Jose Llana pulls on the royal cloak in 'The King and I'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Jose Llana got his first professional acting gig by trying on his dream role: professional actor.

The talented singer and performer was 19 when he skipped class to attend an Equity audition for the 1996 Broadway revival of "The King and I," despite not owning a union card.

Llana waited until a fellow actor didn't show up for his time slot. "I looked around and no one was there. So I raised my hand," he says. "I had a lot of bravado."

Llana sang and acted so well that the casting director promised him a callback on the spot. But he used the missing actor's resume to take notes on.

"I'm like, 'Excuse me. Um, that's not me. I'm a freshman in college. Please don't arrest me. I'm just here for the experience,'" Llana recalls. "I'm sorry if I wasted your time.'"

Thankfully for everyone, Llana hadn't at all. He went on to win the part of Lun Tha, an envoy from the Prince of Burma, and go on to star on Broadway in other shows including "Rent," ''Flower Drum Song" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

Llana has lately come back to "The King and I" almost 20 years later, but this time he's won the prize role of the monarch of Siam, taking over from Tony Award-nominated Ken Watanabe.

"This show has always been really special to me. I always knew the king was somewhere in my future. Somewhere. I didn't know if it was going to be this production or somewhere down the road," says Llana in his dressing room at Lincoln Center.

"It's been offered to me in some regional productions and I purposely said, 'I don't want to do it until it's on Broadway in a production that I want to be in.' So this is really special."

The 51-cast-member revival won the Tony for best revival and co-stars Kelli O'Hara as the Englishwoman who travels to Siam to teach the children of the king. Its score by Rodgers and Hammerstein includes "I Whistle a Happy Tune," ''Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance."

Llana, 39, has stepped into a role made famous by Yul Brynner, who was king for more than 4,600 performances. But the younger actor has made the king his own, even purposely standing slightly differently than Brynner's famous akimbo stance.

"There's a responsibility to play him with respect and the gravitas that he deserves," Llana says of playing the king. "I can happily say that there's not much of Yul's shadow. I didn't feel it."

Jon Viktor Corpuz, who plays Prince Chulalongkorn, the king's first-born son, calls Llana a gracious co-star who, offstage, is like a big brother. Corpuz remembers seeing Llana play a cool cat in "Wonderland" in Florida in 2012, one of only a very few Filipino-Americans working onstage.

"It's really cool to be getting to work with him," said Corpuz. "He's an American musical theater actor so he brings that familiarity to the part of the king. He's a little bit more humorous and youthful, which is great. It's interesting to see the role played so differently and still work."

Llana was born in the Philippines to parents who were activists opposed to Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country from 1965 to 1986 before being driven into exile during a popular revolt.

He and his family fled to America when he was 3. He attended the Manhattan School of Music, and he has toured the country in "Martin Guerre," played "The Ballad of Little Jo" at Steppenwolf and was on TV in "Sex and the City."

A few years ago he reached out to his parents to let them know he'd landed a plumb role in David Byrne's immersive musical "Here Lies Love" about Imelda Marcos.

"The phone call I had to make to my parents was, 'Yeah, I'm working on a new theater piece with David Byrne!' They're like, 'What's it about?' I say, 'It's about the Marcoses.' They're like, 'Uh, OK?' 'And I'm playing Marcos.' They're like, 'Noooo!'" says Llana, laughing. "It was pretty intense."

They came around, watching the show a dozen times and cheering their son. "At the end of the day, we were just proud that the story was being told — the good and the bad of it," says Llana. "There are so many people in this country who don't know anything about Filipino culture and history except the shoes."


Mark Kennedy is at