After more than 20 years, Wilmette native returns to star in Drury Lane's 'The King and I'

  • Betsy Morgan returns to Drury Lane Theatre to star as Anna opposite Adam Jacobs' King in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I."

    Betsy Morgan returns to Drury Lane Theatre to star as Anna opposite Adam Jacobs' King in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I." Courtesy of Brett Beiner Photography

  • Betsy Morgan

    Betsy Morgan

  • Adam Jacobs and Wilmette native Betsy Morgan star in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "The King and I."

    Adam Jacobs and Wilmette native Betsy Morgan star in Drury Lane Theatre's revival of "The King and I." Courtesy of Brett Beiner Photography

  • Wilmette native Betsy Morgan played Fantine on the 25th anniversary tour of "Les Misérables."

    Wilmette native Betsy Morgan played Fantine on the 25th anniversary tour of "Les Misérables." Courtesy of Broadway in Chicago

 
 
Updated 4/20/2022 5:57 PM

Entering Drury Lane Theatre's rehearsal room earlier this year to begin work on a revival of "The King and I," Betsy Morgan flashed back to her professional debut at the Oakbrook Terrace theater where, as a child, she appeared alongside local luminaries Alene Robertson and Mary Ernster in the 1992 musical "Annie Warbucks."

"Growing up, my Broadway was Drury Lane, Marriott, Goodman," said Morgan, who plays Anna in Drury Lane's revival. "The fact that I was working (Drury Lane) ... I felt like the luckiest person in the world."

 

That joy never waned for the Wilmette native, who fell in love with theater at age of 7 after playing one of the Snow children in a New Trier High School production of "Carousel." Music lessons, theater classes and work with the Children's Theatre of Winnetka -- whose alumni include playwright Sarah Ruhl, Steppenwolf Theatre's Jim True-Frost and Beck Bennett, formerly of "SNL" -- followed.

She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater from Boston's Emerson College and has worked steadily ever since. Her Broadway credits include original productions of "High Fidelity" and "The Little Mermaid," and revivals of "A Little Night Music," "Les Misérables" -- including the 25th anniversary tour -- and "The King and I."

New works hold a special place in Morgan's heart. She collaborated several times with Tony Award-nominated composer Michael John LaChiusa on his musicals "Giant" and "Bernarda Alba," and she originated roles in "First Daughter Suite" (2015) and "Rain" (2016).

Morgan, who has waited more than 20 years to do a production here, approaches revivals with the same energy and enthusiasm she brings to new works.

"You start anew," she said, "see where the inspiration was and decide who this person is when she's living on you."

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For "The King and I," that meant reviewing Anna Leonowens' diaries and Margaret Landon's 1944 fictionalized account of Leonowens' time at King Mongkut's court, which inspired the musical.

Reviving the 1951 tuner -- described as problematic for the colonialism, patriarchy and Orientalism that underscores it -- poses challenges, which Morgan acknowledges.

If it were written today, it would be written differently, she says, but socially, culturally and politically, "The King and I" is still relevant: It depicts people from two different cultures "who go to extreme lengths to see eye-to-eye ... to better the people around them and the countries they represent."

The cast and creatives "talked about what we wanted to avoid, what we wanted to highlight, and the conversations we wanted to spark," she said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That means recognizing what the musical got right and what it got wrong.

"Everyone has something to learn in this show," she said. "We can't change how it's written, but we can play up certain things and not lean into others."

At the time, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were pushing the envelope and opening doors with shows like "Oklahoma," "Carousel," and "The King and I."

"We're trying to highlight how groundbreaking they were then and make them relevant and resonant today," she said.

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