The King and I Leans In

The King and I Kelli O'Hara and Jose Llana The King and I Bartlett Sher: Director Lincoln Center Theater Production Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik nyc 212-362-7778

Watching the gorgeous production of The King and I now playing at Lincoln Center Theater, I could barely contain my anticipation for what I call “the Moment.” It happens during the song “Shall We Dance?” when the King puts his hand on Miss Anna’s waist and they waltz. Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe, the stars who opened the current revival, had terrific chemistry. When Watanabe pulled O’Hara close to his body, he said one word: “Come!” They danced, the audience sighed, and the show soared. So imagine my surprise to read O’Hara’s observation that the relationship between the King and Miss Anna “is so much more than just physical attraction.”

Watanabe has echoed his costar’s point: “The King starts to experience feelings that are new to him. But they aren’t sexual.” Instead, the show’s Tony-winning director, Bartlett Sher, has extracted a feminist message from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical, giving us a King and I for the 21st century. As Sher told the Lincoln Center Theater Review, “Women’s position in the world’s culture is paramount,” and his revival is about “the possibilities and possible journeys of women within a culture.” Sher credits New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof with the inspirational idea that the most dangerous thing in the developing world is the education of women, giving them books. In this light, Sher sees the character of Tuptim, a young woman “given” to the King of Siam by the King of Burma, as a “change agent.” Miss Anna gives Tuptim a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which begins a chain of events that ultimately leads to a more enlightened Siam. After hearing the young prince’s new proclamation against bowing, the King says to Miss Anna, “I believe [this] to be your fault!” She responds proudly, “Oh, I hope so, Your Majesty. I do hope so.”

The story of Anna Leonowens—a widowed Anglo-Indian woman who traveled to Bangkok in 1862 to teach the King of Siam’s 39 wives and concubines and 82 children—inspired Margaret Landon’s 1944 best-seller Anna and the King of Siam. Two years later, the book became a hit film starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. Gertrude Lawrence, legendary Broadway and West End star, thought this tale of East meets West would be a perfect stage vehicle for herself. She desperately wanted Broadway’s most successful musical team, Rodgers and Hammerstein, to write the show, but they wanted no part of the project (or of the difficult Lawrence)—until they saw the film adaptation and found the story “irresistible.” Lawrence’s health began to fail after The King and I opened on Broadway, in March 1951, and on her deathbed the following year, she asked that her costar, Yul Brynner, be given top billing. The show became a star vehicle for Brynner, who went on to play the King more than 4,600 times.

Japanese movie star Watanabe (The Last Samurai) made his Broadway debut at the age of 55 in Sher’s King and I, and he’s very well aware of the long shadow Brynner casts on the role of the King—including that iconic bald head. Watanabe lamented, “If I try it with hair, they will think, Who is he playing?” But he hoped his performance would give audiences a fuller picture of the King and make them “forget about Yul Brynner.” Broadway veteran O’Hara finally won the best leading actress in a musical Tony for The King and I, after five previous nominations. She told NPR she admired Anna Leonowens’s self-creation. “She made herself up in order to have a job, in order to take care of her children after her husband died,” O’Hara said. “She did things that she had to do. And then she wrote books about it.”

O’Hara leads a cast of 49 under Sher’s brilliant direction. Watanabe, who recently left the show for a prior film commitment, has been replaced with Jose Llana (pictured above), who starred as Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne’s recent off-Broadway hit Here Lies Love. In fact, a little reunion for that show is happening at Lincoln Center: Ruthie Ann Miles, Llana’s costar as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love, has won a Tony for her incredible performance as Lady Thiang in The King and I, while Conrad Ricamora, Love’s Ninoy Aquino, now has hearts fluttering as Lun Tha.

Sher has acknowledged, in directing such classics as South Pacific and The King and I, that he must balance his desire to dig deeper into their texts with a need to preserve what audiences “love about them, and how much they moved them or made them cry.” His strategy is certainly working. The Wall Street Journal raved, “I doubt I’ll see a better production of The King and I in my lifetime,” and The Washington Post gushed, “This just may be, in fact, the finest staging of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in my experience.” I too feel the Lincoln Center production, which won this year’s Tony for best revival of a musical, is the play’s definitive staging. Sher’s emphasis on female empowerment has deepened the dialogue, but I still experience The King and I as a love story. My fellow audience members sobbed audibly during the final scene, when Anna and the King bid each other farewell. Surely, we were all remembering the transcendent moment when the pair waltzed and everything wonderful seemed possible.

Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik