By Jin Kiyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Ken Watanabe played the lead role in “The King and I,” a musical that has been staged in the two sacred sites of the theater world — Broadway in the United States and the West End in Britain. What kinds of struggles lie behind the glory? In conversation with music critic Yasushi Abe at an event on June 4 at the Yomiuri Shimbun Building in Otemachi, Tokyo, the “King” was pressed to talk about the “greatest episodes” of the production.
When Abe asked Watanabe about the offer from Broadway, which came while Watanabe was filming “Godzilla” in Canada, Watanabe said all in one breath: “There I was telling my manager: ‘I’ve never done a musical. And this is in English, of all things, too. No. Not possible. Definitely not.’”
Despite such sentiments, Watanabe took the job. In 2014, a year before the opening, he got quite a shock while reading the script for the very first time with Kelli O’Hara, who plays the role of Anna.
“O’Hara sang the song ‘Hello Young Lovers’ quietly a cappella, and it got me all worked up. ‘Oh my God, here we go,’ I thought to myself.” Watanabe found himself so enchanted by his costar’s voice that he could not carry on with his lines.
The director, Bartlett Sher, lined Watanabe up with a dialogue coach to guide him on pronunciation and enunciation for his English lines. They used Skype to connect between Japan and the United States, and did intensive training sessions four to five days a week. “Over the past five years, I’ve had to relearn English from the ground up,” said Watanabe.
Another song, “A Puzzlement,” is fast-paced and tricky. Watanabe recalls working under the tough direction of the music director, saying: “I was starting to feel it mentally. So much so that I was thinking, ‘Just don’t hand me any kind of sharp object because I might end up doing something with it.’ That’s how intense it had to get for me before I was able to sing the song.”
Accidental but interesting
Despite all this intense training, there were 39 preview performances, which are held before the main performances begin, in order to polish everything up before the premier in April 2015.
In the midst of that process, the stage director proposed cutting one of the scenes. Watanabe found himself unable to hide his confusion about this new development. “It was all just too much. I knew I was a failure. I left, like I was escaping. I didn’t even take off my makeup.”
That night, O’Hara emailed Watanabe, saying: “You are our only King. I want you to believe in everything that we’ve built up so far and to act the role.” The next day, there was a pile of about 15 similar letters from other performers in the production waiting in his dressing room. “That’s what inspired me to give it one more try.”
Unforeseeable situations are part and parcel of live stage performances. In “Shall We Dance?” a song in which Anna and the King dance, Watanabe ended up tripping. “I fell flat on my butt. It was a magnificent flop.” O’Hara gathered up her skirts and ran over asking: “Your Highness, are you all right?” Watanabe thought to himself: “This is interesting. Let’s try it again.” The people who saw it happen that day would have thought it was some new stage direction, it was done so naturally. The next day, the producer saw it and said, “Oh, that’s interesting, but don’t do it again, please.”
Another incident happened with the same song on a hot day when Watanabe was concerned about getting sweaty and slipping on the stage again. Without thinking, he took off his shoes and tossed them away, and they ended up landing in the orchestra pit. The way that this symbolized an Asian King feeling indifferent toward Western objects like shoes ended up being seen as rather sexy.
It also made Watanabe feel better able to enjoy the dance with the orchestra in the background. “When I spun O’Hara around, her skirts billowed out. I noticed that even just this produced a difference in the audience’s excitement level, and it revved me up.”
In the summer of 2018, the production switched locations to London, but not without the occurrence of an alarming accident. Ruthie Ann Miles, who had been scheduled to continue performing the role of the queen, was involved in a traffic accident in March. She herself suffered injuries but she also lost her daughter and her unborn child, and was unable to appear in the first half of the performances.
Other performers appearing in the production buoyed her up with letters and donations. On the day that Miles finally returned to the stage, everyone gathered in the wings and prayed intently during a scene in which she was singing.
“We’re involved so deeply in life as a team. I just couldn’t stop crying at curtain call,” Watanabe said.
Abe chimed in saying, “We really get that feeling of ‘ichiza,’ the feeling of being a troupe, that we often talk about in Japan.”
Watanabe, whose spirit of service is unrivaled, kept asking if he could talk about “one more thing that happened.” He kept the stories rolling and the event was lively until the very last moment.
■ ‘The King and I’
It is the middle of the 19th century in Siam (present-day Thailand). The King of Siam becomes aware of the need to modernize and hires a British woman to act as private home tutor for his children. Anna, the tutor, and the King at first clash with each other over their values, but gradually come to understand each other. “The King and I” premiered in the United States in 1951 starring Yul Brynner.
In 2015, a new production by Bartlett Sher premiered in the United States starring Ken Watanabe as the King and Kelli O’Hara as Anna. Both also appeared in the 2018 British production. Watanabe received nominations for best actor in a musical for both the U.S. Tony Awards and the British Laurence Olivier Awards for his role in the work.
“The King and I” comes to Japan with Tokyo performances scheduled from July 11 to Aug. 4.