It was 66 years ago that Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I first graced the Broadway stage, and the classic musical has been beloved by theatergoers ever since. Lincoln Center Theater’s 2015 production won four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, and the acclaimed production, directed by Tony winner Bartlett Sher, is now touring nationally.
The tour recently set up shop at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and opens to DC audiences tonight. We caught up with actress Manna Nichols, who plays Tuptim, the King of Siam’s reluctant junior wife, to talk about the show’s legacy and why she feels this is an important musical for women.
On Tap: Tuptim is a role you’ve played twice before (at Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia and North Shore Music Theatre in Boston). What is it about the character that keeps you returning to the role?
Manna Nichols: I love that she is a strong female character. I love that she is an ingénue and she’s doing all these love ballads and is a love interest in the story, but I also love that she is a very three-dimensional, realistic human being. She’s very brave and forward-thinking, and I think she’s very relatable to where we are in history. She’s exciting for me to play.
OT: The King and I is one of those classic musicals that anyone who is interested in theatre probably learned about very young. Do you remember your earliest association with the show?
MN: I didn’t see a lot of live theatre when I was growing up, but I used to watch the movie all the time when I was little with my cousins and siblings at my grandparents’ house. We would sing all the songs and act at the movie and dance around. As a kid, I loved watching the “March of the Royal Children” with my brothers, because these kids looked like us. I remember asking my mom to skip to the part with the girl who looks like me; I wanted to see Tuptim, and I could identify with her. It was cool to see a role model who looked like me doing what I wanted to do.
OT: What do you enjoy most about being in the show?
MN: I really love the music; I love the entire score, especially all the songs that my character gets to sing. I also really love the Act II ballet. Tuptim is inspired by the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and writes this artistic ballet, narrates it, and it’s basically her being inspired by what happens to Eliza in the story.
OT: This is a musical that attracts a lot of young audience members. Do you get to meet them after the show and talk to them about the performance?
MN: Some of my favorite people I meet at the stage door are the students who tell me they want to do this for a living, and I tell them they absolutely can. That was me, and I remember being on the other side of that door. I was so shy and I wouldn’t talk to any of them or ask for their autograph or take a picture. I just wanted to see what they looked like. It’s fun to flip the mirror and talk with them all.
OT: What set you on your road to a career in theatre?
MN: I was initially accepted into school as a biology major, premed, and I just did theatre for fun. It wasn’t really a practical career choice for my family. At the last minute, I changed my mind and realized I didn’t want it to be just a hobby; I wanted to find a way to make music my full-time job. I switched my major to musical education and eventually musical theatre. I wanted to do what made me happy.
OT: Since this is your third time in the role, how does the show stay fresh for you?
MN: This production is different. Bart won the Tony Award, and the amount of detail and attention that he put into our table work is unlike anything I had ever done before. That was so beneficial because when we started blocking, we didn’t have a million questions, and that informed the way we [thought] and acted.
OT: What do you hope people talk about as they leave the Kennedy Center?
MN: One of the strong messages that people can walk away with from this production is the idea that modernization while still giving honor to your own culture and traditions is possible. People call our king in the show a barbarian, but when you get to know your neighbors or know other people that you’ve been afraid of that you’ve previously judged, you find out you’re a lot more similar than different. The show also brings out the idea of strong women and education. You watch the three lead women in our show stand up for what they believe in in very different ways. There’s a woman who fights the system, a woman who works within the system and a women who completely rebels. Then there are women who accept where they are. Watching the different kinds of strength these women show really speaks incredibly well to our political situation today.
The King and I runs at the Kennedy Center Opera House through August 20. Tickets start at $49. Visit www.kennedy-center.org to learn more.
The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org