Will 'King' Watanabe be the first Japanese actor to win a Tony?

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

When this year’s nominees for the top honors in U.S. theater, the annual Tony Awards, were announced on April 28, the new musicals “An American in Paris” and “Fun Home” led the field after each being listed in 12 categories.

In total and absurd contrast, another great new musical, “Finding Neverland,” didn’t figure for any award despite this story of author J.M. Barrie and his relationship with the woman who inspired his book “Peter Pan” continuing to delight Broadway audiences.

Directed by Diane Paulus, a 2013 Tony winner for the musical “Pippin,” “Finding Neverland” stars Broadway veteran Matthew Morrison — who’s also a favorite in Fox TV’s musical comedy-drama series “Glee.” However, the show was likely spurned as it was produced by Broadway debutant Harvey Weinstein, a founder of Miramax, which made the eponymous hit film — but of whom the New York Post declared, “This is Broadway telling Harvey to … take his bulldozing tactics back to Hollywood and leave the business of theater to theater people.”

But Morrison’s misfortune — as a favorite to pick up a Tony for best actor in a musical — was another’s good fortune. In this case, that is Japan’s biggest name in Hollywood, Ken Watanabe who, having been nominated in the same category for his role in “The King and I,” now stands a much better chance of winning on his Broadway debut.

In the running for nine awards, including best revival of a musical, “The King and I” is an impressive work with its combination of leading actress Kelli O’Hara and director Bartlett Sher, who have built a strong relationship through working together on numerous shows, including “The Light in the Piazza” (’05) and “South Pacific” (’08).

O’Hara is a top Broadway star who has been nominated for a Tony five times without ever being a winner — but this could well be the production that brings her the best actress award she deserves.

Meanwhile Watanabe, 55, who plays the King of Siam who hires Welshwoman Anna Leonowens (O’Hara) as governess for his children, once played Hamlet in a Yukio Ninagawa production, but has no stage experience in America, where he’s best known for his Hollywood movie roles including in “Godzilla” (2014), “Letters from Iwo Jima” (’06), “Batman Begins” (’05) and “The Last Samurai” (’03).

Yet now — through this revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 hit featuring such perennial favorites as “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” — he may become the first-ever Japanese actor to win a Tony.

Win or not, though, Watanabe’s nomination alone amply rewards the faith placed in him and reflects his great reception by audiences as he’s brought both gravity and humanity to his role, along with a strong sexual presence — and all that despite some mean-minded media carping about his English pronunciation and singing ability (as was reported in The Japan Times on April 18).

The 2015 Tony Awards will be broadcast live in Japan on the Wowow TV channel from 8 a.m. on June 8. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.

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