THE KING AND I
By Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote only two musicals about people who actually lived. Before the Trapp family in The Sound of Music there was The King and I (1951), based on the experiences of a Welshwoman, Anna Leonowens, in 19th-century Siam.
Two books by Leonowens were adapted by Margaret Landon for her novel, Anna and the King of Siam (1944). It was admired by R&H's wives and by Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence, but R&H were unwilling to take it on. They reconsidered, however, upon seeing the 1946 film of the novel. Clearly the musical could work only with an extraordinary actor portraying the king opposite the captivating Lawrence. Mary Martin recommended the Russian-born actor Yul Brynner, who proved the ideal choice.
The King and I was blessed in its team: director John van Druten, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and designers Jo Mielziner (sets) and Irene Sharaff (costumes). The designers immersed themselves in all things Siamese, resulting in a stage picture of incomparable grandeur. Brynner greatly valued Sharaff's contribution to his characterization. He said, "every costume she designed revealed another aspect of the scene I was going to do in that costume." It was Sharaff who suggested that Brynner shave his head, which was "needed for the whole conception. And in fact, it was needed for me, because it gave me a certain kind of liberation."
Hammerstein's libretto is set in early-1860s Bangkok, where Anna arrives to take up her position of governess to the king's many children. Her interaction with the king himself suffers at first from disappointment on Anna's part: She had been promised her own house – a promise the king initially does not remember. Anna is impressed, however, by the king's desire to move his country into modern times. When British diplomats visit, Anna helps the king to present a humane, sophisticated view of himself and his country. Fury overwhelms him, however, upon learning that a slave, Tuptim, has been caught fleeing the palace to be with her Burmese lover. The king intends to whip Tuptim, which appalls Anna. She accuses the king of barbarism and having no heart, which devastates him. Preparing to leave Siam for good, Anna is moved by a letter received from the dying king. When she goes to him, he asks her to stay. Once the children add their plea, she can no longer resist, and the king dies moments after hearing that Anna will remain in Siam.
The central couple's depth and complexity, revealed through the songs and the brilliant give-and-take of Hammerstein's dialogue, was unusual for its time, The king has a single solo – his oddly affecting monologue, "A Puzzlement" – but he also sings a few lines in "Shall We Dance?" and leads his wives and children in the mesmerizing chanted prayer to Buddha that closes Act One. Anna's "I Whistle a Happy Tune" (sung to reassure her apprehensive son upon their arrival in Siam) and her other songs showcased Lawrence's dazzling textual communication, her natural elegance, and her quintessentially British graciousness. Besides the exquisitely nostalgic "Hello, Young Lovers," and the buoyant "Getting to Know You," Anna has the even more revelatory "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?"; in this monologue, partially sung but mainly spoken over music, she fumes over the king's reference to her in public as his servant. On the other hand, "Shall We Dance?" finds her teaching him to polka!
In fact, "Shall We Dance?" represented a turning point in the show's evolution. During the pre-Broadway tryout, it bothered Brynner that there was constant conflict between the king and Anna, with no trace of a love story. The actor often spoke of having convinced Lawrence that they could color their scenes so that they would be playing what Brynner described as "a fascination with each other, while fighting." Upon realizing what the couple was up to, R&H responded by adding "Shall We Dance?" to the score.
There was more stunning music: Tuptim's monologue making clear that, although the king is her lord and master, her heart belongs to someone else; the two soulful duets for Tuptim and her lover, Lun Tha; head wife Lady Thiang's plea to Anna to advise the troubled king, expressed in the stately but heartfelt "Something Wonderful"; the musically resplendent "March of the Siamese Children"; and the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, presented in movement and attire heavily influenced by traditional Siamese dance and theater.
Many critics seemed reluctant to let the show stand on its own, pondering instead whether or not it equaled South Pacific. Its partisans simply declared that here was something decidedly different, ravishing to see and hear, and profoundly stirring. These qualities were sustained in the film, with the radiant Deborah Kerr starring as Anna opposite Brynner, who received an Oscar as Best Actor of 1956.
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