The King and I

Rogers and Hammerstein Hit Musical

March 29, 2022

It is difficult to imagine – in today’s world – this Broadway musical ever being a hit, let alone even being made.

But on March 29, 1951, The King and I opened at the St. James theatre in New York for 1,236 performances. The musical was based on a Civil War era novel which chronicled the travels of widow Anna Leonowens and her two children. From the Infallible Wikipedia:

“In the early 1860s,  (Anna) a widow with two young children, was invited to Siam (now Thailand) by King Mongkut (Rama IV), who wanted her to teach his children and wives the English language and introduce them to British customs. Her experiences during the five years she spent in the country served as the basis for two memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and Romance of the Harem (1872).

(Novelist Margaret) Landon took Leonowens’ first-person narratives and added details about the Siamese people and their culture taken from other sources. The book has been translated into dozens of languages and has inspired at least six adaptations into various dramatic media:

  • Anna and the King of Siam (1946 film)
  • The King and I (1951 stage musical)
  • The King and I (1956 film musical)
  • Anna and the King (1972 TV series)
  • The King and I (1999 animated film musical)
  • Anna and the King (1999 film)

At the time of its publication, The New York Times called it ‘an inviting escape into an unfamiliar, exotic past… calculated to transport us instantly.’ The Atlantic Monthly described it as “enchanting” and added that ‘the author wears her scholarship with grace, and the amazing story she has to tell is recounted with humor and understanding.’”

For those of us over a certain age, the iconic actor Yul Brenner will forever be remembered as the epitome of the King of Siam; his blunt manners, assertive personality, and certainty of his God-given right to be the ruler, belonging to a different time and era.

And yet audiences everywhere were charmed by the musical, being drawn into a world that no longer existed, by characters who – in our own time and place – would not exist.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s the summary of the musical from The Infallible Wikipedia:

“A widowed schoolteacher, Anna, arrives in Bangkok with her young son, Louis, after being summoned to tutor the many children of King Mongkut. Both are introduced to the intimidating Kralahome, Siam’s prime minister, who escorts them to the Royal Palace, where they will live, although Anna had been promised her own house. The King ignores her objections and introduces her to his head wife, Lady Thiang. Anna also meets a recent concubine, a young Burmese, Tuptim, and the fifteen children she will tutor, including his son and heir, Prince Chulalongkorn. In conversation with the other wives, Anna learns Tuptim is in love with Lun Tha, who brought her to Siam.

Anna still wants her own house and teaches the children about the virtues of home life, to the King’s irritation, who disapproves of the influence of other cultures. She comes across Lun Tha and learns that he has been meeting Tuptim in secret. He asks her to arrange a rendezvous. The lovers meet under cover of darkness, and Lun Tha promises he will one day return to Siam and that they will escape together.

King Mongkut becomes troubled over rumors that the British regard him as a barbaric leader and are sending a delegation, including Anna’s old lover, Sir Edward, possibly to turn Siam into a protectorate. Anna persuades the King to receive them in European style by hosting a banquet with European food and music. In return, the King promises to give Anna her own house.

Sir Edward reminisces with Anna in an attempt to bring her back to British society. The King presents Tuptim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a traditional Siamese ballet. However, the King and the Kralahome are not impressed, as the play involves slavery and shows the slaveholding King drowning in the river. During the show, Tuptim left the room to run away with Lun Tha.

After the guests have departed, the king reveals that Tuptim is missing. Anna explains that Tuptim is unhappy because she is just another woman in his eyes. The King retorts that men are entitled to a plenitude of wives, although women must remain faithful. Anna explains the reality of one man loving only one woman and recalls her first dance before she teaches the King how to dance the polka, but the touching moment is shattered when the Kralahome bursts into the room with the news Tuptim has been captured. For her dishonor, the King prepares to whip her despite Anna’s pleas. She implies he is indeed a barbarian. The King then crumples, puts his hand over his heart, and runs out of the room. The Kralahome blames Anna for ruining him as Tuptim is led away in tears after learning Lun Tha was found dead and dumped into the river. That causes Anna to sever all ties as a governess and declare she will leave on the next boat from Siam.

On the night of her departure, Anna learns that the King is dying. Lady Thiang gives Anna his unfinished letter stating his deep gratitude and respect for her, despite their differences. Moments before the ship departs, he gives Anna his ring, as she has always spoken the truth to him, and persuades her and Louis to stay in Bangkok. He passes his title to Prince Chulalongkorn, who then issues a proclamation that ends slavery and states that all subjects will no longer bow down to him. The King dies, satisfied that his kingdom will be all right, and Anna lovingly presses her cheek to his hand.”

I cannot recall if I first saw the musical on TV or if my initial exposure was as an elementary school student during an outing to A.C. Davis High school in the fall of 1968 to see it performed live.

What I do know is that it made an impression on me. A couple of memories stand out. In the fall of 1968 I was in sixth grade. Every fall and spring it was tradition for the elementary school students in the Yakima School District to get to attend the musicals put on by the two high schools: Davis in the autumn and Eisenhower in the spring.

I loved going to Davis for theirs if for no other reason than their building was impressive in a way that Eisenhower’s was not. Davis’ theatre was in a two tiered auditorium with carved columns and an expansive stage that – if you were seated in the balcony – you got to look down on and appreciate the grandeur.

The second reason was, no doubt, due to WHO the choir director was. At the time I did not have an appreciation for what Mrs. (Aletha) Lee Farrell brought to the Yakima community. I do know that my father – by then a teacher at Franklin Junior High – always spoke highly of the woman. What I have learned recently is that Mrs. Farrell was a Julliard trained vocal coach. Yes, Julliard.

A.C. Davis High School productions were always top notch. Due, no doubt, to Lee Farrell’s influence. That particular year she had two female performers who each brought something extra to the stage. The first was a young woman by the name of Nancy Caudill. The other was Oleta Adams. Caudill was the lead as Anna while Adams played the role of the tragic Tuptim.

Both went on to pursue music careers. Nancy in opera and music education and Oleta as a Jazz and Blues singer. Links for both are below.

At the time, of course, it never occurred to me that you don’t have singers of that caliber every year let alone TWO the same year. Whatever Mrs. Farrell was doing at Davis High School she was outstanding at identifying and developing talent.

The two singers in their 1968 yearbook

Which has led me to my musings of today. Somewhat belatedly I’ve come to appreciate the time and society in which I was raised. My generation’s parents and grandparents had a much broader view of what a society should do for its members. Those things involved exposing their children to a more refined culture and elevating such things as music and the arts. Could all of us be outstanding musicians? Of course not. But that was never the point. The Nancy Caudill’s and Oleta Adam’s were the rarity; and while one would likely never experience those sorts of successes, we all benefited by seeing and hearing those whose talent was developed and shared by teachers such as Mrs. Farrell.

I can appreciate the tragic storyline of The King and I and be moved by the Rogers and Hammerstein songs. And I can also appreciate that for one afternoon when I was eleven years old, I got to experience something rich and beautiful; fortunate enough to grow up in a time and place when education immersed us in cultured experiences.

Some links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King_and_I_(1956_film)

http://www.nancycaudill.com/bio.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oleta_Adams

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