Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays the headstrong English governess Anna Leonowens in the national tour of “The King and I,” has been reading passages in her dressing room each night from the memoirs of the real-life figure on whom her character is based. What has surprised Kelly is how vulnerable Anna comes across as she’s making her way to the exotic Far East in the 1860s to teach English to schoolchildren at the request of the Siamese king.
“I assumed that nothing would faze her — as a single woman, a widow with a son, who had lived in Singapore and India,” said the luminous Kelly. Glammed-up for a photo shoot inside the Boston Opera House on one afternoon last month, Kelly is gazing at the darkened stage where Bartlett Sher’s celebrated refreshening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s enduring musical will be setting up shop for two weeks beginning Tuesday. The show won four Tony Awards in 2015, including best revival of a musical.
The diaries underscore that “it might just be an act all along and that she’s putting on this brave face,” Kelly says. “You realize she really is petrified and she’s just trying to be strong. And if you’re feeling afraid, and you still go for it anyway, that’s more courageous than not feeling any fear or not having any idea of how dangerous things really are.”
That insight colored her interpretation of Anna’s state of mind as she arrives in bustling Bangkok in the show’s breathtaking opening moments and sings the classic “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from the prow of the ship that glides dramatically to the lip of the stage, looming over the audience.
Kelly, who won an Olivier Award as the high-flying nanny in “Mary Poppins” and played Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland” on Broadway and at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, stars in the production alongside Jose Llana, who did two stints as the King in Sher’s Broadway revival.
Based on Margaret Landon’s novel, which was inspired by the real-life adventures of Leonowens during her time in the court of King Mongkut, the show contains a rich trove of instantly hummable songs including “Shall We Dance?,” “Something Wonderful,” and “Getting to Know You.”
Still, the formidable shadow of Yul Brynner and his bald pate hangs heavily over any production of “The King and I.” The Siamese monarch was Brynner’s most beloved creation. He originated the part in the 1951 Broadway premiere, won an Oscar for his performance in the 1956 film, and continued to barnstorm back into the show over the next three decades.
Despite the Brynner baggage, Sher says any revival of a classic must burrow into the heart of what makes the play relevant, even urgent in the current moment. Sher, who everybody calls Bart, isn’t interested in gauzy, idealistic interpretations of the past. Instead, he seeks to strip away sentimentality and nostalgia and bring the story to life through honest emotions and naturalistic performances.
“We’ve been through enough and know enough now that we hear the text differently than we heard it in 1975 or heard it in 1955,” says Sher inside his office at Lincoln Center, where he serves as resident director. “We’ve changed so much as a culture and society that we just don’t listen the same way. We’re not hearing the same things.”
In his masterful 2008 remount of “South Pacific” on Broadway, Sher mined the story to underscore the efforts of two of its central characters, Nellie Forbush and Lieutenant Joseph Cable, to grapple with their ingrained racism. In his 2015 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Sher trenchantly linked the story of Tevye and his fellow Jews facing the threat of a pogrom to the plight of refugees fleeing violence and oppression around the world today.
When it came to his sumptuous “The King and I” at Lincoln Center Theater (which starred Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe), Sher wanted to bring into sharper focus questions about the position of women in society, the culture clashes between the West and the East during colonial times and today, and the conflicts between traditional and contemporary social mores.
“There are lots of issues of power and the education of women that resonate today,” Sher says. “So we wanted to elevate those issues and rethink what these mean to us in the current era.”
As he was prepping “The King and I,” Sher read an op-ed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that asserted, in Sher’s paraphrase, “The most dangerous thing in the developing world is the education of women, giving a young girl a book.” That idea became a guiding force for his production — “this notion that somehow a young girl with a book could change the world, whether that girl is in Afghanistan or in Somalia or in Malaysia.”
While Anna and the King share a tempestuous relationship, she tries to educate the king and his children and show them the ways of the Western world. She also plants the seeds of freedom, individualism, education, and true love in the people she encounters in Siam, including the concubine Tuptim, one of the king’s many wives. The young woman, though, is in love with the Lun Tha, the Burmese envoy who brought her to Siam. When Anna teaches her about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s slave narrative “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Tuptim immediately sees the connections with her own life.
‘I realized there was so much more to the character than I’d initially thought.’
“It’s clearly a story about overcoming oppression. So they make a ballet of the book to teach the King something he didn’t know,” Sher says. “That is by itself just a mind-blowingly great idea that you wouldn’t expect in any kind of normal musical.”
Kelly first played the role of Anna for three weeks outdoors in the sweltering summer heat at The MUNY in St. Louis in 2012. But with this production of “King,” Sher has pushed her in directions she never imagined. “It wasn’t until I started working with Bart that I realized there was so much more to the character than I’d initially thought.”
From the first audition, Kelly saw that Sher would challenge everything she thought she knew. “He was like a tiger. He doesn’t let you just be good enough. He tries to get everything he can out of you. And I loved that.”
Emotional truth aside, Kelly’s biggest challenge may be the heavy dresses she has to wear, including a 45-pound behemoth she dons for “Shall We Dance?” At one point, she was hospitalized because her corset kept pushing against a rib and digging into her kidney.
She’s also been engaging in some behavior that would no doubt make Anna blush. When she’s offstage, she must quickly down a liter of water to rehydrate, though it keeps causing her stomach to rebel. “I try and disguise it,” Kelly says, with a hearty laugh, “but poor Anna, she keeps burping!”
The King and I
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At the Boston Opera House, April 11-23. Tickets: Starting at $44, 800-982-2787, www.BroadwayInBoston.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.