Recently we had the chance to talk to a performer in the Broadway production of “The King and I”, which is going to be presented at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts from Tuesday February 20th to Sunday February 25th. It is directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher and features the cast of the Lincoln Center Theater.
Brian Rivera was born in Sacramento and it was in high school there where he began his pursuit of the performing arts. He later went on to study drama at San Francisco State University, spending his formative years in the Bay Area.
In this production of the critically loved play, Rivera takes a turn at playing the titular King of Siam, as well as the King’s second in command, the Kralahome.
In the following Q&A, Rivera gives us a glimpse into the classic, historically based “The King and I”, as well as what it means to him being part of the production.
Hey Brian, thanks for your time. To start off, could you break down what got you interested in the performing arts?
One Sunday I went to our school theater, our gymnasium, [for] a play called “Into the Woods”. It was amazing, but [also] just seeing people around my age just becoming different people and breaking out in song, it blew my mind. So I auditioned every year, but I had no experience. So I didn’t get in, but then I was in the choir, so I got a little experience. I got into “Guys and Dolls” senior year and that kinda solidified it for me, to pursue performing arts. I went to Sacramento City College. I was born in Sacramento but I spent most of my time, my adult years, in the Bay Area. So, I transferred to SF State and I got a degree in Drama there.
What is the story within “The King and I”?
The story of “The King and I” is based on actual period of history in Xi’an, which is modern day Thailand, in 1862. It was a big time of colonial imperialism where it was “Manifest Destiny”, and the European nations were going across the globe to conquer various countries. The king of Xi’an is a very smart, forward-thinking man who says, “we’ve got to change our country and step things up, or else they’re gonna take us over.” So he hires a famous governor’s son to teach his kids English and a little bit of everything. It ends up being influential, to shape the country and staving off the powers that be from taking over. Historically, Thailand is the only Asian country never to be conquered by a European power.
Could you talk about your role(s) in this production?
I play the king’s right-hand man, it’s called a Kralahome, which is a special title that was created for the actual man in real life. So, he’s like a special prime minister with overreaching powers. He was born into a family of wealthy merchants that became one of the most influential families at the time in Xi’an. He was actually in real life, part of the council that elected or figured who would be the next in line. He’s just loyal to the king, and he’s a traditionalist so when all these western customs are starting to be implemented it’s tough for him, but he wants to do whatever’s best for his king and the country.
How do you feel the original play and this new iteration differ?
I’d say that it’s very faithful. When we started rehearsals, Bart wanted to work [from] the original. So he went back even before the original and looked at the rehearsal script. He got a lot of help from the foundation that looks over Rodgers & Hammerstein’s legacy. So he got the original script and the original preview was 4 hours long. The intent that he wanted with the original script was to pull as much depth as possible from the original working script so there’s little lines that we kept that gives us a more of a hint on the relationship between the king and his view on the rest of the world, and especially his wives’ view. It shows this woman’s perspective and kind of all this imposition on them from the West, in particular, fashion. It’s little things like that [which] add nuance and depth.
Bart is a brilliant director and has great vision but when he gets asked to propose a project he asks himself what the relevance is to today, the world we live in. What he saw in [The King and I] during the time they were putting it together, was the young Persian woman Malala Yousafzai, who won a Nobel Prize and was shot in the head by the Taliban. He was inspired by her story, and the famous thing she said, “the most dangerous thing in the world is a girl with a book.”
So, when Bart thought of that he said it made perfect sense for the story because there’s this young woman who sends a present to the king, and she just wanted to learn and read. So [Bart] focused in on her, a strong independent woman. Very different for the times when it was written, and it’s centered on showing a story where women are equal as men.
Do you have a favorite moment in the production?
Well, there’s so many. It’s a classic and there’s so many beautiful songs in there. It also depends on my perspective, when I’m playing the Kralahome I love my moments with the king. And offstage when Anna sings “Hello Young Lovers” to the wives after they first meet, and the wives can let their guard down. As the king, playing opposite Anna, all the scenes are rich and wonderful. Recently I played the king for a day and the understudy for the prince is a young kid and the fact that he’s so small it struck me, [there’s] touching moments.
Why should people come and check out “The King and I” when it arrives to Broadway San Jose?
I don’t want to quote a reviewer but a review in New York said, “if you’re going to see any production of ‘The King and I’ in your lifetime, this is the one.” I agree with him with a lot of bias being part of it, but I believe it to be true. It’s a beautiful production with lots of amazing performances. The story it tells, even if it’s from a time over 150 years ago, it’s still so relevant today, especially since there’s a message of female empowerment, of standing your ground against the odds and fighting for equality and fairness and striving eternally to open one’s mind and change one’s views and habits, and learn more for the sake of being better as a person and also a country. I think it resonates still today.
“The King and I” is running February 20th to the 25th. See Brian Rivera play the King of Siam on February 20th, 24th and 25th. Tickets and information available at ticketmaster.com and broadwaysanjose.com.