The King is having a very good year. "One of the best of my career, if not the best so far," assesses Lou Diamond Phillips, hitting the revolving door at Gallagher's. His Majesty from Down the Street -- the regal half of The King and I at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York -- has arrived for his modest pre-performance banquet (half a chicken, asparagus, spinach), and a rippling row of waiters flashing the same wide smile of welcome practically track-lights him the way to his table.
He has been here before, one surmises. The greeting is familiar and sincere, beyond being fit for a king (even when the king is dressed, as he is here, in jeans and cutaway T-shirt). Recalling Charles Laughton's primitive way with a drumstick, one waits in eager anticipation to see how this majesty attacks his chicken. Sure enough, the "attack" is too civilized to warrant the word; it is well-mannered and restrained like the young man wielding the knife and fork a Texas actor living out his dream of making it big on Broadway.
If anything, the reality of this is a bit bigger than he had anticipated. "I always thought if I made it to Broadway or even Off-Broadway it would be in some sort of gritty urban drama, some three-character piece by Mamet or something," Phillips is quick to confess. "To come to town this way, riding on a golden throne, floating downstage it's really beyond my wildest dreams."
Not only has this arrival on Broadway opened up a whole new bonbon box of possibilities, he just garnered some of the best reviews of his decade-long film career for his savage portrayal of a hard-nosed military type in Courage Under Fire. The musical got him a Tony nomination; the movie may do the same on the Oscar front this spring. True to the old Texas adage that it doesn't rain but it pours, the two parts came up at the same time, making it impossible for him to do both.
Film being his bread-and-butter, he opted for the movie a "heartbreaking" decision, that then, suddenly, the scheduling stalemate ended (with the Kennedy Center relinquishing its pre-Broadway dates), and he came to town with the best of both worlds in the case of Christopher Renshaw's resurrection of The King and I, the Tony-winning Best; it took prizes for Best Revival, Actress (Donna Murphy), Sets and Costumes. More amazing to him than getting here is the fact he got here in a musical not just any musical either, but what he calls "the crown jewel of Rodgers and Hammerstein's estate. "When I was 18 and in the chorus of a community college production of The Boy Friend, the accompanist told me I was tone deaf. They didn't even let me sing. I had to mouth the words because I kept throwing everybody off. Only in recent years have I managed to find the pitch." This does not include his movie work. He has never sung in films. Even in his most famous picture La Bamba, the Ritchie Valens biography the rock-'n'-roll numbers were executed by Los Lobos. It was a done deal even before Phillips entered the picture. "They just wanted an actor."
And they got one, as did The King and I. The King, it seems, has a king-size secret: It's not all that taxing a role, musically. "He sings 'Puzzlement,' has a little ditty here and a couple of lines there that's it. 'Puzzlement' can be a demanding song, but it's not anywhere near the gravity of what the other performers have to do. The lovers' songs are so beautiful, and Donna does eight numbers. So, to me, it's as if the role were tailor-made. I can sing, but I wouldn't call myself a singer on the level of Joohee Choi or Randall Duk Kim or Jose Llana in the show these are Juilliard-trained opera singers. I sing in a bar band every once in a while. For me to call myself a singer alongside those types would be more than a little arrogant."
His favorite moment in the show is a ten-minute stretch in the second act surrounding the "Shall We Dance?" number. True to the repressed '50s when it was written, The King and I is a love story in which that waltz is the only time the lovers touch; like clockwork, audiences go into collective euphoria.
Phillips is the first to admit it takes two to tango er, waltz. "Donna's such an inspiration to me onstage. Every night I watch moments come and I watch the wheels turn, and there are times when I think to myself, 'I've got the best seat in the house' because I can see things that people, even in the first row, will never see things that are going on in her eyes only a camera close-up could capture. It is new and fresh, and it is so compelling. She truly challenges me to give her my best work."
He also knows the debt he owes Yul Brynner who kept the role warm for him for 34 years and 4,625 performances indeed, he only refers to the role's originator as "Mr. Brynner" but for him to go up against such a legendary performance epitomizes, for wont of a better phrase, Courage Under Fire.
"It was a project that had never been to Broadway without Mr. Brynner, and it was with a film actor from whom nobody knew what to expect. I knew that what Christopher Renshaw was bringing to the party would make my king different. Mr. Brynner's king was imperious and impervious and unable to read. My king is more sensitive, more vulnerable he could certainly appear on 'Oprah'! People had faith that I could do it. They just didn't know how it would be received. The upside was enormous. The downside could have been relatively damaging. The door might have been shut to me here in New York had I stumbled and fallen."
But he didn't, and now he's looking around for his next Broadway musical. What'll it be? "I was sitting in a restaurant recently, and there was a piano player singing show tunes. He sang 'The Impossible Dream,' and I was moved to tears. I thought, 'There's one to put a pin in.' When I'm 50, that's one I'd like to come back and do. Man of La Mancha I love that story." Good choice. Who knows better than Lou Diamond Phillips that dreams come true? Even impossible ones.