Good Morning. I hope you’re enjoying the day with family and friends.
The King and I is a stage musical, the fifth by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The work is based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon and derives from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who became governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. The story deals with the experiences of the British schoolteacher, who is hired as part of the King’s drive to modernize his country. The relationship between the King and Anna is marked by conflict through much of the play, as well as by a love that neither is able to express. The musical premiered on March 29, 1951 at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, closed on March 20, 1954 and has received tours and revivals.
In 1950, theatrical attorney Fanny Holtzmann was looking for a part for her client, veteran leading lady Gertrude Lawrence. Holtzmann realized that Landon’s book would be an ideal vehicle and contacted Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were initially reluctant, but who agreed to write the musical. The pair initially sought Rex Harrison to play the supporting part of the King—he had played the role in the 1946 movie made from Landon’s book—but Harrison was unavailable. They settled on Russian-American actor Yul Brynner.
The musical was an immediate hit, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actress (for Lawrence) and Best Featured Actor (for Brynner). Lawrence died unexpectedly of cancer a year and a half after the opening, and the role of Anna was played by other actresses during the remainder of the Broadway run of three years (1,246 performances). A national tour and a hit London run followed, together with a 1956 film for which Brynner won an Academy Award. More successful revivals were mounted. In the early 1980s, Brynner starred in an extended national tour of the musical, culminating with a 1985 Broadway run, shortly before his death. Later major revivals of The King and I included productions on Broadway in 1996 and in the West End in 2000.
In 1950, Gertrude Lawrence’s business manager and attorney, Fanny Holtzmann, was looking for a new property for her client, when the 1944 Margaret Landon book Anna and the King of Siam (a fictionalized version of Leonowens’ experiences) was sent to her by Landon’s William Morris agent. According to Rodgers biographer Meryle Secrest, Holtzmann was worried that Lawrence’s career was fading. In any case, Lawrence had appeared in plays rather than musicals since Lady in the Dark closed in 1943. Holtzmann agreed that a musical based on Anna and the King of Siam would be ideal for Lawrence. Lawrence purchased the rights to adapt the book for the stage. Holtzmann initially wanted Cole Porter to write the score, but he refused. Holtzmann was going to approach Noël Coward next, but happened to meet Dorothy Hammerstein (Oscar’s wife) in Manhattan. Holtzmann told Dorothy Hammerstein that she wanted Rodgers and Hammerstein to do a show for Lawrence, and to see that her husband read a book that Holtzmann would send over. Both Dorothy Rodgers and Dorothy Hammerstein were under instructions to pass along all such messages to their husbands, and Dorothy Hammerstein did so. In fact, both wives had read the book in 1944, and had urged their husbands to consider it as a possible subject for a musical.
Rodgers and Hammerstein had disliked Landon’s book as a basis for a musical when it was published, and their views still held. Landon’s book consists of episodes, showing vignettes of life at the Siamese court, along with descriptions of historical events. The episodes in the book are unconnected, except that the King creates most of the difficulties featured in the vignettes, and Anna tries to resolve them. They could see no coherent story from which a musical could be made. Their view changed when they saw the 1946 film adaptation, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison, and saw how the screenplay had united the episodes in the book. They became more interested in the idea of writing a musical adaptation. However, the pair was concerned about Lawrence herself. They had rarely used theatrical stars in their joint works; they preferred to make stars rather than hire them, and hiring the legendary Gertrude Lawrence would be expensive. Another concern was Lawrence’s voice: she had never had a great vocal range, and it was diminishing with the years. Becoming more pronounced, on the other hand, was a tendency to sing flat. Lawrence’s temperament was another concern: though she could not sing like one, the star was fully capable of diva-like behavior. However, they admired her acting and stage presence—what Hammerstein called her “magic light”, causing her to be a compelling force onstage, and they agreed to write the show. For her part, Lawrence agreed to remain in the show until June 1, 1953, and waived the star’s usual veto rights over cast and director, leaving control in the hands of the two authors.
Hammerstein found his “door in” to the play in Landon’s account of a slave in Siam writing about Abraham Lincoln. This would eventually become the narrated dance, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”. Since any romantic feelings between the King and Anna could not be acknowledged in song, Hammerstein built up the secondary couple, Lun Tha and Tuptim. In the Landon book, the relationship is between Tuptim and a priest, and is not romantic. The most radical change from the book was to have the King die at the end of the play, although in a pre-rehearsal script, Hammerstein makes it unclear whether or not the King dies. In an interview for The New York Times, Hammerstein indicated that he had written the first scene before leaving for London and the West End production of Carousel in mid-1950; a second scene had been written in the British capital.
Hammerstein originally had a very different conception of the “Shall We Dance?” scene, though still touching on the unspoken love between the King and Anna, according to an early script:
Anna tries to explain the Western idea of the love of one man for one woman. It will introduce a new song, which will be Anna’s attempt to describe a romantic love totally foreign to the King’s idea of relations between man and woman. In his part of the song[,] his logical arguments against sentimental monogamy must be a difficult one for Anna to answer. She can only fall back on the fact that in the Western world, this thing which seems so foolish and impossible to him is happening every hour of the day, every day, and a man and a girl are falling in love, believing that they are the only people in the world for each other. At the end of the song, while he does not admit that he is convinced to any degree, it is apparent that he has found her very attractive and somehow can feel this illogical impulse himself, however vaguely.
I’ve always thought it was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most brilliant musical, because the ‘ couple’ of the musical only ‘ comes together’ in a 2 minute dance sequence. Yet, when they dance for that minute, they are ONE, even though it can’t be. And Yul Brynner -YOWSA!!