She may be Broadway royalty, but Kelli O’Hara would be the first to admit she was a little surprised to be offered the role of Anna in the 2015 revival of The King and I. From her 2005 Tony nomination as Clara, an unusual young girl experiencing a whirlwind Venetian romance in Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza, to singing Eliza Doolittle in the New York Philharmonic’s semi-staged My Fair Lady, she has been the go-to for the feisty young woman, and often in roles that exploit her applauded upper register. So successful is her classically-trained voice, she even conquered the Metropolitan Opera this year as the wily ‘maid’ Despina in a new production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. But the role of Anna Leonowens, a widow and a mother, sits relatively low, and as a role tailored to the talents of Gertrude Lawrence, she speaks as much as she sings.

The King and IKelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I. Photo © Matthew Murphy

“As I get older, the roles are what they are,” O’Hara says philosophically, speaking ahead of the worldwide cinema broadcast of her acclaimed return to the role this year in a London re-staging. “Let’s be honest, I don’t want to be playing the ingenue forever, that’s not interesting to me anymore, and there are these roles that are starting to become very juicy for an older woman to play – although I’m not going to say I’m old,” she laughs.

In actual fact, despite a certain familiarity with Rodgers and Hammerstein growing up, it was sopranos like Julie Andrews and Shirley Jones that led a young O’Hara to devour movie musicals of The Sound of Music, Oklahoma and Carousel. The King and I simply wasn’t on her radar. “Meeting it for the first time on the page was integral to me finding a new way to play it. However, I didn’t know how much Anna would to mean to me,” she says. “I thought I was going in to do a pretty easy, light, Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about a teacher. I had no idea I would have so much to say through her.”

The King and IKelli O’Hara in The King and I. Photo © Matthew Murphy

The King and I reunited O’Hara with director Bartlett Sher after 2008’s South Pacific, another role that earned her a Tony nomination, and a production that travelled to Australia care of John Frost and the national opera company in 2012. Sher is noted for zeroing in on the issues that led Rodgers and Hammerstein to create what were considered challenging works for the 1940s and 50s, issues such as the inherent questions of race and intolerance that underpin South Pacific. For all their liberal credentials, however, The King and I is nowadays seen as a show with baggage, its writers sometimes chided for too naively addressing the themes of chauvinism and colonialism, and falling into the trap of racial stereotyping.

So how has Sher tackled these problems in this staging? “I think this production is all about addressing that,” O’Hara explains. “Bart’s whole idea was that this story isn’t about a white woman coming in to save a less-than-kingdom. It’s been played that way, where the king is a comedic, crazy kind of character. But if you see Ken Watanabe play it, he is a king and he is educated – and historically King Mongkut was very educated. The only reason these events came to pass is that he wanted someone to come and teach his women and his children. And that’s important. He wanted his women to be educated as well.”

The King and IKelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I. Photo © Matthew Murphy

Another actor singled out for praise, and who reprises her role as the king’s first wife Lady Thiang in the London production, has been Ruthie Ann Miles. When O’Hara won the Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical, Miles won for Best Featured Actress. “Bart basically wanted Lady Thiang to be Hilary Clinton,” O’Hara says, explaining how back in 2015 they were referencing Hilary because they all believed she was going to be the next President of the United States. “He wanted her to be the smartest woman in the room. He felt like, in her own way, at that time, she really ran the kingdom. She watched, she learned. It wasn’t Anna coming in, it was already in place. We had a king who had been raised with certain traditions and a queen who was quietly and effectively watching. I come in between them, but Lady Thiang knows that he will listen to me eventually.”

They also have a completely Asian cast, unlike in the famous film where Philippines-born Patrick Adiarte who played Prince Chulalongkorn was the only non-Caucasian principal. “We don’t have a full Thai cast, but they auditioned, and boy did they try,” O’Hara says. “But we also have an Asian actor in our show to cover Anna, so we tried to do diverse casting.”

The King and IRuthie Ann Miles and Kelli O’Hara in The King and I. Photo © Paul Kolnik

“Everything that has been a problem or caused raised eyebrows about this show in the past, Bart tried to hit it on the head and say how can we make this better?” she continues. “Educating women, making them stronger, making the men more tolerable and less comedic, loud and commanding. You’ll find a great bit of humour in Ken as the King, but you’ll also find a great bit of peace and understanding and intelligence in the way he plays him. I think we tried to make differences in every aspect of the show where things might have been itchy. We’re in a different time now and that’s a responsibility.”

For the London transfer, O’Hara went back into the show after a couple years out, something that she’d never done before. That turned out to be a real eye-opener. “A lot of things have changed since 2015, so the show had different meanings,” she explains. “Since then, there have been all these racial injustices and we’ve had the #MeToo movement talking about gender equality. When we were doing the 2015 production, we thought we would have the first female American president soon. We’ve definitely not had that – quite the opposite. And so doing the show felt more purposeful in a way.”

The King and IThe King and I. Photo © Matthew Murphy

With the stakes higher in today’s political climate, how then does O’Hara tackle what might appear a classic example of an intelligent woman confronting a bigoted showman. Does it make her angrier? Does that make it all seem a bigger show? “It makes it beautifully relevant for now,” she says. “We’re seeing things in our world right now that make you feel like how can this still be happening? I try to make Anna less of a shrew, less of an angry person, and more like someone who is also journeying and searching and needing to learn. It’s not that she comes in knowing everything, she’s also trying to understand why people believe the way they do. In that way there can be change. She gets inside the King, and he in her, and they begin to understand why people do the things they do and how we can affect each other in a positive way. It’s the idea that we can educate each other and come to some sort of middle ground.”

For all its honours and awards, the sumptuous production has never been filmed before, making this cinema broadcast from the iconic London Palladium perhaps the last chance for people who didn’t see it on Broadway or in the West End to catch a little bit of musical theatre history. “It’s shot from the proscenium so it’s definitely the show as is, we didn’t change anything,” says O’Hara. “In live theatre we can make mistakes, but we go on. I feel differently every night. It’s hard knowing that this one take will be forever, but you risk that for the sake of having it preserved. And hopefully, watching movie musicals will encourage people, like I was encouraged as a child, to go into theatres and to have some art in their lives”.


The King and I: From the London Palladium will be in cinemas on November 29 for one night only.

Find your local screenings here

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine