Kelli O’Hara helps bring Broadway’s latest ‘The King and I’ to TV

Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara headlines PBS telecast

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara star in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” airing as part of “Great Performances,” Friday on PBS (check local listings).

One of the most classic of stage musicals is not only fit for a king, it’s well-suited to one of Broadway’s top actresses of recent years.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” is in the spotlight on PBS’ “Great Performances” Friday, Nov. 8 (check local listings), as part of a “Broadway’s Best” series-within-the-series also featuring such productions as “42nd Street,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Kinky Boots” this month. The film of the 2018 London staging, which had a brief movie-theater engagement, sees Kelli O’Hara – who won a Tony Award for the revival — and Ken Watanabe reprise their New York performances as schoolteacher Anna and the King of Siam.

“It’s become such a huge part of my life, to have that preserved and shared is really special,” the pleasant O’Hara reflects. “We in theater don’t get to have that sort of thing done that often. I think that any of us who have been lucky enough to play Anna, and there have been lots of us, walk away thinking we learned more than we gave.”

O’Hara maintains that’s true in terms of her work with Watanabe: “I kind of felt like I hit the jackpot there. Ken is one of our most celebrated actors, especially in Japan with the way they revere him there, so I felt like I was actually getting the king. He had never done a musical, and it’s in the way he handles himself and the reverence he has for this art form. And, of course, there were the differences in language and culture that feed the show, so there was that life-imitating-art situation. I don’t think I could have asked for a better partner.”

Being entrusted with such legendary stage tunes as “Getting to Know You,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Shall We Dance?” is no small matter, as O’Hara realizes. “People don’t even know why they know some of these songs,” she notes. “I grew up with all things American Songbook; my mom’s side of the family just went crazy over all those albums, and she knew every word. I didn’t know this particular Rodgers & Hammerstein score as well as others … which is strange, because I’m basically here because of Rodgers & Hammerstein.”

Also a Tony nominee earlier for “The Light in the Piazza,” “The Pajama Game,” “South Pacific,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “The Bridges of Madison County” – and since for “Kiss Me, Kate” — O’Hara made her West End debut in “The King and I.” Also, she reports, “We did it in Tokyo this past summer, so it’s been a special trip for my family. We’ll always look back on it really fondly.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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