I love Olney Theatre Center’s production of The King and I and I am thrilled to have a royal schmooze with the King . Here is my interview with Paolo Montalban.
Joel: How did you get cast in Olney’s production of The King and I?
Paolo: Classic case of “it’s all about who you know.” The director’s partner Patrick Parker, who is the Associate Artistic Director of NJ’s Paper Mill Playhouse gave me a call checking if I’d be interested in having my name put into the hat to be considered for the King. I had worked at Paper Mill on 4 occasions over the years, and one of them was a production of The King and I with Kevin Gray and Carolee Carmello. I played Lun Tha in that one. Also another great director friend of mine who has worked at the Olney, Stephen Nachamie (I worked with him in another King and I back when he was an actor) apparently put in a good word for me as well. This all led to the meeting with Mark Waldrop and our discussion of the character and the piece itself. It was basically an interview in front of the entire creative team. I felt like I was sitting in front of a parole board. Just a lot friendlier faces.
When did you get the call from Mark Waldrop that you had the roles of The King?
It was about a week or two later. To be frank, I thought I blew the interview by talking too much and in circles. I tend to do that when I have a lot to say.
Why did you want to play King? How do you relate to the King?
As far as deeply complex male Asian characters in traditional musical theatre go, it doesn’t get any more layered and rich as the King. It presents the opportunity to enrich myself as an artist, by mining the depths of not just the historical figure, but also the monarch portrayed in Hammerstein’s book.
I relate to the King’s desire to leave the world a better place behind than he found it.
What is it about the King and Anna that you admire and not admire?
I admire the fact that these characters tackle and surmount one of the most important issues that we as human beings still deal with to this very day. How to communicate with one another, especially across cultural and gender boundaries. And through this, how we develop a deeper understanding, respect, and ultimately, love for one another.
I do not admire the initial chaffing they have toward each other because they’re both so set in their ways.
This is your 8th production of The King and I. What roles have you played in those other productions? This is your second time playing The King. What is different this time in how you are playing him, the way you are costumed, and the way Mark is directing you here?
I’ve played the role of Lun Tha, a lot. And my Broadway debut was covering (understudying) that part in the revival with Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips. My full-time role in that production was 3rd torch bearer from the left/Monk #14.
What’s different about this production as far as doing the King the second time around, is that visually, he’s an older king, as evident from the white streaks in my hair. Did you know that the historical Mongkut ascended the throne at the age of 47? So when he says, “I only have 67 (children) altogether. I begin very late.” He really did! Costume-wise, this is the most “blinged out” King I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Because of our Costume Designer Kendra’s [Rai] love of accessories, I never have to pretend that I’m the richest man in the country.
Also, both Mark and I really focused on the King as man of curiosity who had this unquenchable desire to bring his country into the modern age, and paired that with the absolute monarch who is challenged by the very knowledge he attains. This makes for an imperious, mercurial, doubtful, dangerous, and ultimately very human King.
Is it more fun playing a prince, as you did in Cinderella, or a king?
A King. You don’t have to answer to your parents whims of trying to marry you off.
What character in The King and I that you don’t play is most like you?
Anna. Just her stubborn sense of justice part.
Does the King finally have the answers to all the things that puzzled him in ‘The Puzzlement’ at the end of the show? Has he changed?
No, he doesn’t have the all the answers and he realizes that it’s okay, because he tried his utmost best. He laid the groundwork for an even more capable king to succeed him, his son Chulalongkorn-who, historically, was considered an even more progressive and more beloved king than Mongkut himself. In his own words the biggest change in him is his realization, “that a woman shall have been most earnest help of all.”
What do you admire most about Eileen Ward’s performance as Anna?
I really love that Eileen rolls with whatever I give her. Sometimes actors take for granted that they are doing a play and they forget to “play.” Eileen always comes to play.
Do you enjoy performing with kids, and what has been the most fun performing with these cute and talented kids in The King and I?
I love working with kids, primarily, because I’m just a big kid at heart. The best part is seeing The King and I experienced through their eyes.
Which songs that you don’t sing in the show are your favorites, and which song that you perform or someone else performs moves you the most every time you hear it performed in the show?
I’ve always been partial to the young lover duets for obvious reasons. I especially love the way that Yun (Tuptim) suspends the note toward the end of the lyric “behold how my lover loves me” in the reprise of “I Have Dreamed”- just because she can. That alone is worth the price of admission.
What advice and suggestions did Mark Waldrop give you that you believe helped to make your performance better and richer?
There are too many to list. Mark Waldrop is a master at honing his actors’ choices -probably because he was a great actor himself and he really knows how to extract the best performances out of his cast. I miss getting notes from him.
Why do you think The King and I remains so popular 62 years after it opened on Broadway?
As I mentioned above, I think the themes of trying to understand one another and learning to trust and work with each other across cultural and religious borders are still relevant today.
What did you learn about yourself as an actor while rehearsing and performing The King and Anna?
I learned that sometimes I have good ideas and you’ve got share them all – the bad ones too – in order to sift for the nuggets of gold. As Olney’s own William H. Graham once said, “Until you hit a bad note, you don’t know what your full range is.”
Paolo this is your first time performing here at Olney Theatre Center. How has your Olney experience been?
What can I say other than, it’s the contract I signed that makes me go to work, but it’s the people that make me look forward to doing it every day. Because of the cast, the apprentices, the crew, and administration, I’d come here again in a heartbeat, if they’d have me.
What are you doing next on the stage after The King and I closes? Any roles that you are dying to play that you haven’t played before?
I’m weird because I don’t pine away to play certain parts. Each role is an opportunity to better myself as an actor, understand the human condition a little deeper, and contribute what I hope is a cathartic experience for the audience member.
At the moment, I don’t have anything lined up, except for pilot season and a bothersome shoulder surgery I have to get taken care of as soon as I get back. Wish me luck either way!
Good luck to you with the shoulder surgery. From a guy who has had too many orthopaedic surgeries here’s my royal advice: take it easy and work hard in physical therapy, don’t do anything stupid like lifting something heavy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera!
The King and I plays through January 5, 2013 on the Main Stage at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.
Paolo Montalban’s website.
‘Shall We Schmooze?’ Eileen Ward on Playing Anna in ‘The King and I’ at Olney Theatre Center by Joel Markowitz
Eileen Ward’s website.
Directing ‘The King and I’ At Olney Theatre Center By Mark Waldrop.
Amanda Gunther’s review of The King and I on DCMetroTheaterArts.