There really was a king and there really was an I. The king was Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua, more generally known as Mongkut. The “I” was Anna Leonowens — also something of an alias; after the death of her husband, Thomas Leon Owens, she jammed together his middle and last names, which made her sound Welsh. (She was born in India, probably of mixed race.) This was not, apparently, the only expression of her fabulist nature. Though it’s true she spent six years of her young widowhood in Mongkut’s court, as “scientific” teacher to his many children and wives, the memoir she wrote about it would not pass muster with Oprah, especially the parts that seem to paint her as a kind of moral adviser and cultural attaché. By the time the material came into the hands of Rodgers and Hammerstein — via Margaret Landon’s novelization — its connection to history seemed to be completely severed. Siam wasn’t even Siam anymore; it had changed its name to Thailand in 1949.
In a season littered with plays and musicals that purport to tell true stories but don’t, The King and I is (as the king often says) a puzzlement. It is a fiction so well crafted and so profoundly emotional that it pulverizes arguments against appropriation and becomes a form of history itself. Perhaps it is merely history as we would like it to be, but that is in itself an astonishing achievement. In any case, the revival that opened tonight, in a Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe, is too beautiful to miss. It is also, not incidentally, the best (and probably the last) installment of LCT’s Rodgers and Hammerstein rehabilitation project, which began with Carousel in 1994 and continued with South Pacific in 2008. It’s hard to see how the overfamiliarity that had, over the years, bred a certain amount of contempt could survive this trio of excellent revivals, and in particular the strangeness, seriousness, and loveliness of what’s onstage right now.
The stage — as designed by Michael Yeargan and lit by Donald Holder — is a big part of it. The Vivian Beaumont’s vast playing deck, here extended by a thrust that covers most of the orchestra pit for most of the show, helps to suggest both the immensity of the forces at work and the smallness of the people trying to shape them. It also permits a delicious coup de théâtre, right at the start, that has to be seen to be believed: the arrival of Anna’s ship at the port of Bangkok. If it were only to thrill the audience and top the completely different gesture with which Sher began South Pacific, this might come across as a stunt, but it is also an efficient introduction to the story, which is fundamentally about managing the intrusion of one culture into another. It’s an efficient introduction to Anna, too. Perched at the prow in her enormous hoop skirt, she is no demure Victorian violet. She is (despite being accompanied by her 12-year-old son, Louis) a solo act, a bold adventurer, and if not a fearless then a forbidding figure.
What she does in Siam, and what it does to her, are by now familiar. But you may remember the events as prettier than they are. Anna’s first meeting with the king’s prime minister, and soon thereafter with the king himself, are almost entirely confrontational. She is barely polite, and not at all deferential, as she insists on a home outside the palace, as described in her contract of employment. The king refuses to acknowledge that such a promise was even made. Much of The King and I is therefore a labor negotiation, and one of the hundreds of examples of Hammerstein’s mastery is the way he strings individual plot elements like this into necklaces of meaning that usually become nooses. Among the first things Anna encounters at court is the arrival of a young woman named Tuptim, a “present” to Mongkut from the King of Burma. Sher’s staging of the scene, in which Mongkut frankly examines her by drawing aside the folds of her gown, is brutal. Later, Tuptim, who already has a Burmese lover, writes and stages a play for presentation to the king as he entertains foreign dignitaries in hopes of proving that he is not a barbarian. This play, immortalized by Hammerstein as a ballet called The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is an adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s not only a compendium of the show’s themes and images — forced labor, the dignity of home, snow, ice, escape, and sacrifice — but also the catalyst for its mostly tragic conclusion. If you think of “Whistle a Happy Tune” when you think of The King and I, you may be forgetting that it also portrays the conditions of life that may make whistling necessary.
That Rodgers and Hammerstein absorb such dire things under the rubric of a love story does not make them less salient. It does expand the concept of a love story, though, to include relationships that are impossible or unconsummated, one-sided or compulsory, doomed, shared, foregone, and forsaken. In exploring them all, Sher’s production is the frankest, and sexiest, I’ve ever seen. It is also the saddest. All of these qualities are the result of a stripping down of the text to its skin; our era, perhaps, allows him to show plainly what even its authors could only intermittently suggest. (He has also restored a few lines from earlier drafts of the libretto.) In the famous “Shall We Dance” scene following the success of the ball for the visiting dignitaries, when the king suggests that he and Anna try dancing “the way I see Europeans dancing tonight” — with arms enwrapped and bodies touching — we come as close to sex as a four-foot hoop and a great galumphing polka permit. The degree to which you want the characters to acknowledge and act on their attraction is a bit of a shock, considering the personal and cultural implications, but that is exactly where Rodgers and Hammerstein want you, at the intersection of individual emotion and the vastness of history.
It takes extraordinary acting and singing to build and sustain such moments. No surprise that O’Hara handles the singing easily; she has perhaps the most naturally beautiful voice on Broadway. But Anna also gives her the opportunity to dispense with the niceness that has sometimes threatened to flatten her stage persona. She has a terrific sparring partner in Watanabe, a Japanese actor best known here for The Last Samurai. Though he’s occasionally unintelligible, I never failed to understand him, and his conception of the king as a complicated blend of spoiled teenager and spiritual striver made a more convincing case for him than I’ve previously experienced. The rest of the cast — excellent throughout — enhances that case with the strength of unspoken love, especially Paul Nakauchi as the prime minister, Jon Viktor Corpuz as the crown prince, and the powerfully moving Ruthie Ann Miles (recently seen as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love) as the king’s head wife. The many small children of course make the strongest case of all. Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were doing.
And then they didn’t, so much. The King and I, which had its premiere in 1951, was the last of what I’d call their great musicals, either together or separately. There were “interesting” ones still to come, not to mention The Sound of Music, but nothing that reached the same level of songwriting brilliance, political engagement, and dramatic integrity all at once. There is therefore something wonderful, yes, but also quite sad about this end-of-an-era show and its end-of-an-era revival. (Will we ever have an orchestra with 29 players in a pit again?) See it while you can, because — spoiler alert — the king dies.
The King and I is at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.