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Tony Award-Winner Ruthie Ann Miles changes it up for The King and I
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
Ruthie Ann Miles has been playing the same character in The King and I for 15 months, but she hasn't been giving the same performance. It's not possible. Because even though her lines and songs have stayed the same in Lincoln Center Theater's Broadway revival of the classic musical, which will end its run on June 26, her co-stars have not.
In fact, counting understudies, Miles reckons she's performed with five different Annas and six different Kings, and her own role depends almost entirely on her relationship with those two characters.
She plays Lady Thiang, first wife to the King of Siam. In the late 18th century, the King invites Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, to educate his children, but Lady Thiang realizes that Anna can educate her husband in the ways of the Western world. This is crucial, since British officers are threatening to claim Siam and "save" it from a barbaric culture. If they believe the King and his country are civilized, they'll back away, so to save her homeland and highlight her husband's essential skill, Lady Thiang subtly drives him to Anna. She knows this white woman can help him learn to pacify the colonizers.
Miles can't make this story convincing unless she tunes her performance to her co-stars. "You can't use the same formula for every Anna or every King," she says. "Everyone's very different with regard to the message that their King is trying to deliver or the gauntlet that their Anna is throwing down about why she's there."
She continues, "That's why I keep going back to 'tactics,' which is one of my favorite things to remember from acting class. What are the tactics I need to play to get somebody to do what I want? Is it making them feel guilty? Is it making myself submissive? It's fun for me to access all these different tactics to make each particular person to do what I want them to do."
Tactics are chosen when Miles watches her co-stars rehearse. "It really helps me to sit in on their rehearsals, even if I'm not on stage with them," she says. "I start to see the temperament of how the King is reacting or the specific fire that Anna has."
Take Daniel Dae Kim, who currently plays the King. "I call him DDK," Miles says. "And DDK told me that he wanted to make Lady Thiang a lot more important in his decision-making processes. Now that's very different from what any other King has done. With every other King, I've been in the background watching silently, so that Lady Thiang picks things up from listening and then silently makes things happen. But with DDK, he knows she's as smart as she is. He knows she's savvy and intellectual. She is, in a way, his right hand man."
To honor that perspective, Miles has to make Lady Thiang a different person than she was before. This is especially clear when she sings "Something Wonderful," a stirring ballad she uses to convince Anna to love and help the King in his moment of need. Miles has nailed the song since the beginning – that's part of the reason she won last year's Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical – but now it has taken on a new dimension.
"It the past, Lady Thiang has known she will never have her husband's attention, so she needs Anna to go to him," Miles says. "But with DDK, she's very knowingly giving away her position and everything it holds. Before, it was, 'I've never had his ear, and this is best for the kingdom, so I'm going to give her to him.' Now it's, 'I am giving away my husband. This is best for the kingdom, but I am giving away my husband.'"
But here's where things can't change. Even with that heartbreaking new layer, Miles can't let "Something Wonderful" become the lament of a weeping woman. Neither she nor her director, Bartlett Sher, want Lady Thiang to seem lovelorn. "The challenge has been not to emote and not let the song sweep me away, because that's not what the song is," Miles says. "It's, 'I am so strong that I know he needs me. He is not a complete man, and he needs this kind of support.' So no matter who's playing the King, she has to find that in herself. It's just that how she gets there might be different from person to person."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for The King and I. Go here to browse our latest offers.
Photos by Paul Kolnik. To photo: Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang.