and I in Dallas. “I played one of the princesses and also got to be in the ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet,” she says. “Donald Saddler directed, Dania Krupska choreographed, and it was a thrill for me to earn my first paycheck and work with these famous people.”
The memory of that experience is one of the reasons why Duncan signed on to play Anna Leonowens in a new production of The King and I, her first national tour since My One and Only in 1985. The show opened at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh on June 15; the third stop was the Music Hall in Dallas. “That’s the stage where I did the show the first time,” she says, “so it’s kind of an emotional full circle. The decision to go on the road now was partly an emotional response, and partly because we [she and husband Don Correia] were becoming empty nesters, and partly because I wanted to challenge myself and partly because there’s not a lot of work. People keep saying to me, ‘Don’t you want to do another Broadway show?’ Sure, but where are the shows?”
Starring opposite Duncan is Martin Vidnovic, who portrayed Lun Tha in the 1977 revival with Yul Brynner. (Stefanie Powers will succeed Duncan in January 2005; her co-star has not yet been named.) The production is directed by Baayork Lee, who made her Broadway debut at five as one of the princesses in the original production of King and I.
Duncan may seem an unlikely choice to play Anna, but her versatility is often underestimated. (It’s been almost 24 years since she did Peter Pan, but some images die hard.) When it was announced in 1999 that she was stepping in to the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago, there were skeptics who thought she was too wholesome to play the merry murderess. Yet her performance was among the finest —if not the finest—of all the actresses who have played Roxie in the current revival. Earlier this year Duncan astounded audiences and critics at the Virginia Arts Festival, where she played Emily Dickinson in the one-woman show, The Belle of Amherst. “That may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, “but it was also the most rewarding and successful. People leapt to their feet at the end of the show — not the usual, ‘Oh, let’s give her a standing ovation.’ It was immediate. And critics said that they had their doubts when they went in, but in the end they couldn’t find me on the stage. Playing Anna is a bit similar in that more than usual, I have to submerge a bit of who I am.”
As she tours the country, Duncan is on a mission: to introduce a new generation to theatre. “I’m really going to try and focus on building younger audiences,” she says. “Theatre, like everything else creative in this country, is going to go down the tubes unless it’s supported. I spoke to a group one day and said, ‘My challenge to you is this: Bring a young person to see the show, maybe a child who’s never been to the theatre. It’s a good show for kids. They’ll love it.’ There’s no communal experience in our world anymore, unless maybe if people go to church. Everyone is so isolated. To have this common experience in a dark theatre is magical. And creating new audiences is the only way theatre will survive.”