By Jay Darcy
The King and I is back on tour, once again starring Dean John-Wilson, who starred in the West End transfer of the Lincoln Centre’s acclaimed revival but sadly not the first UK tour.
Dean absolutely blew me away with his gorgeous vocals and striking performance at the London Palladium. I briefly met him at the stage door of the London Palladium, as I anxiously waited to meet Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe. He’s as lovely as he is talented.
Whilst Dean is mostly known for musical theatre, some might recognise him from Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice UK. He also runs an online coaching business for musical theatre performers (VCA).
I won’t lie: my writer, Katie, was supposed to be doing this interview because she’s reviewing the show (I reviewed it last time). But when I found out that the interviewee was Dean, I claimed it for myself! Sorry, Katie.
Dean John-Wilson had his breakthrough playing the title role in the original UK cast of Disney’s Aladdin, which premiered on the West End. One of my all-time favourite musicals, it is set to embark on its first ever UK tour later this year, and I cannot wait to see it again.
I loved the film as a kid because, racially problematic as it may be, it was the best representation I had. South Asian, Middle-Eastern and Muslim representation was dire (still is, to be fair), but Aladdin is about a dirt-poor brown boy that becomes a Prince. Not a taxi driver, not a terrorist, but a fricken Prince!
I saw the stage musical adaptation as an adult (after Dean had left the show) but it took me right back to my childhood.
Dean called this opportunity “a dream come true” because, likewise, Aladdin was one of very few characters that looked like him. Furthermore, “To be able to breathe life into a cartoon… and to originate it here in London was just an absolute blast – one of the best two years of my life.”
After leaving Aladdin, he joined the London Palladium cast of the Lincoln Centre’s revival of The King and I.
The King and I, like all classic musicals about East Asians (Miss Saigon, South Pacific, etc.), is racially problematic, but director Bartlett Sher (and the creative team in general) have made a real effort to de-orientalise the musical – and, frankly, make it less racist! (Sher also directed the recent revival of My Fair Lady, which similarly attempted to ‘correct’ the sexism of previous productions).
Surprisingly, Dean was not worried before starring in The King and I because “underneath everything – you take away the costumes, you take away the lights, the set and everything, and you just strip it right back – it is essentially a single woman trying to do her best to look after her son – and in the process, she ends up teaching a really traditional whole culture about love, about respect, about that mutual understanding.”
Dean thinks the story remains relevant because there are a lot of struggling mums out there; he, himself, was raised by a single mother and remembers it being tough.
However, he acknowledges the troubling aspects of the musical:
“On the surface, it can be perceived as being incredibly racist, and it’s been disallowed from Thailand; we haven’t been allowed to take it there because they feel it’s disrespectful to the King of Siam.”
I proceeded to ask Dean about the recent controversy surrounding Sheffield Theatre’s revival of Miss Saigon. The company has faced a lot of criticism for reviving perhaps the most racially problematic musical in history but – as I point out in my yet-to-be-published think piece – there has been little consideration for the fact that most of the creative team (including the Co-artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres) is Asian!
“It’s a tricky subject, to be honest,” Dean laughed, thinking carefully about his response.
Dean admits to having wanted to star in Miss Saigon but ultimately not knowing where he’d place himself in it. “It’s a show that got away,” he revealed.
Dean applauds the Asian creatives for reclaiming the racially problematic musical. He compared it to the recently announced Broadway premiere of Here Lies Love (he starred in the original UK production at the National Theatre in London, which I wish I had seen), which has a full Filipino cast, including musical legend Lea Salonga (the original Kim in Miss Saigon and the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in Aladdin).
“We are stepping in the right direction,” he said confidently.
Indeed, since Black Lives Matter, I’ve noticed a huge increase in Black actors onstage, but I asked Dean if opportunities are getting better for other actor of colour, including Asians.
“I do think theatre is getting better. I don’t think we’re absolutely there yet but I do think we’re moving towards a more inclusive world of theatre – and onscreen as well. Asians, Hispanics, Blacks – we’re starting to move towards inclusivity for all races,” he said.
After a heavy but admittedly uplifting discussion about race, I decided to move on and talk about social media, which, come to think of it, is just as heavy! (Sorry, Dean; I was clearly feeling quite academic that day).
“Do you think social media has had a positive impact for theatre performers?” I asked.
“Yes and no,” he said honestly. He thinks that social media is a wonderful tool, especially because it is free – and thus allows for free marketing. But audiences need to understand that social media is a highlight reel.
“[It’s] all sparkles and rainbows, and I don’t feel like it is an absolute true representation of that individual person. I try my best to post my highs and some of my lows as well, just to balance it out; I feel like that is a truer representation of me.
“Especially as someone who’s worked in the industry for… 12 years now” – he said with a look of shock on his face – “which seems like yesterday but it’s been a long time. I’ve had the criticism, I’ve had the accolades, I’ve had it all, so… I tell [my followers] that it isn’t all sparkles and rainbows.”
Dean proceeded to talk about his online company, VCA, where he coaches musical theatre talent. He tells them to find a true representation of themselves but also to utilise social media because, at the end of the day, it will help.
“Because if [a producer has] put a million pounds into a show, they want to recoup five million,” he laughed. “Or at least get their money back to put it into something else.”
He explained that producers might want to hire actors with big followings, even TikTok and YouTube stars, to bring in audience members. He “understand[s] the conundrum that producers are in” but does not fully agree with this strategic casting because somebody with a mere 20 followers might be best for the role.
On the topic of money, I asked Dean about the crazy cost of theatre tickets right now – with some productions (even plays) charging £350 a ticket!
Dean, who is from Middlesborough, rarely visited London before moving there, aged 19, when he attended Mountview. The first show he saw was We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre – where The King and I is taking up residency, which has “sentimental value” for him – and he paid a mere £20 for a stalls seat.
Dean told me that overheads for shows are very expensive – especially with theatres now hiring huge stars to bring in audiences – but he thinks that the current costs are too high. He would like to go into producing and cannot imagine he would ever charge that much.
“Who can afford that?” we asked simultaneously. “Rich White people,” I scoffed.
Producers and theatre people often lament that theatre crowds remain too middle-class, and thus White – but, with rising ticket costs, that problem is only going to get worse.
Dean has been based in London for over a decade and has starred mostly in London shows. He has done some regional theatre – last year, he starred alongside Ruthie Henshall in the Manchester revival of Stephen Sondheim’s lesser-known musical Passion at Hope Mill Theatre, which sadly I did not manage to see – but he has not starred in a touring production in 12 years, when he starred in Sister Act. I was curious as to why he had now, finally, agreed to star in a touring production again.
“The reason why I accepted this job is, firstly, I loved doing it at the Palladium… But to get the opportunity to tell this story to a wider audience is really special to me.”
He’s also enjoying visiting theatres and cities he visited last time around.
As aforementioned, Aladdin – Dean’s star-maker – is also embarking on a UK tour, after closing on the West End a few years back. He told me that some of his VCA clients and members have been auditioning for Aladdin, and they’ve had a few offers, which he is very excited about.
“I couldn’t ask for a better life, to be honest,” he said.
He gets to do what he loves and is able to give that back to other people and help them make it as performers – “and I’m doing it online whilst I’m doing a show across the country; that’s a dream come true.”
I ended the interview by asking Dean if he would ever go back to Aladdin. After a pause, he told me he thought he’d put Aladdin to bed six years ago. However, whilst he would not want to consecutively star in it, because it is a mammoth of a show, after a six-year break, he’d consider going back.
“Never say never,” he said candidly. “I would love to do it again. Hopefully I’ve still got the youth!”
“Brown don’t frown,” I said.
We then had a little chat about the flying carpet. Other than those involved with the show, nobody knows how they do it, and every explanation has been rendered implausible. Dean admitted to expecting the trick to be a lot more complicated than it actually is; it’s surprisingly simple.
That, or it’s just Disney magic!
You can catch Dean John-Wilson in The King and I, which tours the UK until mid November, playing at Palace Theatre Manchester from May 9 to 13. The musical takes up residency at the Dominion Theatre in the West End from January 20 to March 2.
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