“[This role] is the melding of my education and my life,” says Marin Mazzie, who stepped into the shoes of Anna Leonowens in the Broadway revival of The King of I on May 3. For the three-time Tony nominee, the role marks her triumphant return to the stage following a battle with ovarian cancer.
In 2015, Mazzie underwent over 24 weeks of chemotherapy and a hysterectomy. Today, she proudly declares herself a cancer survivor. It makes sense, then, that Mazzie would feel prepared to take on such a strong and determined character such as Anna in this new stage of her life. Anna, too, is a survivor: a widow, finding autonomy within a patriarchal system that oppresses her. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Anna journeys from England to Siam to serve as governess to the king's many children. Mazzie can’t help but see the role as a melding of all that she has withstood—“the informing of Marin as a person and now, as a cancer survivor,” says the star.
Mazzie says that surviving cancer has allowed her to view things differently, a perspective that she is now able to apply to her performance in The King and I. “I do feel like my viewpoint of the world is different and how I value my life,” she says. “Not that I didn’t value it before, but it has taken on a deeper sense for me…[How it feels to] be in those moments and inhabiting this woman with where I am now in my life.”
Along with the psychological shift, Mazzie has also noticed significant physical changes post-cancer battle. “During chemotherapy you lose all your muscles, the chemo eats them up, so my muscle tone went away,” she says. “Getting your muscles back is a process. It doesn’t happen over night. I’m working on that, but I have to be patient.” The star has reduced the intensity of her workouts and now opts for long walks and light weights with a focus on muscle strengthening.
“Because of what my body went through this last year, I need to build myself up,” she continues. “The stamina is going to take a little bit more time. I just have to be fine with that…[But] it’s not like I don’t think I can do eight shows a week anymore. I know I can. I just think I’m going to be really wiped out for a while.”
Today will mark 11 days since her return to the Broadway stage and Mazzie feels elated to be performing again. “I’ve definitely missed it,” she says, though the role of Anna is not an easy one to be stepping into. “It’s not like I’m sliding back into some small part. It is a big role,” she says—a role for which Kelli O’Hara won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Actress. But Mazzie says that she doesn’t feel any pressure; she and O’Hara are friends, and have been able to swap notes about Mrs. Leonowens.
“We chatted about Anna. One of the things we were talking about was the beauty of her being a really good human being and how much Kelli loved playing that,” says Mazzie.
“She’s someone just full of goodness who wants to help, teach and educate. We talked about that and how lovely it is to play women like that. Women that you really respect and especially women from another time who are precursors to feminism and all of the things that we take for granted today.”
“It’s exciting to be able to embody that,” she continues. “We also talked about the big old 40-pound dress!” exclaims Mazzie. “We talked about the importance of the King, in my case Daniel [Dae Kim], supporting you in the dance. They really need to hold you up because the dress weighs [a lot.] Once you start the momentum, the dress takes on a life of its own.”
Aside from having the chance to wear beautiful dresses and play a resilient, unique woman, Mazzie says she had another motivation for returning to Broadway: the opportunity to have a platform to talk about ovarian cancer and the BRCA2 gene, for which the actress tested positive. Inherited mutations in the gene increase the risk of ovarian cancer in women. “We need more awareness for ovarian cancer and I’m on the bandwagon,” says Mazzie.
“Hopefully I can help somebody. That was really important and that ties in with Anna, too,” she continues. “How she goes to this place to help people and educate them.” Mazzie sees herself now not only as a survivor and leading lady, but also an advocate for cancer awareness and education. “I feel blessed to be able to help in any way I can.”
Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill.com, specializing in the wonderful and expansive world of Off-Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaclement_.
Visit kingandibroadway.com/ for tickets and information.