March 06, 2019

Casting "The King and I"

In the world of opera, casting can happen up to five or seven years before the curtain goes up.

In the world of musicals, it’s a whole ’nother story. “A Broadway star would laugh and laugh if you tried to cast seven years in advance,” says Cory Lippiello, Lyric’s deputy director of artistic planning.

The King and I has been scheduled since 2012, but casting was finalized just recently. In mid-January, Lyric announced that Kate Baldwin and Paolo Montalban will star as Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam in the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical April 29-May 22. She’s the Tony-nominated star of Finian’s Rainbow and Big Fish, and he’s best known for playing the Prince in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (World of Disney telefilm). Additional casting, of which there is plenty, will be announced in mid-February.

The process begins a year in advance, when Lyric talks to the creative team and researches score and script for details of what each role requires. “Then we talk to casting consultants in New York and Chicago, and start brainstorming names and screening auditions,” says Lippiello. “Several great Broadway ladies wanted to do the role of Anna, so we set up some coffee dates for the director, Lee Blakeley.” During his meeting with Kate Baldwin, she mentioned she was performing that night off-Broadway in Songbird, a country-western version of Chekhov’s The Seagull. He went “and fell in love with her performance.” Her affinity for classical musicals also helped seal the deal. 

When Montalban auditioned in New York, “Lee really put him through his paces,” Lippiello recalls. “He read several different scenes and sang; Lee took some time to work with him and change some things about Paolo’s presentation of the character. He made these beautiful adjustments and suddenly it was a whole different king. We got very excited to think this could be a king with real depth, which made the matchup with Kate the right one. It’s the right combination of personality and voices and chemistry.”

As Lippiello notes, “You want to make a cast that’s a family that has a great experience working together and that sounds wonderful together. If you have one voice that’s very classical and another that’s very pop, they don’t sound like they’re in the same world. Part of the challenge is making good matches – not just good chemistry for acting but also vocal chemistry.” 

Some auditions brought surprises and revelations for Lippiello, Blakeley, and conductor David Chase (who led Lyric’s Carousel). “We’d fallen in love with a certain singer for Tuptim, then someone came in who’s currently in the Broadway ensemble of The King and I. When she sang ‘My Lord and Master’ it was like hearing it for the first time – full of passion, real specificity – it brought down the house,” Lippiello recalls. “She turned a tiny little secret song into a defiant, courageous declaration. We were just blown away.”

As will be audiences in just a few short months when The King and I takes the stage at Lyric. Stay tuned for more casting news in next month’s Lyric Notes. 

Lyric Opera premiere generously made possible by The Negaunee Foundation, two Anonymous DonorsRobert S. and Susan E. Morrison, and Northern Trust

Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I 
Music by Richard Rodgers   Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II   Based on Anna and the King by Margaret Landon   Original Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett   Original Dance Arrangements by Trude Rittmann   Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins

The King and I production created by the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris on June 13, 2014. General Director: Jeanluc Choplin. Photo: Marie-Noëlle Robert

Photo: Todd Rosenberg