Three years after Kelli O’Hara took the stage in The King and I on Broadway, American audiences will have a chance to see her Tony-winning performance as Anna Leonowens once again. On November 29 and December 4, film distributor Trafalgar Releasing is screening a taped version of O’Hara and Ken Watanabe’s performances in the London Palladium production of the musical in movie theaters across the U.S. Ahead of the film’s release, Vulture called up O’Hara in her London dressing room to discuss how her perspective on the character changed over the course of three years, what it was like to reunite with her castmates for her West End debut, and her plans for the upcoming revival of Kiss Me, Kate.
Is there much of a difference from performing on the West End than on Broadway?
Well, I think we’ve all heard about the West End always and dreamed about coming over here, but it’s also such a change of life and the history here, and the touristy things to do here are so beautiful. My kids and my husband and I have been over here all summer and tried to do as much as we possibly could between showtimes for a great little break from the world. We kind of found ourselves one weekend at a place called Botany Bay, where we just went to the beach. It was white cliffs of Dover-looking. We stayed at this beautiful little inn. For us that was a great little getaway to the British seaside.
It’s been three years since the The King and I first premiered in New York. How much has your perspective changed on the show?
The 2018 version of this feels very different than the 2015 version, in a way. I find Anna to be one of these women who, when playing her, it makes you also stand up a little straighter. I definitely love her more deeply as a mother, as someone who has a lot to learn in coming to teach. She’s also learning at the same time, and this idea of understanding and education about “the other” is very important. I think in 2015, with the possibility of Hillary Clinton running for president, we wanted to have a bit of a feminist story. Now, in 2018, we have that, as so many layers, but then on top of it, I was really reaching for equality and understanding.
Politically, with Brexit and Trump, that’s certainly something people have turned against.
I feel so heavy about all that, and I feel like instead of being angry and very barky and difficult about it, I’m starting to feel so much in my own life that there has to be some sort of gentleness, openness, understanding, and eye-opening.
I was moved to see Ruthie Ann Miles come back onstage, after the terrible tragedy she lived through. What has it been like to work with her again?
Ruthie and I are great friends. I’m glad to be here with her right now. It’s one of the bigger honors and purposes in my life right now, and she’s amazing.
You’re doing Kiss Me, Kate in the spring. Have you thought about how you will approach that show?
Definitely. This experience makes me look at what I’m about to do differently. We’re going to meet in October to talk about how we make this revival fresh and why there is reason to do it at all. The score, everything like that, will be intact and respected, but I think there’s also things we need to look at in the scenes and kind of give it a reason for being. I also think a great deal about the last time I saw it, with my good friend Marin Mazzie playing the role, and keep her in mind in my performance.
I was thinking about Marin Mazzie’s performance in The King and I, where she replaced you, after hearing about her death. Has her version of Anna been on your mind?
Marin was one of my very first real inspirations. The month I moved to New York, I saw her in Ragtime about eight times. She and Audra McDonald were my first musical-theater heroes. To pass, if you will, the role of Anna over to her, and come back and watch her do it was really one of the bigger honors of my life, to share something with her. Then she came and sang at Carnegie Hall for me the next spring, and it’s been hard to think of our whole community having lost her. I especially feel for my good friend, her husband, Jason Danieley, who has been a rock of a husband. I wish him all the best, and he knows that of course.
Is there any shift in what to West End audiences tend to react to in the show, as opposed to those on Broadway?
I have found them to be such beautiful listeners. People tried to warn me about British, London, audiences being different. I don’t feel that much of a difference. They still come to their feet at the end, they listen, they seem engaged. I think they’re enjoying this particular production. We reference the English so much in this production that there are little laughs we get even more: “I’m from a civilized land called Wales.” They enjoy that more than maybe American audiences did.
What were your thoughts on having the production filmed?
As much as I get nervous about something like live theater being filmed, I also am the result of having never seen live productions as a kid. I grew up in western Oklahoma, where we didn’t have live theater for the most part, so my love of this art form came from watching movie musicals, and that was how I learned about this art form at all. I keep thinking of the one kid out there somewhere who can’t make it to London or Broadway but sees this in a movie theater in their small town, and says, “I love this art form, and I either want to go someday to do it or see it, or I want to support it here in my local town.” It would be silly to assume that everybody who wants to be involved in and see theater can. This is the way to get it to people, and I think that’s important.
What do you think you learned from playing Anna?
This show sits very heavy and deep for me as far as what it means to be a woman — that you can be strong, that you can take care of yourself, support yourself, but you also can have love. That you can also depend on others, that you can also learn from others. I think there are a lot of ways to just think things are black and white, and we have to be one thing or another, but in all my life I will look for the reasons to know that I can be independent, and that it’s okay to have a partnership in life, to learn, to collaborate. That’s in everything. It’s in being a parent, being a spouse, being a friend. You walk onto the stage with a script in your hand and you start to just bark around, “This is how I am, this is what I believe, and I am unchangeable.” By the time you’re done with it, by the time you’ve played it 500 or 600 times, you start to go, “I have so much to learn.”