CHICAGO (CBS) — For many of us, Rodgers & Hammerstien’s beloved music was part of our childhood.
Jose Llana’s, too.
“I grew up watching all the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s movies. ‘Sound of Music’ changed my life. ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Carousel’ and ‘King and I,’” says Llana, who returns to Chicago to play the King of Siam in the national tour.
Yul Brynner famously played the King in the 1956 movie version and in the musical for years, up until his death.
“Talk about ghosts haunting a piece of theater,” Llana says. “It’s really powerful for me to step into those shoes.”
The role is full circle for Llana, whose first professional part was of the Burmese lover Lun Tha in the 1996 Broadway revival of the show.
“Twenty years later, to be the King, is very sentimental for me. It’s been a really profound experience,” he says.
Laura Michelle Kelly plays British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who was invited in the 1860s to teach English and other Western customs to the children of the royal Siamese court.
“We had a VHS machine at home, and I used to watch three movies over and over again, and one was the ‘King and I,’” she says.
Kelly says the music that makes the story timeless.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals were made into these movies and everyone saw them as a child and that’s why they keep getting made again,” she says. “They are incredible geniuses with dialogue and language and these lyrics, it’s timeless.”
For Llana, the production brings him back to Chicago. He performed as Tin Man Wong in the western musical “The Ballad of Little Jo” for Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2000.
“I love Chicago. The audiences here are smart and they really enjoy theater,” he says.
The best part of the touring show, for him, is that it transcends generations.
“I look out into the audience and I see grandmothers and their daughters and granddaughters: three generations watching the show and each one has a specific connection to their ‘King and I,’” he says.
He elaborates: “I have women come up to me after the show and tell me they saw Yul Brynner when I was 8 years old or I saw him when I was 20,” said Llana. “Each family can bring each generation to the show. To see a little girl or boy to see their first King and I, and that’s very special. To be a part of that legacy has been an honor.”
The production won four 2015 Tony Awards, including the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, plus the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Musical or Revue.
The “King and I” is at the Oriental Theatre through July 2. For more information, go to Broadway In Chicago.