How many of you Broadway babies grew up on the good old Rogers and Hammerstein collection? I certainly did! For this week’s THROWBACK THURSDAY we are taking a look back at a one of R&H’s golden oldies: The King and I. Did you know that The King and I is based on a the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon? In fact, Landon wrote the novel based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens who was the governess to Siamese King Mongkut’s 82 children in the early 1860s! How do you remember all of those kids’ names? Or do you just start numbering them? They didn’t have name tags back in the 19th century did they? I digress.
This R&H production was brought to Broadway for the first time in 1951 at the St. James Theatre with choreography by the great Jerome Robbins. At the time, Yul Brynner, who stole the show as the King, was the only person of color in the production (Yul was part Mongolian), opposite Gertrude Lawrence who played Anna Leonowens until her untimely death of cancer a year and half through the run. There have since been 3 Broadway revivals along with many tours and international productions. California Music Circus just did a production last year and actress Diane Phelan took us behind the scenes!
The original production took home the Tony for Best Musical, Best Actress (Lawrence) and Best Featured Actor (Brynner). Brynner pretty much owned the role of the King until his death, performing in the U.S. tour, the 1977 revival, the 1979 West End production, the 1985 revival (he won another Tony for this one), a short-lived 1972 TV version of the story, and the 1956 film (for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor). The final performance count was 4,625 times on stage. Now that’s commitment!
The King and I is set in 1962 when the widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, accompanied by her son Louis, arrives in Bangkok, Siam to teach the King’s children. Anna and the King clash about her demand to have her own house, but he is adamant about modernizing Siam and having her teach his children and wives English. The King is worried about an impending British envoy arriving and claiming Siam as a protectorate if the King proves to be the barbarian that rumors make him out to be. The children and wives grow fond of Anna, and they work together to prepare a European-style welcome for the envoy. The King promises to give Anna her house in return for her help. As it turns out, the envoy was an old flame of Anna’s, and he wants her to return to England with him. Through the course of their working together to deflate the problems with England, Anna and the King develop an unspoken love for one another. Meanwhile, one of the King’s new wives, Tuptim, has fallen in love with the scholar Lun Tha, and the two meet in secret. We all can infer that things don’t go well once their secret is out. I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but I highly recommend you at least watch the movie (or I suppose you could check out the 1999 animated adaptation if that’s more to your taste).
Check out this clip of Yul Brynner and Patricia Morrison performing at the 1971 Tony Awards:
Here’s the original trailer for the 1956 film:
“Shall We Dance” featuring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr from the 1956 film:
FUN FACT: Marni Nixon dubbed the singing voice of Anna, and Rita Moreno played Tuptim in the film.
Have you seen the stage or film version of The King and I? What did you think of Yul Brynner’s performance? What do you think of the outcome of the love affair between Tuptim and Lun Tha? Would you like to see another revival of the show? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!