How do you refresh an already fresh take on a classic musical? Right now in London’s West End, Na-Young Jeon and Dean John-Wilson bring new life to The King and I ‘s venerable roles of Tuptim and Lun Tha in the U.K. transfer of Lincoln Center Theater’s much lauded revival, just opened at the London Palladium, starring New York’s original leads, Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe.
The young newcomers impart a tragic depth seemingly beyond their years to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s doomed lovers, while projecting passionately all the fire of youth. How did the show’s Tony-Award-winning director, Bartlet Sher, induct them into his existing production with such spontaneous heat?
Their first encounter with him, it turns out, for each, began with notable audition fashion faux pas.
“I arrived for my audition dressed in proper trousers and shirt and my best brogans,” the 29-year-old John-Wilson recalls in a redolent Yorkshire brogue, seated beside Jeon in her dressing room a couple of hours before curtain. “Bart immediately called out for a wardrobe change. That’s what he actually said: ‘Wardrobe change! Take your shoes off.’”
“Me too,” Jeon, also 29, acknowledges. “I was wearing really big Doc Martin boots. And Bart said: ‘Take them off.’”
“My character, Lun Tha, wears, like, nothing at all,” John-Wilson laughs, “as Bart pointed out. So I rolled my trousers up past my knees. I opened my shirt all the way. I took my Apple watch off, ‘cause that really was all wrong. And I said to Bart, ‘Okay, I’m going out of the room and coming back in and we’ll start again.’”
Neither actor had ever appeared in The King and I or even seen it performed on a stage. John-Wilson had come to West End musicals by way of Britain's Got Talent, where he was a semi-finalist in 2008. After touring the U.K. in Sister Act and starring as Aquino in Here Lies Love at the National Theatre, he won the title role in the original West End cast of Disney's Aladdin, opening in it last year.
“For me, stepping out of my Yorkshire home town of Middlesborough was just a dream,” he says. “It’s about five hours from London, driving. It’s very small. Being here from there is huge.”
Born and raised in the Netherlands, Jeon has performed all over the world, including the West End, where she was nominated for a Broadwayworld UK/West End award as Fantine in Les Misérables. “Coming to London was a big journey for me, too,” she says. “I’m Dutch. That’s where all my training and early performing happened. Because I also have Korean heritage, I’ve also worked in South Korea; I did shows in Seoul and toured around the country. The musical theatre industry in South Korea is quite big. I’ve performed in Singapore. I am a global gypsy.”
The unique intensity of their auditions with Sher would very much impact their future performances. “I sang ‘My Lord and Master,’ and I think Bart asked me to sing it again seven times,” Jeon recalls. “Each time, we were in conversation about it in some way. By the end, I felt I knew how I could find a Tuptim in me. And, while I can’t speak for him, I came away feeling that he and I spoke the same language; the same theatre language. I remember thinking, even if I don’t get the job, this was really Yum!”
Tuptim and Lun Tha are often played with dewy romanticism, Sher specifically directed otherwise. “‘Do not sing pretty,’ he would insist,” Jeon says. “Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are so pretty. But you have to sing them without romance. The audience may feel the romance in the songs but the singer can’t. You need a sense of urgency. The stakes are really high. Every note, every word, is all that they can say.”
John-Wilson agrees. “You have so little time. That’s what Bart kept reminding us. The clock keeps ticking down. It gets kind of unbearable.”
He pauses. “The King and I doesn’t shy away from the darkness in the story it’s telling. It isn’t afraid of its own story.”
“The cruelty is there in the work,” Jeon adds, “it’s intended. The way the king behaves with Tuptim makes me very uncomfortable as a person, but not as an actor. I love playing those scenes with Ken. I love having the chance to stand in my power and speak truth to him. Tuptim arrives in the king’s court as a girl with a lot of intelligence and curiosity. Kelli, as Anna, feeds that. It becomes the deeply empowering journey of a woman. It would be so easy to play Tuptim and Lun Tha very light. But I die for their love. We both do.”