Actress Ann Sanders made a bit of history this week when she stepped into the role of Anna Leonowens in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of The King and I, replacing Tony winner Kelli O'Hara. She is the first Asian-American performer to play the role on Broadway.
Sanders, who is one of the regular understudies for O'Hara, has Broadway credits going back to Beauty and the Beast in 1994. She was one of the replacement Belles in that production. She has also appeared in the Broadway productions of Avenue Q (Christmas Eve) and If/Then.
She played the role of Anna Leonowens Feb. 16 and 17.
According to cast member Ashley Park, Sanders' appearance also marked the first time all four leads in the show were played by Korean-Americans: Park (Tuptim), Hoon Lee (King), Ruthie Ann Miles (Lady Thiang) and Sanders (Anna).
Sanders' road to her history-making performance began very quietly in a rehearsal room at New York’s Lincoln Center in early 2015.
Sanders, whose Broadway credits include Beauty and the Beast and If/Then, had been cast as a member of the ensemble and a “Royal Singer” and was resting at a break in rehearsals for the Act II “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.
Director Bartlett Sher “came and sat next to me and said, ‘Would you consider covering Mrs. Anna?’” The 1951 musical, based on the 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” tells the story of British schoolteacher who comes to Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s to instruct the royal children of that nation’s king. Anna has previously been played on Broadway by Caucasian actresses exclusively, underlining the difference in backgrounds between the King and Anna. In the current production, the role of Anna was originally cast with a white actress, Kelli O’Hara, who won a Tony Award for her performance.
“I was surprised,” Sanders said, “but it quickly turned to gratitude. Bart is smart and fearless. Bart doesn’t just think outside the box; he likes to break apart the box and bring to the surface what was inside the box. He’s not only completely interested in the demographic makeup of the audience, but how the play fits into the cultural movements of the time. I decided that if he believes in me and believes I can help the audience make that leap, I’m going to believe in myself too.”
Sanders remembered thinking, “I know I’m going to learn so much in this next year.”
Sanders, who is of Korean-American background, grew up in Chicago and was bitten early by the theatre bug. She attended the Academy of Performing Arts there, and later earned a BFA in musical theatre at Texas Tech, where she met her husband, Ronnie Oliver, who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. Sanders points out that her married name is technically “Annie Oliver,” which she points out, is “two musicals.”
Though she has been understudying O’Hara for more than 10 months, it was only in mid January that the production approached her with the news that O’Hara would be taking a scheduled vacation in February, and that she would need to go on for three performances, Tuesday Feb. 16 evening and the two shows on Wednesday Feb. 17.
“I was really excited and wanted to make sure I was prepared,” Sander said. She worked on her British accent with a dialect coach and read the original “Anna and the King of Siam” novel. She also read “Bombay Anna” by Susan Morgan, which delves into Anna Leonowens life before she went to Siam. Sanders was startled to discover that Leonowens was actually of mixed race herself, an Anglo-Indian. “Knowing that helped me to understand where her great compassion came from and her great humility to all groups. She was always aware of where people were being marginalized. She always tried to be aggressive toward the problem, not the person.”
The put-in rehearsal with Hoon Lee and other understudies took place Feb. 11. The children in the cast also gave her some pointers on an important part of her performance—whistling in the song “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” “I’m whistly-impaired,” she confessed.
As a special favor, the wardrobe department put a photo of Sanders’ husband into the locket that Mrs. Anna wears, and shows as her late husband Tom. It was particularly appropriate because, “My husband has always afforded my every dream and has made boundless sacrifices so I could live in New York and pursue what I love.”
Sanders said “the whole cast was incredibly supportive and encouraging, which meant the world to me,” but she had one key moment with O’Hara on the final performance before her vacation.
“Aside from tips on maneuvering that hoop skirt, we happened to catch each others eyes in the last scene in a place where we usually don’t. We’ve worked together long enough that I knew exactly what she was thinking. She gave me a knowing an generous look that said, 'This is going to be you on Tuesday. Enjoy every single minute of it.'”
When I climbed on the boat for the opening scene ... it was transformational for me as well.
On the evening of Feb. 16, when Sanders made her entrance sailing out onto the stage in Michael Yeargan’s enormous boat set, Sanders said, “It was a really special moment for me. In rehearsals they spoke of the story being a transformational journey for Anna, but I felt, when I climbed on the boat for the opening scene, that it was transformational for me as well. I saw how I had always limited myself in what I imagined I could someday play. Sometimes it takes other people [like Bartlett Sher] to help you to see that.” In the meantime, she had to work with an audience that may have been surprised to see an Asian King and and Asian Mrs. Anna. “I see the conflict between Anna and the King as cultural, not racial. It’s about the customs of East and West and about learning. I love the line in the classroom where the King says ‘If they will know only what they see, why do we have school room?’”
She said her casting in the role had that effect on the audience, which had to overcome what perhaps they expected Mrs. Anna should look like. “There is value in investing in what Mrs. Anna is teaching, that the content of her character is what’s important, not the shape or color of her eyes or skin. I sensed that the audience was going on this journey with me.”
Her stint at the head of The King and I is now over and Sanders has returned to the chorus, with no firm plans for her to take the role again in the foreseeable future. When O’Hara departs the show this spring, Marin Mazzie is scheduled to assume the role.
As for the future, Sanders said she has admired the work of Baayork Lee’s National Asian Artists Project, which casts Asians non-traditionally in classic musicals like Oklahoma! and Hello, Dolly! Now, Sanders said, she sees doors opening for her. She said she loves working on original musicals like If/Then. . . . but she also wouldn’t mind being considered as a replacement for one of the Schuyler sisters in Hamilton.