Opera Australia Blog

Cheat Sheet: The King and I

King Elephant CMYK

The Rodgers & Hammerstein smash-hit musical has charmed audiences for generations. Want to find out why? Read on.

Rodgers’ biographer Meryle Secrest beautifully sums up why audiences have loved it:

“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.”

Who were Rodgers & Hammerstein?

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are pictured auditioning hopefuls at the St James Theatre.  Photograph by a staff photographer at New York World-Telegram & Sun - with permissions for Public Use.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are pictured auditioning hopefuls at the St James Theatre.

A lyricist and composer duo writing musicals in the golden age of musical theatre, in the 1940s and 1950s. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote five resounding successes, including Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music.

What happens in the story?

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens teaching the King's wives and children.

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens teaching the King’s wives and children.

The King of Siam is anxious to advance his country and secure the respect of the Western World. He engages an English Schoolteacher to tutor the children of his court. It’s a classic culture clash: Anna finds his polygamy (he has many wives and concubines) abhorrent, he finds her Western superiority and feminist ideals arrogant.

When word comes that a British envoy is arriving, the King and his court decide to put on a display of European hospitality. It doesn’t go exactly to plan, however, when a young slave-girl presents a play based on the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She is in love with a Burmese Prince but has been gifted to the King as a junior wife.

Tensions rise but Anna and the King are forced to work out their differences when he falls ill.

Who are the main characters?

Lisa-McCune-as-Anna-Leonowens-and-Teddy-Tahu-Rhodes-as-the-King-of-Siam

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King of Siam. Photo: Brian Geach

Anna Leonowens – British schoolteacher who arrives with her son Louis to tutor the King’s many children

The King of Siam – based on the historic King Mongkut, he desires modernity and independence for Thailand

Lady Thiang – the King’s chief wife

Tuptim – a Burmese slavegirl, gifted to the King as a wife, but in love with …

Lun Tha – a Burmese scholar, sent to escort Tuptim on her journey

The Kralahome - The Thai Prime Minister

What’s the big hit?

Anna Leonowens sings Getting to Know You as she, despite herself, finds the King’s children utterly charming.

Shall We Dance was such a catchy, romantic tune it gained a life outside of the musical. This clip is from the 1956 film, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.

This production is … ?

The King and I Ensemble dance an incredible ballet of "Small House of Uncle Thomas"

The King and I Ensemble dance an incredible ballet of “Small House of Uncle Thomas”

… a glittering revival of the 1991 John Frost and Adelaide Festival Trust production that toured Australia before going on to Broadway, then a US tour and then a long stint at the London Palladium before a tour of the United Kingdom.

Directed and revived by Christopher Renshaw, this production has been built from scratch sparing no expense for an authentic reconstruction of King Mongkut’s palace. Brian Thomson designed the sumptuous set, while costume designer Roger Kirk created the array of stunning dresses, Thai dance costumes and other costumes in the production.

The production teams imported hundreds of metres of Thai silks, fabrics, hats and masks directly from Bangkok, and decorated the stage with more than 21,000 Swarovski crystals. It’s a sumptuous revival of a musical that won nearly every award in musical theatre, including multiple Tony Awards.

Renshaw’s 1991 production was the first version of The King and I that strayed from the original staging developed for Broadway.

A little history

Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner pictured in The King and I, 1951.

The King and I is loosely based on a true(ish) story – the memoirs of a woman called Anna Leonowens, who tutored King Mongkut’s children in Bangkok during the 1860s. Her memoirs inspired the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which in turn inspired the 1946 film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s wives had both urged the pair to create a musical based on the novel when they first read it, but neither could see how it would work until they saw the film.

The musical they penned premièred on Broadway in March of 1951, starring Gertrude Lawrence and a young Yul Brynner. It opened to a rapturous audience and critical reception. Even the death of their leading lady couldn’t dim its success. While Lawrence died of liver cancer 18 months into the run, the show did not close until the end of 1955 in Philadelphia. By 1953, it had been staged in London, and before long, productions were mounted in Australia, Japan and throughout Europe.

In 1956, the by-then hit musical was turned into a film, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (her songs were dubbed by singer Marni Nixon). It took more than $21,000,000 at the box office and is still popular today.

Conversation Starters

  • Cole Porter was the first composer offered the chance to turn the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” into a musical, but he turned it down.
  • Anna Leonowens was not quite the woman she portrayed herself as in the memoirs that would spawn a book, a hit movie and then a musical. Born in India, she had actually never been to England when she joined the court of the Siamese King. She had also left Siam for the United Kingdom by the time the King died.
  • Gertrude Lawrence, who created the role in the musical, frequently sang off-key, but her stage charisma was such that few people noticed.

Want more?

Get a glimpse behind the scenes into the wardrobe and set design of the 2014 touring production in the above video.

The King and I plays the Princess Theatre in Melbourne from June 10, and the Sydney Opera House from September 7. For tickets and more information, click here.

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