BACKSTAGE: It's Good To Be King

It’s good to be king. Especially after you’ve played a peasant.

Just ask Jose Llana, who, in 1995 as a freshman in college, was cast in the Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I, starringLou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy.

Now Llana is in the title role, playing the King of Siam first on Broadway — succeeding the Tony-nominated Ken Watanabe — and now on the national tour, which arrives at Hartford’s Bushnell May 30 to June 4.

“It was a dream come true,” Llana told me in a telephone chat from Houston, where the tour had landed.

The Philippine-born, Virginia-raised Llana says he learned how to be king through his mentors in that earlier revival: Phillips and Murphy. “I learned how to be a professional in that production,” says Llana, who also played another country’s leader not too long ago: Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the off-Broadway hit Here Lies Love. (He also played Chip in Broadway’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.)

“Lou led on-stage and off-stage by example and by the heart,” says Llana. “He knew how important it was to create a sense of family in the production, especially since there are children in the cast. This tour has nine kids in the cast and someone is always having a birthday, or you have to be sensitive when kids are having a bad day because they might be feeling homesick.

“Having a show like that as my first professional show when I was 19 set the bar very high. It was a close company and we’re still close, having reunions every few years.”