When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein first considered the idea of a musical of the film Anna and the King of Siam (based on the novel of the same name) they weren't sure they wanted to tackle the assignment.
For one thing, they didn't know that it would work. They'd already completed a hugely successful musical (South Pacific) centered on the same part of the world and also involving an east/west culture clash. Dare they go there again?
Second, they weren't keen on building a musical around the talents of a single star -- in this case, Getrude Lawrence, a great British stage actress best know for her work in Noel Coward's light, drawing-room comedies. R&H were suspicious of star vehicles. And Richard Rodgers felt that Lawrence's voice might not be able to handle a wide range of notes. In fact, he felt "she had a tendency to sing flat."
But, after they saw the film, the project became more appealing and they felt they could give it a go.
This was how one of the great American musicals was born -- as a showpiece for Gertrude Lawrence and a co-star, probably Rex Harrison or Alfred Drake.
Well, R&H could not come to terms with either Harrison or Drake and auditions were scheduled for the role of the king. The first person to try out for the role won it.
And from that day forward, The King and I was forever transformed.
At the 1951 Tony Awards, Gertrude Lawrence took home best actress in a leading role honors and her king, an exotic-looking, bald newcomer named Yul Brynner won the award for best actor in a featured role. So long as Lawrence was the star, Brynner took second-billing.
Still, the show was titled The King and I, not Me and the King.
So, over time it was the king who came to dominate the show and guarantee its success and Yul Brynner made this role his trademark, playing it not only in the film version (for which the won best actor in a leading role Oscar) but reviving it on stage for the rest of his life.
Everybody wanted to see Yul Brynner in The King and I and, if you were lucky enough to get a ticket, you saw a performance that could only be described as majestic. We were fortunate enough to see it twice -- once when he revived it in New York in 1977 and later, on the road in Philadelphia.
Now, The King and I is back on Broadway and this time it returns as a star vehicle for a true Broadway diva, the great Kelli O'Hara. At Lincoln Center's Vivien Beaumot Theater, this is a sumptuous production featuring 53 players and a 29-piece orchestra. It's as rich and grand as you could possibly imagine, under the direction of Bartlett Sher and with stunning costumes by Catherine Zuber and evocative, cleverly adaptive sets by Michael Yeargan.
From the very first moment as the vessel carrying Anna and her son arrives in Bangkok, you will be overwhelmed by the scope and grandeur of this production which shifts the focus ever-so-slightly to stress Anna's self-reliance, independence and keen instincts. She is a woman who seems ready to take on almost any challenge and, when she matches wits with the king (as the chosen teacher of his many children) she brings every ounce of energy she has to the fore.
O'Hara is given some great scenes to play and some choice songs to sing and (make no mistake about it) there are no flat notes here. She delivers I Whistle A Happy Tune; Hello, Young Lovers; Getting To Know You and Shall I Tell You What I Thing of You (her soliloquy) flawlessly. She is that rare combination: a great singer who is also an extraordinary actress in song. She knows the difference between singing and fully inhabiting a character in song.
This show seems destined to give O'Hara a well-deserved Tony award after five well-earned nominations and that alone makes this production more than noteworthy.
Still, thanks to Yul Brynner, the question which faces every production of The King and I is: Who plays the king?
This time around it's screen actor Ken Wantanabe in his American stage debut.
Thankfully, Wantanabe doesn't even attempt to replicate Brynner in any way. He plays the role in a more human, 21st century fashion. Here, the king is a bit more vulnerable, less imposing and even funny at times. This is a slightly more approachable king -- not less defensive or less willing to cede ground but still a bit more three-dimensional and maybe even likable in his own way. This is a big challenge for Wanatabe and in most respects, he's up to it. Just one warning: there will be times when his heavy accent makes it difficult for you to understand him. You have to listen very closely or know the story very well. But when Wantanabe performs A Puzzlement, he makes a believer of the most hardened skeptic and he truly seems to relish the role.
The lesser roles are also perfectly cast in this production. Ruthie Ann Miles shines as Lady Thiang and Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora are extraordinary as the star-crossed young lovers who sing the haunting We Kiss in a Shadow and the lushly romantic I Have Dreamed. Perfect voices!
Kudos as well to young Jake Lucas who plays Anna's son, Louis and to the irresistible young actors who play the king's many offspring.
Of course, no Rodgers and Hammerstein musical would be complete without a show within a show and here the choreographer Christopher Gattelli recreates Jerome Robbins' ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas with dazzling results.
The King and I is a story of power and the inevitable changes in the balance of power over time. It's the story of great and small influences clashing; the story of traditions and how they must eventually give way to the new; the story of cultures changing and adapting to survive; the story of young and old and the dawn of each new day, each new era. But above all, this is a love story - a love story on many levels and with many nuances.
Richard Rodgers' biographer Meryl Secrest described it all this way:
The King and I is really a celebration of love in all its guises, from the love of Anna for her dead husband; the love of the King's official wife, Lady Thiang, for a man she knows is flawed and also unfaithful; the desperation of forbidden love; and a love that is barely recognized and can never be acted upon.The King and I is a spectacle - a lavish spectacle that, at its core retains a timeless intimacy. The yearnings that roil just under the surface throughout this story and the lives of its characters build to a crescendo. The secret is all in the holding back - the suppression. Without one iota of preachiness, R&H teach us a powerful lesson about tolerance, understanding and love -- a lesson they fashioned 64 years ago as they kept the golden age of American musicals alive. They did this long before any government tried to impose any notion of diversity or political correctness. They did it through story and song, through graceful movement and dance, through careful attention to detail and theater that speaks convincingly to our minds and hearts.
As the story builds, we not only bond with the characters but we connect the dots -- we finish off the details ourselves and come to understand necessary truths.
When the king reaches out and touches Anna's waist to lead her in Shall We Dance, we experience a moment of sheer exhilaration that is unparalleled on the musical stage. It's pure bliss -- a joyous reason to be alive.
You're unlikely to see anything like this again for a long, long time, if at all.
Get online, call, go to the box office -- do whatever you have to do. But, by all means get your tickets for The King and I. Hurry! This is a sure sellout!