Q&A with the King

IMG_7330Paolo Montalban (best known for playing the Prince in the ABC/Disney TV movie, Cinderella) has been in The King and I eight times. His role at Olney Theatre Center is his second time playing the King.

What is it like working with the kids?

It’s one of the perks of doing The King and I, getting to work with the kids. Being able to see the theatrical process through their eyes is like reliving that experience for myself for the first time.

What makes this production unique?

For one, it’s my second time being the King, so it’s kind of like riding a bike that you haven’t ridden for a while…. You have a director and it’s his first time looking at this piece, so he has really fresh eyes on it, and a new choreographer working on the piece for the first time. She also has really fresh eyes on it, so it brings a unique experience to the product.

Why should audiences see this show?

In my opinion, audiences should come see the show because it’s quite possibly the most perfect Rodgers and Hammerstein piece that’s every been created—it has a perfect book, perfect music and lyrics, and it has a story that was not only relevant back then, or when it arrived on Broadway 15 years ago, but it’s relevant now, and I think it’s a story you want to share with your kids and family.

How do you personally connect to this musical?

You know, it’s funny, because my family was a family of immigrants and being an immigrant family in the US—I came over when I was one—the most important thing to my parents for their children was being able to assimilate, not just quickly, but also fully into American culture. You know what’s interesting is that in a way, the King of Siam is trying to assimilate into the world because his country was so isolated for so many years, and now he’s trying to spread his wings and remain relevant in the world so that his county doesn’t get swallowed up by colonial powers.

What is the most challenging aspect of playing this character?

The most challenging aspect is trying to bring an integrity to the character and the actual historical figure without being…word for word, note for note exactly what he actually was in real life…to bring a human element to it. I mean, I obviously will never get a chance to know the real King, but the challenge is trying to get into his skin, trying to imagine what he must have been going through and how torn he must have been between wanting to keep the traditions of the past and also wanting desperately to bring his country into the future.

The King is an iconic role. What was it like making him your own? Were you influenced by other portrayals of the King?

When you think of The King and I, still to this day, you think of Yul Brynner. And the first thing people ask is, “Are you going to shave your head for this?” I’m totally open to shaving my head…But you know, the actual King of Siam had a kind of tuft of hair on top and very shortly shaved or closely cropped sides and back. That was the style of the time and era in his country. So one of the major things, just visually, is trying to find a look that will set this King apart from Yul Brynner’s. That being said, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the kings that have come before me. I still follow the old saying: “If it’s good, steal it, and the rest, just forget it.”

This isn’t your first time playing the King. What have you discovered about the story and character this time?

I’m still discovering it. What’s great about Mark [Waldrop, director] is that he’s really guided me into reconsidering the King as a more thoughtful, scholarly King who is just curious about the world. Many times in the past, including the Yul Brynner one, the King had the curiosity, but there’s also a bit of the tyrant…. People remember that a lot. So I’m still trying to find my way and find my own version of it.

You’ve also performed in David Henry Hwang’s revised Flower Drum Song, another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that closely examines notions of race and culture. How is it in conversation with The King and I? Did it influence your perception of the musical?

Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t write fluffy shows. They may seem fluffy because the songs are so catchy and you’re whistling the tunes outside of the theatre, but if you look deeper, there are a lot of really important themes going on, and those themes are still relevant today. There were themes that they wrote back then, and they will be important 200 years from now, long after this production of The King and I is done. With regards to Flower Drum Song…. What David Henry Hwang really pulled out of that new version was focusing on the immigrant experience, specifically in America, and I think he really captures that. I think he’s one of the foremost playwrights speaking about the Chinese-American immigrant experience, and it’s such an important story to be told because a lot of people don’t know about that. The King and I touches on those kinds of themes, of being in a foreign land. You have Mrs. Anna trying to assimilate in the culture, and in the same way, the King trying to assimilate in the English culture that she brings to the court.

Why is the King such an enduring character for American audiences? Why do we need to keep telling this story?

The King is such an enduring character and this is a story that we need to tell because the King, the historical King and the character in The King and I, was a man who didn’t just want his country to be better—he wanted to be better, and I think we can learn from that. I think that we can look at his doubts and the way he works out his problems that we can not only just want ourselves to be better, but we also want the people around us to be better.

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