This week Playbill checks in with actor-director-choreographer Darren Lee. He is currently playing the King of Siam in the U.K. and Ireland tour of the recent Broadway and London revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The King and I. The tour, which launched in February also stars Helen George (Call the Midwife) as schoolteacher Anna Leonowens. Itcontinues through July.
Lee has been seen on Broadway in Chicago, Guys and Dolls, Allegiance, Shogun the Musical, Miss Saigon, Victor/Victoria, On the Town, Seussical the Musical, Pacific Overtures, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Kiss Me, Kate. As a director and choreographer, his New York credits include Heading East, History of War, The Report, Bronx Express, and Hidden Sky, while his regional credits include helming productions of The Music Man, Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar, Little Shop of Horrors, Godspell, and many more.
In the interview below, Lee discusses returning to the role of the King of Siam, which he had previously understudied in the U.S. national tour, and how the musical offers a great lesson for contemporary world leaders.
What is your typical day like now?
Well, we just launched the U.K. tour a couple days ago in Canterbury, England, so my days have been occupied with technical rehearsals and then shows in the evenings. I’ve never toured the U.K. before, so I’m looking forward to having more down time and the opportunity to explore the U.K. cities along our route. I quite enjoy exploring new places while working. I saw much of the U.S. the same way during my time on national tours.
How did this role come about? Is the King a part you have wanted to play?
As an Asian American theatre performer, of course, I have always been aware that the role of The King of Siam exists. I think in the back of my mind, I’ve always hoped that one day my career path and age would allow me to inhabit this role. Although I had performed on Broadway for over 20 years, the national tour of Lincoln Center’s production in 2017 directed by Bartlett Sher was the first production of the King and I that I had ever auditioned for. There I was fortunate enough to understudy The King of Siam, so I was thrilled and honored to be offered the opportunity to take on the role for this U.K./international tour.
Are there any parts of the role or the musical that seem particularly poignant following the events of the last few years?
I think it is interesting how the musical examines the concepts of leadership and change. Knowing Siam is incapable of surviving in a world where surrounding powers want to swallow his country, The King has the foresight to bring a British school teacher to Siam in hopes of educating his children to help his country remain competitive. In doing so, he is also forced to re-examine the traditions and the ways he rules his people, and ultimately has to face his own extinction. This is an extremely progressive and empathetic act where change is ultimately accepted for the greater good. I feel that presently, in hopes of retaining power, leaders resist the inevitability of change, and those they are supposed to look after suffer as a result.
Do you notice any difference in audience reaction on either side of the Atlantic?
Audience reaction is similar on both sides of the Atlantic: warm, inviting, and ready to experience a beautiful production of a true classic in musical theatre. The book of The King and I is strong. The scenes are quite lengthy, yet all of the content is necessary to the plot, and the messages are surprisingly relevant. There is one moment in the second act where Mrs. Anna describes her swollen skirt as “the circle in which a woman is protected.” It is particularly satisfying to get to turn shamelessly out to a U.K. audience and say, “Englishmen are so aggressive, I did not know.”
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow artists, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I cannot express more strongly how important visibility and opportunity is to the BIPOC community and artists in theatre. Of the 11 shows I performed on Broadway, only three called specifically for Asian performers. Fortunately, I have been given chances in my career to be cast non-traditionally and/or give creative input on shows without Asian themes. I can directly trace these experiences to enhanced personal growth as an artist and to my increased visibility and opportunity as a director/choreographer. Now, often contracted as a creative, I make a conscious effort to cast BIPOC actors and build creative teams with diversity for every project, because I know first-hand what a difference it can make and even lead to “something wonderful” like my role in The King and I.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
I learned that almost every industry can still function remotely with the great exception of live theatre. There simply is not a remote or virtual equivalent to the face-to-face and communal experience of putting on a show. The past two years have made me even more appreciative of this magical and necessary thing that I am lucky enough to be a part of and get to do for a living.
When you look back at your Broadway career, do you have a favorite experience? Why was that show particularly meaningful?
I have been blessed with so many amazing Broadway experiences. It was particularly meaningful to be in the original company of Victor/Victoria, working alongside an amazing company lead by the legendary Julie Andrews. My experience working on Victor/Victoria with co-director/choreographer Rob Marshall led to my appearance in his Academy Award-winning Best Picture feature film Chicago.
Do you have any other stage or screen projects in the works?
I’m currently in development for three new musicals. I serve as associate director/choreographer for B.D. Wong and Wayne Barker’s Mr. Holland’s Opus and am directing/choreographing the world premieres of Lezlie Wade and Daniel Green’s The Tale of The Gifted Prince and Tiananmen by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola.
Do you have a dream stage role and/or a dream musical that you would like to direct/choreograph?
I’ve always wanted to direct/choreograph A Chorus Line and play the part of Zach. I think it would be amazing to work on a project where the character I’m playing mirrors my actual life’s journey of a Broadway dancer turned director/choreographer.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
The work that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS is invaluable to our community. Raising money for this organization to help our fellow colleagues in the industry has been one of the most fulfilling accomplishments of my career. When Broadway shut down due to COVID, BC/EFA was there to help fill the devastating and enormous gap left by this pandemic.