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Past Forward: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I lives on

by Rita Kohn
March 6, 2019
Clowes Memorial Hall of Butler University
4602 Sunset Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46208
317-940-6444
Rita Kohn, member: Dance Critics Association, Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild
It’s 1862. King Mongkut is fending off a takeover of Siam by super-powers England and France, not too unlike hostile takeovers today of corporations that have resources to capitalize upon. The United States was in the throes of its Civil War. ‘The International of 1862,’ also known as the the Great London Exposition, ran May 1 to November in South Kensington, London, a successor to the first Great Exhibition of 1851. Photographer John Thompson’s images of Siam were on exhibit, along with his views of Cambodia and provinces of China. Prince Albert had died days before the opening. Queen Victoria was in deep mourning.

In reality, Siam’s King Mongkut is quite well-versed in Western ways, a worldly scholar and linguist, and a forward thinking Buddhist Monk who attained the throne as King Rama IV following his half-brother’s death in 1851. The widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens was brought to Bangkok by King Mongkut to instruct his children and their mothers in the English language and customs so they could be in a position to lead Siam into a newly emergent socio/economic world order.

Upon further scholarship, Leonowens’ depiction in her two memoirs about her Siam sojourn was not fully truthful to the character and intents of Mongkut. I admit to not remembering much of what I read in Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, except for even now being impressed by how an author can weave her own experiences and research as a Presbyterian missionary in Siam, starting in 1927, with Leonowens’ 1870 and 1872 published stories, and come up with something that continues to touch millions of readers. And therein lies a lesson about memory and being remembered.

Nevertheless, the musical Rodgers and Hammerstein II shaped, following their blockbuster Oklahoma in 1943, and South Pacific in 1949, continues the classic themes and conflicts surrounding miscommunications and misunderstandings arising from cultural differences. Yet, people are people underneath all the layers of disconnects and if, as audience members, we are willing to stretch our own entrenchments, in The King and I we can find our way into listening and hearing; what we are saying, what we are revealing and having to own up to about ourselves, what we need to do to open ourselves to respecting ‘the other.’

I did not experience the 1951 production with original direction by Bartlett Sher or the 2015 Lincoln Center Theater production by re-staging director Shelley Butler, so on March 5, 2019 I allowed the Broadway in Indianapolis production in Clowes Hall to take me along in its unscrolling as a panorama with set pieces and characters moving into view. The Overture set the mood as lights played on the silk fore curtain; the opening scene replete with the deck of the Chow Phya heading directly toward us is as much a forerunner to the in-your-face set pieces, as is Anna’s opening number, “I Whistle a Happy Tune” to hide her terror, despite having spent most of her life within the geographic region—born in India, and much traveled throughout the East thereafter— Anna had opened a girls’ school in Singapore, at which point she was hired by King Mongkut. She served the court from 1862-1867, and was in England on a sick leave when the King died in 1868. She was not invited back by Prince Chulalongkorn, who succeeded his father as king. Even though Anna’s books reportedly remain on sale in Thailand, neither the musical, nor its subsequent iterations have been sanctioned for production in Thailand.

All this said, and knowing this before attending March 5, why did I go? I had learned from friends who did attend the run at Lincoln Center Theater that Shelley Butler’s re-staging had touched upon the essential elements Rodgers and Hammerstein II were essaying, but that had not quite surfaced in the original production. Indeed, by the performance’s close on March 5th, I realized this production pulls at its seams to fit onto our 2019 bodies the original 1951 intent, and why this not-perfect-to-the-truth musical remains important. We now are at a similar crossroad of consequences—how we use language, how we view gender, how we evaluate property, how we generate power, how we learn. Children who have never experienced snow do not believe such a thing exists. I leave it to you to examine the parallels to present conditions of climate, and what or what not to take as truthful based on proven fact.

Risks of letting go of long-held beliefs bombard us from all sides. King Mongkut wanted his children and their mothers, “etc etc etc and so forth” to be prepared to lead Siam as a new generation facing new challenges and consequences forward from the 1860s. While Anna was portraying in her memoirs her point of view, Rodgers and Hammerstein were setting her up to understand another point of view in the musical. A militant 19th Century feminist, Lady Thiang equally has her moment to bring a deeper understanding to Anna about the King with “Something Wonderful,” and to us in the seats with the King’s “A Puzzlement.”

From all accounts, the Lun Tha and Tuptim relationship lacks veracity. It makes for good theater and it does make us think about sex trafficking as a way of life. Don’t we here and now contend with predatory safety of our children? Don’t we still hear about gifts of human beings in exchange for favors?

The opening dance segment delivers an insightful interlude for scene changing. The Fan Dance mesmerizes. The Jerome Robbins ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” remains amazing. Throughout, every cast member delivers 150% as people projected into a particular place and time. The children are motivated to learn, and question. The mothers are concerned about the fate of these children in a world that is demanding change from the norm they know. The leads find the right chemistry to interact with integrity to their respective roles. The voices are excellent, the dancing is well executed, the direction is swift, the orchestra is on target. Setting and costumes are sumptuous; lighting and sound well done.

In this production applause is well-earned Angela Baumgardner as Anna; Pedro Ka’awaloa as King of Siam; Deanna Choi as Lady Thiang; Paulina Yeung as Tuptim; Dongwoo Kang and Brandon Chu alternating as Lun Tha; Bern Tan as Kralahome; Stanton Morales taking on Sir Edward Ramsey and Captain Orton; Timothy Matthew Flores as Prince Chulalongkorn; Hayden Bercy as Louis. The ensemble, including the youthful players as the children, deliver unity and distinctiveness. Anjali Kanter stands out as Little Eva, as well as a Fan Dancer along with Masumi Iwai,

So, attend The King and I, and get a bit uncomfortable by what is metaphor and by what is honest and by what strays from truth; and mostly by what impels us to escape from responsibilities, and by what moves us to action for the greater good. 1862 Siam isn’t that long ago or far away from us here and now, even in this made up from almost real version of the human condition.
Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens and Pedro Ka'awaloa as the King of Siam in Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens and Pedro Ka'awaloa as the King of Siam in Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

Photo © & courtesy of Matthew Murphy


Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens and the Royal Children in Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens and the Royal Children in Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

Photo © & courtesy of Matthew Murphy


DeAnna Choi as Lady Thiang in Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

DeAnna Choi as Lady Thiang in Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

Photo © & courtesy of Matthew Murphy


The Company of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

The Company of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I.

Photo © & courtesy of Matthew Murphy

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