“THE KING” STILL REIGNS
By Iride Aparicio
Pictures by: Mathew Murphy
SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Shall we dance? or shall we sing the lyrics from “THE KING And I”? At the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in the city, on its opening night, the audience did not dance, but many swayed on their seats and others hummed the music. We are so familiar with those tunes. Some of us still can sing “Getting to know you,” and it is a fact that through all these years, OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II’s “message” in the musical’s libretto, is still as pertinent today as it was in l951.
The story, behind the birth of the musical, is interesting. It dates back to l950 when Theatrical attorney FANNY HOLTZMANN was looking for an acting opportunity on a Broadway stage for her client, veteran leading lady GERTRUDE LAWRENCE. The attorney had read the book “Anna and the King of Siam" (now Thailand) written by MARGARET LANDON, and had liked the story about an English teacher who goes to Siam (then an unknown country) to teach the children of the Siam's King.
Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children
In l946, the story of Anna and the King had already be made into a movie, with young REX HARRISON in the role of King, HOLTZMANN had liked the movie and knew that the people had loved the story so, realizing that the story would make a wonderful vehicle for her client, she decided to contact the two most famous men on Broadway. Composer RICHARD ROGERS and Librettist, OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II and told them her idea.
Reluctant at first, they wrote the musical that on the year l951 won Tony Awards® for “Best Musical” , “Best Actress” for LAWRENCE, and “Best Feature Actor” for YUL BRYNNER (who was selected to play the role of the King because HARRISON was unavailable). The show ran on Broadway for 1,246 performances, and was a hit on its London run. The U.S. National tour of the musical, was followed by a film. The 20th Century Fox 1956 film was nominated for nine Acady Awards, winning five, including Best actor for BRYNNER.
There are several reasons for "THE KING and I" popularity: one is that it is a love story, actually two love stories, but in one of them the love is felt, but remains hidden in the heart. Another reason is the setting of the story. During the fifties, Siam (Central, Eastern Western and Southern Thailand) was still an“exotic” place and "Victorian England's women still submissive to men, so women admired Anna, for daring to go to work in this exotic country. And with the secondary story of Tupkin and Lun Tha, the Burmese young man who brings a young girl from Burma, to the king of Siam as a gift, we get to know Siam and learn, among other things, that in the Siamese culture of the time, it was accepted for a man, to have a harem filled with wives and be the father of more than 60 children. That Siam had slaves. That the King made the law, and that he was the absolute ruler. That out of respect to their King, the people bowed to him, kneeling on the floor, and that no one in Siam could ever keep their head higher than the King’s head,
LAURA MICHELLE KELLY as Anna & JOSE LLANA as the King.
And to enhance the story, there is the RODGERS’ music. Songs such as: “Getting to know you.” “Shall we Dance” “I whistle a Happy Tune” “Hello Young Lovers,” to name a few..
The 2015 Revival, presents the story visually. It starts with a boat docking at a port in Siam. Standing on the boat’s deck, Louis Leonowens, ( GRAHAM MONTGOMERY) a young lad obviously scare, asks Anna (LAURA MICHELLE KELLY) his mother what does she do when she is afraid. She responds to him by singing “I whistle a Happy tune” and then whisling.
The marvelous sets of MICHAEL YEARGAN, imitating the sets in the movie, and CATHERINE ZUBER’s creative costumes, transport us, visually, from the boat to a street in Siam, where as Anna and her son walk we see the shops, the people, their animals and young beggars asking strangers for money. At the palace, the conflict starts immediately. In a letter, the King (JOSE LLANA) had promised Anne (KELLY) a house, but when she arrives, at the palace, she is informed that she will be living at the palace. So, she is “forced” to wait for weeks, before she could talk to the King. In the meantime, with dialogue and songs, the musical allows us to get to know the Siamese culture.
The acting in this production is superb. Anna (KELLY) not only has a beautiful voice and vocalizes well, but she looks like an English woman. And as for Lara, he also sings well, dances well and gets into his character. Again, the sets (YEARGAN) transports us inside the King’s palace, where after a rhythmic polka dancing, and lyrics ending in “and let you be my new romance” we become aware that such things could happen, even to Anna “the very difficult woman” and the Siam's King. There is no dialogue between them, just a moment, when dancing, they stare at each other in silence. Yet, we understand what is happening.
It take us a little longer to learn more about this man, but we do. It is all spelled out in the lyrics of the song “Something Wonderful” sang by Lady Thiang (JOAN ALMEDILLA) in a well modulated voice. The King, is just a man who thinks with his heart, but his heat is not always wise. Just a regular man, who stumbles and falls, but he is a man who tries.
JOSE LLANA as the King of Siam and LAURA MICHELLE KELLY as Anna
Suddenly, we the audience become aware that aside from the way he looks, and the way he dresses, and his dictatorial manners, this man, is like any other man. That maybe he does not love his thirty plus wives, but that he loves his children, He even pays Anna, twenty five pounds a month (a fortune in Siam) for their education. And he loves his country, and is very proud of his heritage. And he wants to educate himself. He reads the Bible and tries to understand it. And is trying to improve the culture of Siam so that no other country (England) tries to take it away from him. And that he certainly is not a “Barbarian”. Yet, once, when after taking a whip to whip Tuptim (MANNA NICHOLS) Anna calls him a Barbarian, it brakes his heart.
And as the cultures of the East and the West mingle in the production, we begin to realize that the children of Siam, are not that different from other children. That their mothers, are not different, than any other mothers, and the two Asian lovers behave as other lovers behave towards each other.
And as we follow the moving story, and listen to its dialogue in words and in the lyrics of the songs, we start realizing that we may have some similarities with the people from Siam (Thailand).
Perhaps that was the reason why when it was first presented on Broadway in l951, “THE KING and I” was awe-inspiring. Perhaps that is the reason why it is still awe-inspiring today. With the last chords of the orchestra, still heard in the background, the audience raised to their feet and gave the RICHARD RODGERS & OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II Revival, a standing ovation. “THE KING and I” still “touches our hearts.”
The universality of its premise makes it still relevant. As a teacher, Anna taught all of us that there are similarities in people from around the world, but to discover them, we have to get to know them.
"THE KING and I" will continue playing at the SHN GOLDEN GATE THEATRE in San Francisco until December 11. For tickets you can go online to www.shnsf.com or call 888-746-1799.