Jose Llana takes over from Ken Watanabe in Broadway's "King and I"

Jose Llana plays King in Broadway's 'King and I'
By Walter Ang
July 25, 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Almost 20 years ago, Jose Llana auditioned for "The King and I" and eventually got cast. The only problem was that he technically stole someone else's slot.

He raised his hand when another auditionee didn't show up, sang, and then promptly confessed. "I was a college freshman, I didn't know better," he says, laughing.

They must have seen something in his talent since he got his Broadway debut, playing Lun Tha in the 1996 Broadway revival with Donna Murphy (Anna Leonowens) and Lou Diamond Phillips (King Mongkut).

Repertory Philippines staged the musical in 1977 with Baby Barredo and Bernardo Bernardo (Lea Salonga played one of the children) and with Joy Virata and Mel Magsipoc in 1990.

Resorts World Manila's Full House Theater Company staged it from 2012-2013 with Monique Wilson, Sheila Valderrama and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Leo Valdes, Bimbo Cerrudo and Nonie Buencamino.

Like a dream
This time around, he didn't have to fake his identity to land the role of the titular royal in the current revival and Tony award-winning Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (libretto) musical.

Llana stepped in to replace Ken Watanabe and will play the role until end of September.

"Yes, I used my real name!" he says, laughing. "My audition was with the director, Bartlett Sher, and they were intense and a lot of fun.  His vision for the show and the king is brilliant. I relished the opportunity to find 'my King' with him."

"It feels like a dream just like the last time. Twenty years later, I'm excited to revisit the material and play the part I always looked up to."

On his opening night, co-star Kelli O'Hara, who plays Anna, tweeted, "Tonight, my new king @thejosellana killing it so far!!"

Murphy has tweeted Llana, "Can't wait! See you next month Your Majesty! Xoxo," while Philips tweeted "So very proud of you for carrying on the King's torch, my brother! The heart of our 96/97 production beats on!"

Before stepping into "The King and I," Llana was in a one-night-only "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" 10th-anniversary reunion concert featuring the original cast, where he originated the role of Chip Tolentino.

"The 'Spelling Bee' company is such a close family and we've stayed in close touch these past 10 years." Jesse Tyler Ferguson ("Modern Family") was also in the concert.

Born in Manila, his family relocated to the US when he was three. The call to perform was sparked by early and consistent exposure to the arts.

"I consider myself lucky to have seen many touring Broadway productions in Washington, D.C. where I grew up. 'Les Miserables,' 'Cats' and 'Fiddler on the Roof' are some of my favorites.  And, of course, movie musicals like 'West Side Story' and 'Sound of Music.'"

"I was also lucky to have a top-notch theater and music department in my high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.  My best friends today are still my friends from my high school choir and drama groups."

He moved to New York to study classical voice at Manhattan School of Music in 1996 (Lea Salonga had just won a Tony award for her turn in "Miss Saigon" four years earlier).

Other Broadway credits include Angel in "Rent" and Wang Ta in "Flower Drum Song" with Lea Salonga. Llana recently played Ferdinand Marcos in "Here Lies Love" (Mark Bautista played the same role for the London run.).

Llana performs in "The King and I" Jul. 14-Sept. 27 at Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Visit or like on Facebook (KingAndIBway).

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