THE KING AND I: The Quintessential Director for the Quintessential Production

by Genevieve Holt

It’s not every day that an exquisite, distinguished Broadway revival of a classic musical comes around.  By all accounts, Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I – headed to the Aronoff Stage in April – is one of those.

If you are reviving a classic musical on Broadway these days and you want it to be perfectly done, you’d be hard pressed to find a better director to put at the helm than Bartlett Sher. Sher is one of those artists who seems to hit it out of the park on every project, and he’s particularly known for creating revivals that combine jaw-droppingly gorgeous sets and costumes with immensely talented performers, lush orchestrations and a keen eye for efficient and heartfelt storytelling.  Sher has directed two superb, critically-lauded Broadway revivals in recent years – South Pacific (which played the Aronoff in 2010) and Fiddler on the Roof – and he’ll helm a top-shelf revival of My Fair Lady for Lincoln Center in 2018.

Lincoln Center artistic chief Andre Bishop is a true fan of Sher’s magic touch with revivals.  As he told the New York Times, “Bart has this very interesting ability to zero in on the themes of an old musical that seem to apply to today. He has his own spin, yet clearly honors the original intention, which is why people like him so much.”

Sher and his frequent collaborators Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Michael Yeargen (sets) had a unique challenge when looking to stage this version of The King and I.  The two central characters in the musical are based on real people – King Mongkut of Siam and Anna Leonowens – and the story has a specific historical time and place – Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s.   The threat of western imperialism casts a shadow upon King Mongkut’s country, and he is challenged to find a way to modernize Siam while honoring its traditions. To that end, the King hires Anna Leonowens, an Englishwoman, to provide a western education for his children and wives.

Sher, Zuber and Yeargen sought to take a fresh look at this story and see what new insights they could pull out, much like the musical’s original writing team looked at their source material to see what dramatic interest there would be.  Soon after the enormous success of their musical South Pacific, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s wives enthusiastically recommended they consider Leonowens’ story, as told in the best-selling 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, as possible material for a new musical. Rodgers and Hammerstein resist­ed. Was there a dramatically interesting story buried within the historical facts and details of life at the court of Siam? It wasn’t until they saw the film ad­aptation, a Hollywood hit starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, that they came around. The compelling relationship between the King and Anna, which had been drawn out of Landon’s novel so effectively by the screenwriters, excited them. When the prominent English actress Gertrude Lawrence appealed to Rodgers and Hammerstein to write a musical version she could star in, they finally agreed, creating a musical play whose stage and screen versions would go on to win numerous awards and become one of the most cherished works in musical theater.

So then again in 2015, the new creative team led by Sher set out to figure out what they wanted to draw out of both the original musical as well as the real life stories of these people.   “Everyone who creates a work of art based on a real life has to pick and choose what aspect of the core story he or she wants to use,” says Sher.

When creating the set, the team avoided a literal re-creation of the Royal Palace of Siam, and instead drew upon historical photos of Buddhist temples made of teakwood and gold. They took care to accurately portray the parts of the palace designated for women.  “The King built specific mansions within his palace,” says Yeargen. “Like a suburb, almost, with these huge Western-style houses for his wives.”

They also wanted to make sure the characters and cultures were thoughtfully fleshed out.  “I think we all approached this with a respect for Thai culture and an understanding that it has its own set of rules and traditions,” says Zuber. “The King is a very complex, interesting man, but not evil.  He’s very charming, very open to Western ideas, as demonstrated by the fact that he had Anna come tutor his children.”

The team also had to take a second look at how Rodgers and Hammerstein, with their 1950s sensibilities, portrayed race and culture.  “There is one number called ‘Western People Funny,’” says Sher, “which, in the traditional sense, is an extremely stereotyped song of the Thai, in their naiveté, trying on Western dress and talking – ha, ha, ha – about how Western people are so funny.  Whereas now, I think all you have to do is flip it, and suddenly you look at it from the point of view of the dominant culture instead of the subordinate culture, which is the way Rodgers and Hammerstein looked at it as the “superior” Westerners.  If you flip it, ‘Western People Funny’ becomes ironic.”

This re-examining of the original bears fruit, says Sher.  “The more distance you get on the original production, the deeper you can look.  History and time give us a chance to learn more about what [Rodgers and Hammerstein] were beginning to understand in 1951.  So the benefit of a revival is that we can actually not only stand in awe and incredible devotion to what Rodgers and Hammerstein were able to accomplish way ahead of their time, but perhaps pull even more out of the piece than people had ever understood could be there. And, at the same time, keep it entertaining and buoyant and beautiful.”

“It’s like having one foot in the past as deeply as we can, one foot in the present, and our eyes looking out as far ahead as we can to see how it resonates.”

About the Show
Two worlds collide in the Lincoln Center Theater production of this “breathtaking and exquisite” (The New York Times) musical. One of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s finest works, The King and I boasts a score that features such beloved classics as “Getting To Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance” and “Something Wonderful.”  Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist King brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children. Winner of the 2015 Tony Award® for Best Musical Revival, The King and I is “too beautiful to miss” (New York Magazine).

The King and I plays the Aronoff Center April 10 – 22, 2018.  For more information, visit BroadwayInCincinnati.com.  

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