By Lauren Van Hemert
In getting to know Angela Baumgardner, it is clear that playing the role of Anna Leonowens in the national tour of The King and
“When we first started working in rehearsals on the show, I think what really surprised me is how much I had in common with Anna,” she says. “Like myself, I really do feel she has one weakness, and that’s for the children.”
Baumgardner says she can relate to Anna, the British teacher who traveled solo to Siam with her son in 1862 to teach King Mongkut’s children, in a way that perhaps other actresses who have stepped into the character’s big hoop skirts probably can’t. That’s because Baumgardner spent a summer in college teaching conversational English to children in China.
“I realize that everything we do is about and for the next generation, and I feel like Anna has that grasp too,” she adds.
In fact, Baumgardner says, the whole story is centered around two different people from two different cultures coming together and learning to work together, understand each other, and accept and appreciate each other, in order to move forward and to make things better for the next generation.
She notes that Rodgers and Hammerstein were very progressive in their writing of musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, telling stories not only of acceptance and understanding but also of female empowerment. Even characters like Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, and Tuptim, a junior wife, champion women in their own distinctive way.
“You see that throughout the show, that [Anna] is always raising them up, lifting them up, even physically lifting them up and empowering them,” she says. “They’re all rising up and raising each other up.”
As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, Baumgardner was introduced to The King and I, at an early age. That’s one of the reasons she is tickled when she meets kids at the stage door who are discovering the musical for the first time.
“It reminds me of me at a young age, falling in love with the story, and how at every different stage of my life when I’ve seen it again, I got something new out of it.”
Of course, she adds, some of the kids think she’s a princess because of the gorgeous costumes she gets to wear. She wears seven dresses throughout the show, including the iconic ballgown worn during the Shall We Dance, number.
That gown, which Baumgardner calls a mechanical masterpiece, weighs 40 pounds and is almost like another character.
“After 100 plus performances I’ve gotten used to the movement and the mechanics,” she says. “I think it looks stunning, and I think that the audience members are just swept away along with it, but in my head, I’m keeping track of what I’m doing and how many steps we’ve got.”
And then, of course, there’s the music, a classic score that contains songs like Hello Young Lovers, I Have Dreamed, and Getting to Know You, which are among Baumgardner’s favorites.
Baumgardner says down the road she hopes to do every Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but for now, she’s just happy to share this classic yet timely and relevant story with audiences.
“Understanding one another and working together,” she says. “I think that’s the final note that I hope people understand and take away.”