Opera Australia Blog

Trivia: Everything you need to know about Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I

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. Photograph by a staff photographer at New York World-Telegram & Sun – with permissions for Public Use.

Impress your friends with a few choice tidbits about the musical sensation coming to stages across Australia next year.

The Story

  • The King and I  is based on a true story: Anna Leonowens’ account of teaching English in the court of the Siamese King Mongkut (Rama IV). The interpretation is fairly loose – the musical is based on a fictional novel by Margaret Landon, who reimagined Anna Leonowen’s memoirs: The English Governess at the Siamese Court
  • Interestingly, a biographer later uncovered that much of Leonowen’s memoirs was in fact embellished or fabricated: for example, Leonowens had in fact never been to England when she was employed by the Siamese King – born in India of Anglo-Indian descent, Leonowens explained away her darker complexion as a sign of Welsh heritage.

From Page to Stage

  • Rodgers & Hammerstein did not come up with the idea for the musical themselves. In fact, it was proposed by lawyer Fanny Holtzmann, who saw a musical adaptation of Landon’s novel as the perfect vehicle to revive her client Gertrude Lawrence’s declining career. She initially offered the opportunity to Cole Porter, who declined.
  • Before Holtzmann sent Landon’s novel to the musical duo, both Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s wives had read Landon’s book and urged their husbands to write an adaptation. Neither saw the potential in the novel – it wasn’t until they saw a 1946 film adaptation of a stage play that they began to consider it.
  • Both Rodgers and Hammerstein struggled with how to convey the cultural context of the story. Rodgers wanted to reference Asian music without alienating a Western audience. He stopped short of incorporating traditional Thai music and instead settled on some unusual chords to convey a foreign mood. Hammerstein wrote the King’s dialogue without using articles – a manner of speech common to many Asian languages.
  • The romance between Lun Tha and Tuptim was scripted primarily so that Rodgers could write some of the romantic tunes he was famous for – as it would be inappropriate to stage a cross-cultural romance between the King and Anna. An attraction between the Thai King and British governess is merely suggested in the musical.

On Broadway

  • The musical opened on Broadway in 1951 starring British actress Gertrude Lawrence and Russian actor and director Yul Brynner as Anna and the King of Siam. Brynner was then relatively unknown, but shot to stardom for his performance in the hit. The show played for three years, but lost its leading lady when Lawrence died of liver cancer halfway through the run.
  • The show had an initial budget of US$250,000 – which was at that time the most expensive Rodgers & Hammerstein musical ever made
  • Lawrence had to wear costume gowns that weighed up to 34 kg, and her character danced a total of 6.4km in every performance, eight shows a week. Lawrence was buried in one of her costumes from the show.
  • Through the initial run and several revivals, Yul Brynner performed the role of the King more than 4,600 times.

In Hollywood

  • a 1956 film took the musical from Broadway success to international smash hit. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five.
  • The film was (and still is) banned in Thailand as it was deemed disrespectful to the monarchy – an offence which breaks several of the country’s laws.

In Thailand

  • King Mongkut, along with his son Prince Chulalongkorn are remembered in Thailand for smart foreign policy which ensured the land of Siam (later Thailand) retained its independence, while every other South-East Asian country fell to colonial invasion. The Thai government and royal family therefore have continually objected to the depiction of King Mongkut as a arrogant, ignorant, polka-dancing authoritarian ruler. They have especially objected to any suggestion of a cross-cultural romance with Anna.
  • A dramatic film adaptation released in 1999 starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat was also banned in Thailand, despite consultation with the Royal family and government during its production.
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