By Randy Gener
NEW YORK CITY | Did you know? Jose Llana — the alluring dynamo who recently wowed Broadway audiences as the King of Siam in Lincoln Center Theater’s Tony Award–winning best-musical revival of The King and I — turns 40 years old this month. So far, it looks like a royal turning point of a birthday year — actually, truth be told, a pinnacle moment in his life and career.
In addition to succeeding — and bettering — the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (who took a long pause last year from playing the title role in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical favorite), Llana so impressed his producers, his co-star Kelli O’Hara and their cast mates that they wanted him back on the boards early this spring.
You could not have missed the extent of his impact on the popular show the first time around. It was deep. He turned heads. He sang, and ears perked up. Lincoln Center producers blew up images of him wearing kingly regalia on all the posters and billboards in New York City. Soon, Llana’s handsome face was plastered everywhere in town.
A great example of Pinoy pride, right? Yeah, yeah. Sure. Rah-rah. But also no — because what happened was not a star-is-born arrival. Because for those of us who love and respect (and are too-darn-hot for) our good boy Jose, his regal lead role in The King and I has meant something more than naïve cheerleading pomp.
Did you know? Jose Llana first came to prominence in New York 20 years ago. That was when he introduced himself to top Broadway mavens in an audition for a 1996 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. It was to be his first professional production. Barely a college sophomore at Manhattan School of Music, he had already starred opposite Lou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy.
Fast forward to the Present.
On March 2015 — some four to five months before he stepped into the current The King and I — Llana had made his concert debut at Lincoln Center’s acclaimed American Songbook series. It was an exceptional evening. He performed before a starry audience. He transcended the cabaret-like structure by demonstrating his passion, his heart-stopping vocal chops and his thrilling command of both contemporary pop songs and Broadway standards alike.
All of these experiences steadily accrued to eventually culminate during this birthday month of May 2016 — when Jose Llana releases his debut solo recording album, “Altitude,” on Yellow Sound Label, the Grammy Award-nominated, cutting-edge record company (www.YellowSoundLabel.com).
On Monday, May 16, at 9:30 pm, Llana offers another solo debut, this time at a Joe’s Pub concert gig at The Public Theater. This event marks a return to the home of his Lortel Award-nominated portrayal of President Ferdinand Marcos in The Public’s Off-Broadway smash hit, Here Lies Love, created by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim.
The Joe’s Pub stint, in effect, marks a triple salutation. It celebrates Llana’s new record album produced by a boutique label whose business is to ably represent the best of Broadway (Disney’s Matilda, Big Fish and The Visit) and such theater luminaries as Chita Rivera, Alan Cumming, Telly Leung (Allegiance) and Christopher Jackson.
Both “Altitude” and the Joe’s Pub concert also affirm the hugely important role that the Joseph Papp Public Theater has played in Llana’s fresh re-emergence as a one of our most beloved and most gifted leading men.
Third: the album encapsulates the focused intensity and musical joy, the two poles by which he has led his own life thus far.
“I have learned as a performer and as an artist, that only if I put something of myself into my art — that’s when I am proud of it, and that’s when my work is most relatable to other people,” Jose Llana tells me over a light meal at the hip boutique hotel Soho House. “Looking at the album as a whole, the 13 songs I sing in ‘Altitude’ all reflect different corners of my life.”
Romantic Leading Man
Some of Llana’s close friends have noticed that certain songs he chose for the new album, when compared with others, approach love from different directions. “One looks at life with aspiration, one with lust, one with frustration, one with longing,” Llana continues. “The songs make up different ways of expressing myself. The album is really a celebration of the first 20 years of my career. It is very fulfilling and cathartic to revisit the music that shaped me as a performer.”
Those of us Broadway babies who adore Llana can’t believe our good luck. Captured in “Altitude” are the best songs from the concert he did a year and a half ago for the American Songbook at Lincoln Center — coupled with the memorable musical-theater songs that have indelibly marked his musical-theater journey and defined his very American progress to become a romantic heartthrob.
In 1996’s King and I (mentioned earlier), Llana crashed into an audition and virtually performed his imminent public arrival. His younger self made for a dashing Lun Tha, the messenger who falls in love with the slave girl he is tasked to deliver as a present to the King of Siam. At the time, Jose was only on his freshman year at a major music conservatory in Manhattan; he burst into a Broadway audition where he pretended to be a seasoned singing actor. Yet his clean tenor instrument testified that he was no faker or pretender; it soared to beautiful heights in such Rodgers and Hammerstein classic songs as “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.”
“Everything for me started with this show,” recalls Llana on a Thursday afternoon, a handful of hours before he would again perform and rule Lincoln Center’s lavish Vivian Beaumont stage. “Over the years, The King and I has stayed with me. I hoped that at some point in the future I would have a chance to play the King, and I am so fortunate that my wish came true 20 years later, especially in such a wonderful production.”
For Llana, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., the Rodgers side of the Rodgers & Hammerstein legacy led him to meeting Adam Guettel, the musical-theater composer who is Richard Rodgers’ grandson.
“Adam saw me twenty years ago in The King and I, and I was fresh in his mind when he was working to put together Saturn Returns. (Saturn Returns: A Concert is a Guettel song cycle presented at the Public Theater in 1998.)
In New York City where only 4.4 percent of roles in the past 9 years went to Asian-American actors, Llana knows he is the rare Asian-American musical-theater lead. “My parents raised me with: ‘They’re going to treat you differently, so you need to be better than everybody,’ ” he says. “I don’t think I have to be better. But I’ve pushed myself to be more versatile.”
Eagerness, enthusiasm, passion and laugh-out loud humor radiate in “Altitude,” whose track-list spotlights the integrity of his vocal and acting range. The Leonard Bernstein song “Lonely Town” hails from the time the Public Theater’s then-artistic director George C. Wolfe cast him non-traditionally as Gabey in the Betty Comden & Adolph Green musical On the Town in Central Park.
“I was so young,” Llana recalls. “I was 20 years old, and I didn’t think anything of it, but when people from the press interviewed me, they kept saying how shocking it was that a Filipino actor was a lead.”
Another song in “Altitude” — lifted from William Finn’s Broadway musical favorite The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — turned out to be a riot of saucy and impudent horniness. In 2005, Llana created the role of Chip Tolentino, a spelling-bee contestant who was called next to spell a word in public but was reluctant to take his turn. His “Chip’s Lament (M.U.E.)” number was about the daydream daze Chip found himself stuck in; he had been sexually fantasizing about a woman in the audience.
The word Chip was given and struggled to spell was the vaguely erotic-sounding “tittup.” All the while, his cock was standing in a rage of hard attention. “M.U.E.” stands for “My Unfortunate Erection.” Chip felt embarrassed that his big hard-on was visibly showing.
Rising to New Heights
In the current King and I as well as in the album “Altitude” and in the Joe’s Pub concert, Tony Award winner Ruthie Ann Miles, his co-star in Here Lies Love, is featured as special guest. Llana portrayed President Ferdinand Marcos in this David Byrne and Fatboy Slim musical chronicling the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos (played by Miles, who gave a revelatory performance) who went from a local beauty queen to become First Lady, until they were ousted in 1986 in what was called the “People Power Revolution” (also known as the Edsa Revolutions).
For three and a half years, Llana disco-danced to Marcos tune in spite of the deep and strange irony of his own family’s political story. Born under martial law, Llana’s parents were anti-Marcos activists who left the Philippines when he was three years old.
Nevertheless, Llana did not impersonate Marcos. Neither did he see his goal as submitting a biographical book report. He set his personal — and his family’s — feelings aside in order for him to play a master politician, a smart and savvy seducer who bloodily betrayed the country’s trust.
“Did I have sympathy for him? No. I do not like him,” Llana says, ever the political animal. “It was not my job to like the character I was playing.”
Incidentally — did you know? This month, Jose Llana has released in advance of his new record album a single release called “Hero and Leander” from Adam Guettel’s Saturn Returns. And he sings it exquisitely, gorgeously — truth be told, memorably. It’s one of his three favorite songs from that concert-style show, all of which are prominently showcased in “Altitude.” The other two numbers are “Saturn Returns” and “Icarus.”
The very title of Jose Llana’s new album directly references to the lyrics in Adam Guettel’s song “Icarus.” “Specifically, the lyrics talk about ‘unlimited altitude,’ ” Llana avers. “I was interested in a title that captured that inspired kind of energy. It was the kind of energy that I felt when I was in that play in 1998 at The Public. I was 22 years old, working with Adam at The Public Theater. Being a young singer, I found my flight. ”
According to Greek myth, Icarus was the Son of Daedalus who dared to fly too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax. Llana offers an interesting comparison, in which actors rise like a phoenix in a tough commercial-entertainment industry.
“The narrative of the album is why I chose the title ‘Altitude,’ ” Llana says. “I’ve always loved that song’s lyrics. Like all actors, I envisioned myself like Icarus. The word implies height, this flight, this fear of falling, this fear of failure. We’re going against everyone’s advice to not get burned as we fly close to the sun. That’s what it means to be an actor. I am always taking risks every time I try something new.” — rg
Randy Gener, the Nathan Award-winning editor/writer/artist, is the founding proprietor of In the Culture of One World (cultureofoneworld.org), a live-event production outfit, a digital media project and a theatre communications guide. In 2013, his TheFilAm magazine essay about his departed garnered the Philippine American Press Club’s 2013 Plaridel Award for Outstanding Editorial Essay/Commentary.