The King and I... and I
When I was a mere preteen and just beginning my adventure with musical theatre, one of my favorite books to check out of my high school library was The Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook. This beautiful, hardbound edition sat on the very top-shelf of the school library and required a less-than-enthused librarian to climb a ladder to get it for me. Since I was the only one to check it out over a six year period, it might have just been easier if they had given it to me to keep. I sure wish they had.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook was full of sheet music, interesting facts, plot synopsis, photographs, and original cast lists. It didn't just include the big five (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music), but everything was there (Cinderella, Allegro, State Fair (film), Pipe Dream, Me and Juliet, and Flower Drum Song). Dispersed throughout book, introducing each title, were these glorious, two-page spread, color illustrations of each musical. My fascination with R&H had started a year earlier when my junior high music teacher showed us South Pacific in music class, and I had gone in search for more. Since our school library was small, The Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook was the only book I could find on the duo, but it did lead me to all their wonderful music and these lovely images.
It was the lush illustrations in the book that really stick with me. There was a particularly stunning one for The King and I, featuring Mrs. Anna in her prim hoopskirt, standing before a map of the world, instructing the Siamese Children on contemporary thought while the bald-headed King Mongkut stood sternly by, hands clamped regally to his hips. I wanted to know more about this show and my resources were limited.
Once-a-month, my family would take a trip to the library in Norwich, New York. By the standards of my small town, Norwich seemed like a metropolis, with two department stores, three grocery stores, and a school system that had separate buildings for elementary, junior and senior high school. The library, by most standards, would seem small, but to me, it was an endless world of fascination. On one magical visit, I happened upon the theatre section (they have whole sections devoted to theatre?) and there before me was Six Plays by Rodgers and Hammerstein. I grabbed it and quickly checked the table of contents. Yes! Yes! The King and I was in there and I would finally get to know more about this show. Then I thought crept into my mind: "They have a record collection in this library!" Wending my way down the spiral staircase to the media section of the library and began thumbing through the LPs. "Who is Joni Mitchell?" "I think my grandmother listens to Perry Como," and "These don't look like musicals to me" were my first thoughts. Then I saw the heading "Movies and Shows" at the very end of the rack (isn't that where they always are. sandwiched between "Jazz" and "Classical"?).
Needless to say, I found the original cast recording of The King and I and took it home, read each scene aloud from Six Plays, and then played the appropriate song where it fit in. Gertrude Lawrence certainly didn't have the prettiest voice, but she brought a great deal of personality to the displaced, widowed schoolteacher searching for a new life for her and her son in the exotic world of Southeast Asia. Restrained and proper, she was the perfect counterpart for Yul Brynner's bold and commanding King Mongkut, the King of Siam who hoped to usher his country into the modern world, but constantly at odds with himself over progress verses tradition. Brynner singing "A Puzzlement," a soliloquy that was a summation of his inner conflicts, was unlike any musical theatre song I had ever heard before. It revealed so much, echoed of something deeply personal, but still managed to keep his majesty "majestic." The music featured some of loveliest that Rodgers and Hammerstein had ever concocted, though I found myself particularly attracted to hypnotic "I Have Dreamed," the pensive "Hello Young Lovers," and the sardonic "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?".
By today's standards, portions of the musical may seem dated, racist, and even sanitized to the point of cutesy. It is not exactly The Sound of Music in its sugary delivery, but there are moments where everything seems just a little too easily resolved and manipulative. By the standards of 1951, however, this musical was certainly cutting edge in its depiction of east-meets-west and in its development of a strong, determined woman employing logic, reason, and stubbornness to stand up against a fallible tyrant of a king.
With The King and I readying for a Broadway revival via Lincoln Center, it will be interesting to see how director Bartlett Sher navigates the more "sensitive" moments of the musical. Sher has a deft way of making old musicals feel new, carving out richer meanings and mining deeper impact that their earlier inceptions have conveyed. For the kid in me who sat staring at that wonderful color illustration that is now imprinted upon my brain, I am eagerly awaiting this revival of The King and I and anxiously anticipating what new things I can learn from this enduring story.