"It's been a real treat to create El Gato during the workshop and production process of Wonderland... He's a Latin cat but I've also been able to infuse a little Filipino in him, I'm proud to say." - Jose Llana
As a hardworking Filipino-American actor (most notable on the Broadway stage, e.g. The King & I, Spelling Bee, and on several occasions on American television, e.g. Sex and the City), Jose Llana makes every Filipino in his home country and abroad feel proud to be Pinoy. The six shows he's done on Broadway so far, not to mention multiple other theater projects he's been doing off-Broadway and beyond, are living proof that talent and passion for the craft can translate into a musical theater career that's synonymous to longevity and unflailing energy.
Frank Wildhorn's (Filipinos are familiar with his song "This is the Moment" from the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde) new Broadway musical Wonderland is in previews now and will officially open on Sunday, April 17. Wonderland is Wildhorn's modern-day take on the beloved children's tale of Alice in Wonderland. In this incarnation, Alice, who is a full grown woman, rides an elevator down to a fantasy world that's far below the streets of New York City.
In Wonderland, Llana recreates the role of El Gato, previously referring to The Cheshire Cat -- a cat with a distinctive mischievous grin that was originally depicted in a children's book by Lewis Carroll in 1865.
In an exclusive interview with BroadwayWorld.com (Philippines), Llana is proud to admit that he's been part of the arduous yet rewarding process behind the new Broadway musical since its workshop stages in Tampa, Florida three years ago. He talks about The King & I, Frank Wildhorn, Wonderland, the Philippines' musical theater scene, and more. Read a full transcript below:
BWW: We just saw an online video where you were talking about your nerve-wracking audition for the 1996 Broadway revival of The King & I. Looking back on things so far -- from The King & I to Wonderland -- did you ever think you were born to be a Broadway actor?
JL: I've always said my long-term career goal was to be able to support myself and continue to find my passion as a performer. Broadway has been home for me for the past 15 years since The King & I and I feel very fortunate for that. It's had its ups and downs, of course, but I feel very proud of the work that I've been able to do. I hope to continue to work onstage until I'm old and gray.
BWW: The fact remains that Asian Americans are minorities in the arts, how come that scenario doesn't seem to apply to you? You've always been one of the busiest Filipino-American actors in New York and elsewhere.
JL: You know, it's hard to comment on why I've had the opportunities in my career over other people. I'll say that I've always tried to use my ethnicity as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. What every actor brings to the table that's different from other actors is what makes all of us special. What's exciting in our current theater culture is that writers are actually writing more parts for actors of color. Combine that with more and more directors and casting directors casting more blindly in terms of race and you hopefully have more opportunities. My only job is to be as versatile a singer, actor and dancer that I can be so that there are more parts for me to have the skills to audition for. Rock musical to legit light opera, hip hop to basic jazz. The more adaptable you are to what is being produced the more you will work.
BWW: Are there any new things happening with "Asian Americans on Broadway," an organization you co-founded?
JL: I believe the group is on hold right now because all of its members are too busy with great projects on their own!
BWW: Please share with us three of your most unforgettable moments in the theater.
JL: (1) My debut at 19 in The King & I. The night of the first preview after the curtain came down I looked around the stage at the other cast members. About a dozen of us were making our Broadway debuts. That's the moment it all changed. You're officially a "Broadway performer." No matter what happens from that moment on, no one can take that away from you.
(2) After opening Flower Drum Song with Lea Salonga, I got a note backstage from Ted Chapin, the head of the Rodgers and Hammerstein (R&H) Organization praising the performance and saying I was forever in the R&H family and that he would work on getting more shows for me to do.
3) We just had our first preview for Wonderland last night. Even though this is my 6th show on Broadway, the magic never fades. The cast stood onstage last night with such pride presenting a new musical on Broadway. It's a privilege and always will be.
BWW: How's the role of El Gato been treating you -- from the early versions of Wonderland in Tampa, Florida to your impending Broadway transfer?
JL: It's been a real treat to create El Gato during the workshop and production process of Wonderland. Our writers have been so generous in giving me room to play during rehearsals and a lot of my silliness has come through in the character. He's a Latin cat but I've also been able to infuse a little Filipino in him, I'm proud to say.
BWW: How's Wonderland Tampa, Florida different from Wonderland Broadway?
JL: We've had some major shifts in dialogue and storytelling that are all meant to make the story tight and entertaining. We can't wait for New York and the rest of the world to see it.
BWW: Do you find it more challenging to originate a role in the theater than to take on a role as a replacement?
JL: Both have unique challenges and rewards. Replacing in a role is hard because you have to find your own take on the part but at least you already know that the part and the show works. In creating a new part and show, you're in uncharted territory and have more room to play, but with a larger chance to fail.
BWW: How's the collaboration process with Frank Wildhorn? with the rest of the Company?
JL: Working with Frank has been amazing. He's such a great songwriter and truly loves singers. He considers all of his singers part of "the family" which is very cool. He also loves to let his singers cut loose, especially in the recording studio. We just recorded the Wonderland Album that will be released in May by SONY Masterworks and it's going to sound amazing.
BWW: When was the last time you visited the Philippines? How do you find the musical theater scene in Manila?
JL: I came to the Philippines to attend a cousin's wedding about two years ago. I think the theater scene there is exploding based on what I see online and through my Filipino Facebook friends. They seem to be producing great productions of Broadway shows, they even did Spelling Bee a few years ago. Who knows, maybe I'll find my way back to the Philippines to do some theater, if they'll have me.
BWW: Please share with us three "WONDERful" reasons why theatregoers should watch Wonderland on Broadway.
JL: (1) Frank Wildhorn's music is some of the best he's ever written for the stage. Matched with some real powerhouse singers, it's a great night of music.
(2) Marguerite Derricks has choreographed a hot and beautiful company of dancers that will knock your socks off.
(3) The story is about finding your inner child and remembering what's important. Bring your family, partner, children, parents, etc. and you won't be sorry.
Wonderland plays at the Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway) in New York. Visit www.wonderlandonbroadway.com.