Readers looking for specific responses to the recent Lincoln Center production of The King and I would do well to read my August 29 posting below. But I guess I’m not through with this play yet. And clearly, I’m not alone. It remains a worldwide phenomenon. I want to explore some history of the play, and how one musical came to be such a fascination for me and so many others, despite its being a rather dreary non-love story about two reasonably unlikable people. I confess that, ironically, my real opinion is that it’s too long, ends badly, and as a play is far from my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein creation. Yet I continue to listen, sing, hum, and whistle my way through that magnificent music, and I will surely trundle up to Washington, misty-eyed and open-jawed once again, to see The King and I when it arrives on tour. This post is an exploration of how that could be so. I hope it will be a blend of historical perspective on the play itself, and a personal memoir and journal of whatever it is that attaches us at the hip like a chemical addiction. Just why is it that some experiences, both pleasant and not so pleasant, can take hold of us early in our personal evolution as human beings, and will not let us go – ever?
The Evolution of Me and The King and I
In 1862, Anna Leonowens, a recently widowed British school teacher, accepted a request to come to Siam to teach the 39 wives and 82 children of King Mongkut. She brought with her her then six-year-old son Louis. During their almost six years in Bangkok, Anna kept copious notes and later produced two memoirs describing her experiences there and her various skirmishes with the king. Many of them, unchanged, remain an integral part of the script for The King and I, including the conflicted nature of a king eager to preserve his own power and traditions, and equally as eager to bring his country into the modern age of science and western civilization. In 1944, Margaret Landon, an American writer, wrote Anna and the King of Siam, a successful novel based on the Leonowens memoirs.
Two years later, director John Cromwell turned the novel into a movie with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison (as you can see, complete with a beautifully groomed head of hair).
And that’s where I suspect I first heard of the king of Siam, the first corner piece of the puzzle needed to solve my mysterious attachment to The King and I. I don’t remember it of course (I was seven at the time). But little seeds grow big food! Turns out, my mom was a huge fan of Irene Dunne, a beautiful megastar actress-singer in the 30’s-40’s. I remember once being with Mom at an airport, when Irene emerged and quickly climbed into the back of a limo. Mom instantly morphed into a teenage movie fanatic and charged over to ask if she could take her picture. The response? “It would be a far better photograph, Dear, if you took the cap off your camera lens,” as she rolled up the window. After that, I’m quite sure that Irene Dunne and Anna and the King were frequent topics of conversation in my household in the late 40’s.
It turns out that Rodgers and Hammerstein were familiar with the book, but were not interested in turning the story into a musical until they saw the movie. From the start, The King and I was essentially created as a star vehicle for the veteran British singer, Gertrude Lawrence, hugely popular in her day, if legendary for being difficult to work with. By then, her vocal skills had already begun to fade, and Rodgers’ simple but beautiful tunes were composed to accommodate her reduced range. Nonetheless, when The King and I opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951, she would become the instant talk of the town and a Tony winner for her comeback role as Anna. Sadly, her success was short-lived. It was not an easy role for a 52-year-old woman: Eight times a week she carried around 75 pounds of costume as she danced her way through an arduous 3¾ -hour performance, later trimmed to just under 3 hours. On August 16, 1952, she collapsed backstage after a matinee performance, and died on September 6, of a previously undetected cancer of the liver and abdomen.
Rodgers and Hammerstein had wanted the movie’s Rex Harrison to play the king, but he wasn’t available. So when young folk singer and TV Director Yul Brynner showed up to audition, bald and glowering, he got the part.
His name was not even on the marquis under Lawrence’s when the show opened. But by the time it closed, a record-setting three years later, Brynner was the star. And he had missed very few of its 1,265 performances.
In addition to his other work on stage and screen, for the next thirty-three years he would go on to play the role he had originated. I believe I finally saw the show with my folks at the National Theatre in Washington in late 1954, with Brynner still toughing it out on tour. Over thirty years later, in the spring of 1985, he was back on Broadway yet again. So of course, my wife and I took our own kids, ages 8 and 11, up to New York so they could experience the real thing. Later that year, on June 30, Yul Brynner gave his 4,625th and final performance as the King of Siam. On the tenth of October, he died of lung cancer, just as he had long expected to do.
But back to 1951: I had missed out on all of the early excitement surrounding the opening of The King and I. I was out of the country, acquiring another subtle cog in the wheel of my fascination with the play and the story. As anyone who has spent any part of his or her childhood outside our American shores will tell you, perspectives change radically. Experience in a foreign land is an eye-opening life-changer. In 1950, my dad was an aviation expert with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (An early version of the FAA). As I understood it, he went on loan to the State Department for the purpose of supervising the conversion and delivery of our wartime transport planes to the budding Air France fleet.
But what that meant for me was two years of living in Paris … where the local kids went to school in “dresses.” Well ok, not really. I was told they were actually very practical blue smocks, a traditional school “uniform,” designed to keep street clothes relatively clean. Furthermore, they all spoke French! Still, no way was I going to wear a “dress” to school! And unable to speak a word of French, I flat out refused to go to a perfectly good neighborhood French school. Sadly, the spoiled brat in me won out. But unfortunately, some good parental research also ruled out the American school, whose reputation at the time was a bit unsavory. Consequentially, I had to agree to attend an English-speaking boarding school on the far side of the city. Bad choice on my part: It was an overcrowded school in the Dickensian tradition, replete with uncouth sanitary conditions, where classroom misbehavior resulted in bloody knuckles dealt by the rulers of irate red-headed Englishmen. And the playground was a war zone. Oh the things my parents never knew!
The plus side was that the little “Denny International School” was populated by students with different eye shapes and skin colors, speaking strange languages, worshipping different Gods, talking of different cultures and traditions. There were French kids whose parents wanted them to learn English fast; there were war orphans; there were the sons and daughters of diplomats from all over the world. Some were wackos, others dedicated athletic or intellectual types –the full spectrum of pre-adolescent worldly humanity. Naturally, we quickly formed defensive gangs for the purpose of recess survival, without regard to any of the above features. My three very best friends, my most trustworthy allies, were John Maung, from Burma, Saïd Dehlavi from Pakistan, and Octavio Maloles, from the Philippines. I’ve often wondered what has happened to them as adults. One of these days, maybe I’ll try a search and ….
By the time we came back home to the U.S. in the summer of 1952, I was a 12-year-old committed internationalist, with a keen interest in what went on in the rest of the world, and how it was different, and how we humans were still all the same. And I knew from my friends that Burma (which in 1989 became Myanmar) was next to the Kingdom of Siam, which had already become Thailand, and was also next to China, which was next to the newly formed dominion of Pakistan, and also next to Korea, where people, including Americans, were getting killed. And furthermore … I spoke fluent French!
By then, the family owned the 33⅓ lp original cast album of The King and I, which I already had largely memorized. I still have it. After all, the story was set in Siam, now Thailand, which was next door to Burma, which … “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” That whole part of the globe belonged to my best friends. Just as Paris now belonged to me.
The movie of the musical came out in 1956, in Cinemascope even. It stars Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, and as we would all later find out, the unacknowledged, dubbed-in voice of the inimitable late Marni Nixon, one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. If you look hard you might also recognize the talented and very young Rita Moreno, as Tuptim. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Hammerstein was now trimmed to 2¼ hours. A beautifully rendered 50th Anniversary CD of the film, minus the overture, remains available. You have to grit your teeth through the blatant racism and sexism, but the sets and costumes are glorious, and the music … Well, yes. The music!
The King and I may not be as well known as other Rodgers & Hammerstein hits. It’s got a huge cast, expensive to produce; it’s a more exotic locale than most Americans were used to, and it has neither a classic love story nor a “lived-happily-ever-after” ending. The king dies in the end, which ironically is the only major plot difference from the real story, aside from omitting the brutal torture and punishment of the runaway slaves. Historically, King Mongkut did not die until 1868, when Anna was back in England. He had been a dangerous autocrat, who bore little resemblance to the more or less likable buffoon customarily portrayed in The King and I, and he most certainly was neither a ”nice guy” nor a romantic.
Nonetheless, despite all objections, The King and I retains an ongoing global fascination. It has spawned a radio show, a TV series, and at least four films. It has been translated into dozens of languages. Doubtlessly, there have been thousands of theatrical productions mounted in every corner of the world, with the exception of Thailand itself, whose government censors have regarded the whole story as a myth.
So many stories. So many associations. But there is one more piece of personal history needed to complete this jigsaw puzzle, one which reinforced and cemented my affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein and The King and I for 64 years. In the summer of 1957, I was working at a summer camp on Cape Cod. I was recruited to play the King for our annual abbreviated musical adaptation – my first featured musical role. … And WE got the play down to 75 minutes. On the night before the one and only performance, I was “cruelly” awakened somewhere around 3:00a.m., by five of my fellow counselor/cast mates, and pinned to the floor while they took an electric razor to my head … “so’s I would look like the ‘real’ king.” My protestations that the “real” king had plenty of hair did nothing to deter them. There’s a picture somewhere, or was: “Come on, guys… This is not funny!!!”
On the other hand, yes it was.