Heather Botts has been whistling a happy tune ever since she saw the 2015 Broadway revival of “The King and I.” And now she’s living her dream.
The day after opening in “Dr. Zhivago” on Broadway, she scooted a mile or so up to Lincoln Center to see Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical unfold in all its shimmering glory.
“I fell in love with the show when I watched it. I was so emotional through the production, because it’s so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be a part of it; I want to be a part of this masterpiece,’ and it’s so funny then, that almost a year and a half later, I would be launching the first national tour as the standby of Anna,” she said by phone from a tour stop in Memphis.
The Walla Walla, Wash., native, now based in Manhattan, won’t be on standby when the show comes to Hancher. She’ll step into Anna’s hoop skirts and iconic songs for all six performances Tuesday (10/10) to Oct. 14 in Iowa City.
She’s played the lead role about 30 times since the tour began in November 2016. This time, she’ll be in the spotlight while lead actress Laura Michelle Kelly honors a commitment made before the tour was booked.
When Botts isn’t playing Anna onstage, she’s standing in the wings watching the show; studying it every week; and singing through it every day, so she can go on at a moment’s notice in case of illness, injury and vacation or time-off days.
“I was thrilled to learn that I was going to be playing Anna in Iowa City,” Botts said. “It was amazing when Bart (director Bartlett Sher) said I could do it. It’s like a dream — it is a dream. I have to pinch myself.”
The Tony-winning production debuted on Broadway in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the title roles, which in subsequent years have been played by Sandy Duncan, Celeste Holm, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Marie Osmond, Kelli O’Hara and Stefanie Powers, among the many Annas, and Daniel Dae Kim, Darren McGavin, Rudolf Nureyev, Lou Diamond Phillips and Ken Watanabe as the King. Jose Llana is reprising his Broadway starring role for the national tour.
The tale is derived from the memoirs of British teacher Anna Leonowens, a widowed mother who traveled with her young son to Siam in the 1860s, to bring Western knowledge to the royal household. Issues raised around songs serious and whimsical — from “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You” to “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “Something Wonderful” — still are relevant.
“It is so poignant and it resonates with today’s audience more than ever,” Botts said. “The musical tells the story of the relationship between the King of Siam and Anna — it’s obviously an unconventional and tempestuous relationship. Anna’s brought in to help educate his wives and his children, because they’re dealing with the possibility of being colonized by another country, and he’s terrified of that happening.
“So she comes in to help them through this time of modernization in an imperialistic world. Their relationship really tests a lot of boundaries for him and his culture. Especially with the idea of feminism; a woman’s place in the world; education of women, which was a crazy idea to him at the time. But he allowed it, which I think is so cool back in the 1860s, (saying) ‘You can educate my wives,’ because he realized that was really important with the way the rest of the world was coming together at that time,” she said.
“What’s even more amazing, is he beat the British from colonizing his country, and I think that she had a huge impact over the five year she was there.
“It speaks so much to freedoms that we need to protect even today, how many years later, and our rights as women, with all the stuff that’s going on today in the news. There’s so much every day, it’s overwhelming.”
The latest revival went through several revisions, and restores some of the original political dialogue that had been toned down over the years. “(Rodgers and Hammerstein) were bold gentlemen,” Bott said. “It’s amazing that they were wanting to talk about this stuff.”
The tour features Catherine Zuber’s lavish, Tony-winning costume designs, but some scenic elements have changed. The Lincoln Center’s production was presented on a thrust stage, with audience members seated on three sides, so the scenery for the tour has been modified for standard proscenium, or picture-frame, stages like Hancher’s. So even though the boat on which Anna arrives is smaller, it “won’t disappoint,” Botts said. “It’s truly amazing, and probably one of my most favorite moments in the show, when that is revealed in the opening minutes.”
She loves the costumes, too, even though the hoop skirts are “challenging.”
“I remember the first time I went on, and I felt like I tripped in every single scene I was in,” Botts said. “It becomes comical. You have to just take it and run with it and just laugh at yourself, because it’s so foreign to us today. I can’t even believe (the real Anna) traveled with these skirts and wore them in Siam. Think about how hot it was. All of her hoop skirts are about 20 to 25 pounds per costume, and her famous, iconic purple ballroom dance (gown) is almost 50 pounds.”
Botts also is in awe of the real Anna’s inner strength.
“She is so strong and daring. I think about what she did in 1864, leaving (her daughter) behind, going to Siam and into a completely foreign country where she had no protection really. She had spent a lot of time in India and Singapore, but those were colonized by her homeland, so she was walking into something (where) honestly, they could have just done away with her if they wanted to.
“And she was going in and challenging the king, who is considered next to God in that country. She challenged him every minute they were together, so she was strong and fearless in so many ways. In her diaries it said how scared she was, but she just couldn’t show it.
“That woman had gumption, and she was really modern in her own thinking about how the world really should look.”
WHAT: “The King and I”
WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: Tuesday (10/10) to Oct. 14; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10 to 13; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 14 (American Sign Language interpreter at 1 p.m.)
TICKETS: $40 to $80 Tuesday, Wednesday; $50 to $95 Oct. 12 to 14; Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18/KingandI
RELATED STORY: A conversation with Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization