The "I" of The King and I — Anna Leonowens, an English school teacher imported in 1862 to educate the favored offspring of Siam's King Mongkut — could stand for Inevitable.
All three women nominated in the starring category as Anna waltzed off with Tonys: Gertrude Lawrence in 1951, Donna Murphy in 1996 and Kelli O'Hara in 2015.
The true power behind the throne, however, lies in Lady Thiang, the king's head wife and unofficial first lady. She hasn't been up for any awards since 1946 when Gale Sondergaard, who originated the role in the film "Anna and the King of Siam," earned an Oscar nomination.
It has taken five Broadway productions of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's musical classic — the latest being the lavish display now playing Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre — for Lady Thiang to emerge from self-imposed shadows into a vivid portrayal that made the Featured Actress category and won the Tony Award for Ruthie Ann Miles. Miles is Korean-American and was raised in Hawaii. She currently calls Brooklyn home, and that is where she and her husband, Jonathan Blumenstein, are raising their young daughter, Abigail. In 2013 Miles made a splash in the New York theatre scene when she was cast in her first leading role, that of controversial former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos in the disco-themed immersive musical Here Lies Love. Just three months after that show closed at the Public Theater, Miles made her Broadway debut in The King and I, where, as Lady Thiang, she sings volumes for muted, muzzled women of 200 years ago.
Lady Thiang runs the royal palace at Bangkok, beset by infidelities, intrigues, ill winds from the West and a barbaric image. Standing off to the side self-effacingly, she firmly stage-manages all the audiences the king has with his lesser wives and their unruly litter. She is a tower of quiet strength that casts a dark and formidable shadow. Miles is abundantly aware of the role's push-pull mechanism and tempers her stainless-steel resolve with a ready subservience for her "lord and master." She tips her heart in "Something Wonderful," a soaring showstopper that proclaims: "This is a man you'll forgive and forgive. And help and protect, as long as you live."
Miles and co-stars Kelli O'Hara and Ashley Park discuss how the women of The King and I speak to modern-day audiences.
This dichotomy, Miles points out, is not always easy. "Our culture is already so different than what it was back then. We have such freedom of speech now. If I have a thought, I say it. If I keep it down, it's because I'm waiting for a good moment for me to say my piece. That's a luxury we have in our society, but parts of the world still don't have it.
"I think of Lady Thiang as Hillary Clinton — the strong woman in the room people look to for an opinion. In this production, the women in the court look to her, not because she's the head wife but because she really has eyes and ears everywhere."
Playing Imelda Marcos fortified Miles's Lady Thiang. "Playing Mrs. Marcos, I found a strength in my body — maybe in my mind, too — that Ruthie doesn't have. The major difference between them is that Mrs. Marcos is more like Ruthie. Lady Thiang can't speak her mind. If Mrs. Marcos had a thought, she executed it."
Like O'Hara, Miles admits to having missed The King and I in all its stage manifestations, but she saw "Anna and the King of Siam" and pulled a lot of backstory from Margaret Landon's 1944 novel.
"It is my Bible for this show, the basis of every decision I make on stage — I read it a lot," she says. "In the book, Lady Thiang was definitely the head wife and in charge of everybody, but she was not actually the mother of Prince Chulalongkorn [the firstborn and future king of Siam]. She was the king's favorite, but they had no children."
Read what Miles hopes for her own daughter in the future of theatre.
For additional character strength, Miles drew on her grandmother. "She lived through the Korean War. She lived through hunger and disease. She took care of my grandfather and basically sacrificed her whole life to help the family survive. I wouldn't say she had 'quiet strength' because she made her opinion known when she needed to, especially in her last ten years, but it was beautiful to watch her age so gracefully and lead our family in a way that was not loud but very passionate."
Miles shares the Beaumont stage with another kind of family — the theatre kind. Miles's Here Lies Love onstage husband Jose Llana — who made his Broadway bow as Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of The King and I — now plays Miles's onstage husband again as the titular King. Conrad Ricamora, her other Here Lives Love love interest, takes on the Lun Tha role, the young scholar in love with the King's junior wife, Tuptim.
It's unlikely Imelda's old lovers will hook up with Lady Thiang. "Having Jose and Conrad on the same stage with me again is great," Miles admits, "but I don't think it's going to be much of a reunion. The dynamics of our characters are so different."