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THE KING AND I
background and analysis by Scott Miller
Today, at the end of the millennium, many of the leaders and intellectuals of mainland China are wondering how their country can continue to modernize, to compete with the western nations, while still maintaining their cultural identity and traditions. Many wonder if it is even possible. Shanghai, for instance, is a city split between the cultural pride and traditions of China and the developments and economic pressures of the west. All of China faces difficulties in this area, as young Chinese covet designer consumer goods from the west and the yuppie lifestyle they see portrayed on American television, while the older generation worries about the decay of traditional morality and ethics. This friction between east and west has resulted in a generation and culture gap in China far wider than anything America has ever faced. But this is not a new problem in Asia. In fact, this is exactly the problem King Mongkut of Siam faced in the 1860s -- how could he join the company of civilized nations, become respected and competitive among them, without losing the rich history and culture of his beloved Siam, without alienating his people who were not prepared to discard their simple but treasured way of life.
In the 1860s, Anna Leonowens, a widowed British schoolteacher was hired by King Mongkut to come to his country and teach his wives and children the English language and western culture. She wrote of her experiences in a two-volume memoir. Later, Margaret Landon turned Anna's story into a novel called Anna and the King of Siam. A film version was made starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison as the King. British stage star Gertrude Lawrence saw the film and decided the story would make a great musical, with her as Anna. Rodgers and Hammerstein, after some initial objections, agreed to write the show, now called The King and I. Though Lawrence was supposed to be the lead, Yul Brynner became an immediate star playing the King when the show opened on Broadway in 1951. A film version of the musical was made starring Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and Rita Moreno. The stage version won five Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Actress (Lawrence) and Best Supporting Actor (Brynner). The film won six Oscars, including Best Actor for Brynner. By the time Brynner died of lung cancer (he made the film with only one lung), he had played the role of the King on stage 4,625 times. There was even, very briefly (a few months in 1972), a television series based on the story, called Anna and the King, starring Yul Brynner, Samantha Eggar, and Keye Luke.
The King and I has been revived in New York in 1956, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1977 (with Brynner), 1985 (for Brynner's farewell performance after a long tour), and 1996. The 1996 revival, directed by Australian Christopher Renshaw and starring Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips, was a radical re-examination of this show that was intelligent, sexy, and for many people, a genuine revelation. Renshaw had directed the show in Australia with Hayley Mills when Mary Rodgers and others from the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization saw it and asked him to bring it to New York. This production garnered seven Tony nominations, and won four Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Musical.
Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The King and I, is a classic and that had become its greatest handicap. American directors and actors bring too much baggage and too much reverence to the piece, too many recollections of past productions and of the movie, of pop singers' overly soulful renditions of the "hit tunes." As it did with Carousel, it took a foreign director and the 1996 Broadway revival to find again (or perhaps for the first time) the substance, intelligence, and sexuality of this incredible work. Never before had a musical been built around two more complex, more passionate, more intellectually fascinating characters (even Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, in Carousel, didn't have this complexity). Yet because of the time in which the show was originally created and because of our over-familiarity with the story, these two characters had become sanitized, one-dimensional combatants, period-piece Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, their sexual tension almost non-existent.
When Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote and produced the show in 1951, their writing was too far ahead of the moralistic and artistic limitations of contemporary musical theatre. Though musicals could by then tackle weighty subjects (thanks largely to R&H), the conventions and traditions of musical comedy, the inadequate training of musical comedy performers, and the moral climate of the country still got in the way. Actors still performed songs rather than acting them (which wouldn't change until the early 1960s), even in serious musicals. Songs still needed choreography even when there might be nothing to dance about ("Getting to Know You," for example). Actors and directors hadn't yet figured out that all the principles of serious drama could (and should) be applied to serious musical theatre. And though Rodgers and Hammerstein had broken the restrictions of subject matter allowable in a musical, they hadn't really broken free of the structural conventions, needing a secondary couple, needing an explicit romantic love story, needing dance. Still, for too many American theatre artists, this show and others still rest uncomfortably in the time frame in which they were written, and though musical theatre has moved forward, the advances aren't always applied to these older shows. As we must with Show Boat, Carousel, and other older, serious musicals, we have to approach The King and I as if it were a brand new show, forgetting all preconceived notions we may have.
Hammerstein was a passionate and very vocal critic of racism in any form (as evidenced by the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" in South Pacific). So it was surely unintentional, but Hammerstein's book and lyrics are somewhat condescending toward the culture and people of Siam (now Thailand). The Siamese were laughed at throughout the show, with no acknowledgement of the racism, arrogance, and dismissal of Siamese traditions by the intrusive westerners. Forty years later, director Christopher Renshaw came at the story from a different perspective. He had actually lived in Thailand for a while and genuinely understood and respected the Thai traditions and culture. He insisted that the costumes, set decorations, and other visual elements were as close to authentic as possible. He also began the show with a Thai prayer ceremony to establish for the audience the seriousness with which this culture would be treated. He even cut one song that seemed condescending, "Western People Funny."
Renshaw also made a significant change to the King's death scene. Instead of setting it off to the side or in back as usual (which was supposed to show how the King is no longer the center of power, having passed that on to the crown prince), Renshaw placed the King down front. Renshaw explained in several interviews when the revival opened that the Thai people believe everyone has two souls. One of those souls is the "kwan," a person's sense of self, his confidence, his self-respect. They believe that you can lose your kwan through the top of your head, which is why they all wear their hair in top knots (and why the King should never be played bald), to keep the kwan in. When the King has finally lost his self-confidence, largely through Anna's doing, he has lost his kwan and therefore he dies. That's why Lady Thiang and the Kralahome try so hard to get Anna to stop her attacks on the King's beliefs and traditions; they worry about him losing his kwan. His death scene is extremely significant and consistent with Thai beliefs, and Renshaw didn't think it should be minimized. In a way, he has sacrificed himself so that his country may move forward; but also, in a way, Anna has killed him.
Despite our expanded understanding in the 1990s of Thai cultural and people, we can't forget that Rodgers and Hammerstein were still taking great strides and risking commercial success by creating this amazing musical, the most subtextual love story the musical theatre had ever seen. Not a single direct word is ever spoken about the central love story (perhaps the team were hedging their bets with Tuptim and Lun Tha), and the lead couple didn't even get a love song (unless you count "Shall We Dance"). This is a show about the complexity of real love, not the idealized, simplified love usually found in musical comedies of the 1940s and 1950s. This was an impossible love, an adult, intellectual and political Romeo and Juliet. This was not entirely new territory for Rodgers and Hammerstein, after Carousel (which centered on a terribly dysfunctional relationship and a male lead who died in Act I) and South Pacific (which complicated love with war, racial prejudice and death). But Rodgers and Hammerstein generally dealt with American themes, and this was the first time one of their shows was almost entirely about another culture, a theme they had touched on in South Pacific.
It's interesting to note that though Anna is listed first in the title of the book and movie (Anna and the King of Siam), the title of the musical puts the King first. It may help to know something about the real King Mongkut, although we have to keep in mind that where there are discrepancies between the character and the real King, the character as he is written is whom the actor is playing, not the real guy. The real King Mongkut was very educated himself and understood the social, economic, and political value of education. King Mongkut was intelligent, forward thinking, and decidedly visionary in many ways, although he had many obstacles in front of him. His nobles were actively plotting against him, the people of his country were slow to change and often afraid of change, and the Siamese were deathly afraid of being colonized by England and France, thereby losing their independence. He was tough to get along with but ultimately fair; after all, he did finally agree to give Anna the house he had promised her. And itís at this moment in the show, at the end of Act I, when the King finally agrees to give Anna a house, that she finally sees him as an honorable man, a trait very important to her, and itís that moment that she falls in love with him.
King Mongkut was not afraid to admit he was wrong, but he had to be careful; he had to do it delicately, without disturbing his people's faith and belief in his leadership; after all, they believed he was divinely inspired. King Mongkut really had to be two people: an old-fashioned feudal lord and religious leader, and also a modern intellectual political leader having to function in a increasingly civilized world. Part of Anna's problem in dealing with the King is that she never knows which of these two personas she's dealing with from moment to moment, and each persona requires an entirely different tack.
The book Anna and the King of Siam provides some interesting info on the real King Mongkut. He should've been crowned king as a young man, when his father died, but his older brother usurped the throne until Mongkut was of age. Mongkut left his wife and children to enter the priesthood, in order to escape being murdered. He became a multi-lingual scholar and rose to become a high priest, studying French, English, and Latin with western missionaries. He was also a mathematician and an astronomer, and he set up Siam's first printing press, to print in both English and Siamese. While he was a priest he reformed Buddhism, by setting up a reform movement within the church and re-organizing the entire church while he was a high priest. This was not an ignorant, barbaric king.
The King knew that for his country to survive, his people must be educated, and he would begin with the royal children and the royal wives. In Mongkut's actual letter to Anna, he asked her to teach English, science and literature, but not Christianity, because Siam needed knowledge but not a new religion. He wrote:
And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children . . . you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religion.
The Conscience of a King
We learn about characters by what they say, what they do, and what others say about them. In The King and I, the King rarely says what he feels, and few others are allowed to say what they really think about him, but his behavior speaks volumes. This is a character drawn largely through subtext, which makes it perilously easy to play superficially but also wonderfully full and complex when played intelligently. We see what he thinks of women by the way he treats his wives, by the way that he assumes Anna can be easily dominated merely because she's a woman, and most importantly, that Anna will be more like his wives than like him. He soon finds out exactly the opposite is true. Anna and the King are very much alike in many ways and that forms the basis of their considerable attraction to each other.
The "March of the Siamese Children" scene tells us a great deal about the King's relationship with his children, and his assumptions about Anna. He is stern but he loves them. There are tiny glimpses of his love throughout the scene, and he shows more tolerance with the littler ones. They know that he is a strict disciplinarian but they are not genuinely afraid of him. He cares a great deal about their future, and he wants them to be educated. He also gambles that presenting the children to Anna will wear her down and convince her to stay. He uses the children to dissipate her anger, and it works. This scene shows several sides of the King's personality, and Anna gets her first look at his good traits.
No one knows the King better than Lady Thiang, and her song "Something Wonderful," is an important peek into his personality. Sometimes he's difficult, sometimes he's thoughtless, sometimes he's even mean. But he is a good man, and when his darker side comes out, Lady Thiang knows that he is trying, and she supports him. He is doing great things for Siam (including bringing Anna to the Palace), and has a tough road to navigate ahead of him. She knows that Anna is becoming a confidant to the King and she wants Anna to understand his contradictions. Maybe she feels a bit of resentment toward Anna, that Anna has in some ways taken Lady Thiang's place in the King's life, but she knows that this arrangement is important for Siam, so she will accept it. Lady Thiang says at one point, "I am not equal to his special needs." The King is straddling two worlds, and every day he has to make difficult decisions about what and how much should change. Lady Thiang wants Anna to understand that Siam cannot -- and should not -- become a fully Western country. There are many things about Siam and its culture that are good and strong, and those things must be preserved. Unfortunately, Anna does not understand that.
The King sees a great deal of value in Western ways. He wants to learn the West's "scientific ways," but is he forsaking his own culture? Siam must be able to compete in the world and he as King must be respected. He can't allow Western countries to think that the people of Siam are barbarians who can be easily taken over. He must preserve Siam's independence, and that means projecting an image of civilization and progress, as defined by the Western countries. But more than that, the King finds the West endlessly fascinating. His mind is hungry to learn about the world around him. He is already an accomplished scholar and he wants to know more. In his mind, Anna represents westernization, and we see from the beginning that he will fall in love with Anna. In "Something Wonderful," Lady Thiang says that the King is a man who thinks with his heart, which is not always wise, and she is right on target; and perhaps she knows him well enough to see early on that he will fall for Anna. But Anna is a big challenge -- and a dangerous one -- just like Westernization, and the King must win, for himself and for his country. At its core, this show is about the battle between faith and knowledge, religion and science, as personified by the King and Anna.
Anna proves most difficult when it comes to Siamese culture and beliefs. She refuses to follow the rules about seeing the King, how to speak to him, and other things. The rules are there for a reason, and the King is used to them being followed. The King wants to pay some respect to Anna, because he does genuinely respect her, but she makes it so hard. She treats the rules of the Palace with such disrespect. She pays no respect to the Kralahome, a high official, a man who has risen to a position of great authority and someone who should be respected. But because she doesn't understand the culture and doesn't understand the Kralahome's position, she dismisses him as unimportant. And what's worse, the King does nothing about that. In her lesson before "Getting to Know You," Anna discards everything the children know and believe like a bull in a china shop. She replaces their map, thereby replacing their entire worldview, forcing them suddenly to come to terms with how small their country is, how insignificant it seems. She tells them about snow, and other things, without understanding how profoundly this will shock them. When the Crown Prince objects to her statements (as anybody would), the King arrives and scold them all for not believing Anna. The Prince and the others are left reeling from this information, so different from what they thought they knew.
And when it comes to the slavery issue, we all agree with Anna that slavery is wrong. Yet it was an important part of Siamese culture, and her awkward, bull moose efforts to change things do not take into account the cultural context. There are better ways to change things. Anna gives Tuptim -- already an unhappy slave -- Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin and starts a firestorm. Tuptim writes a dramatic presentation of the novel for the party for the English, and embarrasses the King in front of some very important guests. Finally, when the King is about to whip Tuptim for trying to escape, Anna intercedes and shames him into not whipping Tuptim. Though slavery is objectively morally wrong, though Tuptim was trying to escape a morally outrageous situation, still Anna has not merely changed the system; she has taken the King's control away from him, has stripped him of his authority and self-respect. If a woman -- an outsider, no less -- can control the King's actions merely by staring him down, then how can his subjects be expected to follow his commands? If Anna can defy the King, why shouldn't Lady Thiang and his other wives defy him whenever they disagree with him? After the whipping scene, Anna and the Kralahome have the following exchange:
Anna: I shall never understand you -- you or your King. I shall never understand him.
kralahome: You! You have destroyed him. You have destroyed King. He cannot be anything that he was before. You have taken all this away from him
At least Anna has finally figured out that she doesn't know everything. But she has no idea what she has done. The Kralahome is right. She has destroyed the King. You might argue that a monarchy is not a ideal form of government anyway, so why not strip the King of his power? But Anna single-handedly destroys Siam's only form of government, and she offers nothing in its place. She feels moral outrage -- and perhaps she should -- but, like the King, she is thinking with her heart, not her mind, and she is doing great damage she can't undo. The King's attraction to Anna is easy to understand. Not only is she Western, she is a strong, intelligent, independent woman. She is more like him than like his wives, and perhaps a little narcissism is at play here as well. She's a worthy opponent, a strong sparring partner. She question his ideas, forcing him to articulate them, to alter them, to fix them in their best form. He sees in her so many of his own traits, and therefore finds solace in the fact that so many of his traits are "Western" traits. And yet, he can't be with her. She is a foreigner. She is his employee. She is a Christian. And her constant arguing and contradicting him is unseemly and shows disrespect. He has very strong feelings for her that rage against his feelings of loyalty to Lady Thiang, to his country, to his government, to his culture.
"Shall We Dance" is the play's obligatory moment, that moment toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it comes. That scene is what the whole play is about. Finally, the physical attraction is satisfied. They can touch. This is a big deal in Siamese culture, and they know it. As she teaches him to dance, the dance becomes a metaphor for monogamy. She is metaphorically teaching him how to be monogamous, and as he does with everything else, he learns quickly. This is the last step in converting the King -- and in killing him. Just as he finds the joy in romance, in one-to-one pairing with someone who is his equal, he also loses his self -- his kwan. When the whipping scene comes, the King realizes that he can no longer live without Anna's respect, so he gives in to her moral pressure. But by gaining her respect, he sacrifices everyone else's. He essentially gives up his throne. He can no longer rule as he once did.
Anna begins the story as a terrified 28 year old widow (despite the rather advanced age of many of the actresses whoíve played her) with a small boy, making a journey halfway around the world, coming to a land where she does not speak the language, a land where she knows from the get-go that weakness will be her downfall. "Whistle a Happy Tune" is more important than it may at first seem. Her behavior throughout the show, her temper tantrums, the way she repeatedly stands up to the King, are all ways of "whistling," of pretending she's brave when she's really scared. But she has been on her own before. Her parents went to India without her when she was six. Her father (an army captain, like Tom) died when she was seven. She didn't join her now remarried mother in India until she was fifteen. And while she was there, she learned to believe that Western beliefs, or more specifically British beliefs, were superior to all other cultures. And she saw Britain take over India, further reinforcing her belief that the West was stronger and better than the East. She met Tom (Leon, in real life) when she was fifteen, and married him when she was seventeen. They had a daughter, who died within a few months, and Anna mother's died soon after. They returned to London and had another baby, a boy, who died after a few hours. She had two more children in London, who survived. When Anna was twenty-five, Leon/Tom died in India. One year later, the King Mongkut of Siam wrote to Anna, asking her to come to Siam. She needed the money or she would have to borrow from her stepfather, so she went. And though she arrived scared of the unknown, her life had prepared her to keep a stiff upper lip and never to show her weakness. This was the Anna who charged into the King's Palace, who confronted him at every turn, who challenged his every belief, and who fell in love with his confidence, his intelligence, and his thirst for knowledge. (And let's not forget that the King went around half-naked all the time, which would have been quite a turn on for a young woman from Victorian England.)
Hello Young Lovers
Rodgers & Hammerstein fought convention at every turn, discarded old rules and made up new ones (which would then become the new conventions which the next generation, led by Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim, would discard). But The King and I would be the last time Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote a truly ground-breaking show. Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Cinderella, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music would never again draw the complex, fascinating relationships the team had created in their early shows. Never again would they write a score that could compare with the complexity of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, or The King and I.
Still, here in The King and I rules were still being broken. Tuptim and Lun Tha, the secondary couple, are not funny -- in fact they are horribly tragic -- and more startling, they're the only overtly romantic couple in the show. The love between the two main lovers (Anna and the King) had to be entirely subtextual. So the two love songs, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed," both belong to Tuptim and Lun Tha, and yet both songs are love songs with a dark side. "We Kiss in a Shadow" is about how much they love each other even though they can't show their love. And "I Have Dreamed" is about how their love affair has only been consummated in their dreams, and we know that despite Lun Tha's dreams, they will never be able to really be together. Their love is a doomed love. Both couples in The King and I have a love that can never be spoken out in the open, that can never be fully expressed. Anna and the King cannot even express their love to each other; at least Tuptim and Lun Tha can tell each other, even though if they're caught they'll probably be killed. Not your average romantic leads. After writing Tuptim and Lun Tha, Anna and the King, Billy Bigelow and Julie, Emile DeBecque and Nellie Forbush, Lt. Cable and Liat, did Rodgers & Hammerstein just run out of ideas?
That Tuptim can read is significant; that Anna gives her Uncle Tom's Cabin to read is even more significant. (Did Anna give her that particular book on purpose?) The bravery it takes for Tuptim to present this play, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is extraordinary. She knows she will likely be punished, but really, how much worse could her situation be? What has she got to lose? She wants to open the King's eyes. She wants the King to see the parallels between the story and real life events. But the character who parallels the King is the evil, nasty "King Simon of Legree." Surely, she can't think insulting the King will further her cause. Or is she just like Anna and the King, thinking with her heart instead of her mind? Her play is beautifully done (especially with Jerome Robbins' original choreography, fortunately preserved in the film version). It's funny, too, if you know the story of the novel, to see how Tuptim translates uniquely American ideas and idioms into her own culture, how she inserts Buddha into the story, how she explains what snow and ice are, something an American reader wouldn't have to do. But it's also sobering, to see this tale of slavery, as told through the lens of an actual slave.
Tuptim is also significant in that she is the instrument of destruction between Anna and the King. Tuptim's fate is the issue over which Anna and the King finally find themselves in a confrontation over which neither is prepared to back down. (And it's right after their moment of greatest joy, in "Shall We Dance.") Anna had given Tuptim the book way back at the beginning of the show, Anna helped Tuptim and Lun Tha meet secretly, Anna arranged for Tuptim to perform her play at the party, and now Anna must lose her relationship with the King over Tuptim. This is the only musical in which the love of the secondary couple destroys the love of the primary couple.
Ultimately, Lun Tha is killed, like Lt. Cable in South Pacific. Though both romantic couples here are unconventional, Rodgers & Hammerstein keep the secondary couple secondary by killing the man, keeping the love forever impossible. But in this case, they also kill the man in the primary romantic couple, which of course makes their love even more tragic than before, and like West Side Story, both women have to go on living without their loves. Perhaps Anna's loss is tempered by the fact that she must now stand by the Prince as he becomes the new King, that she still has a purpose in this Palace. And it is some consolation that Prince Chululongkorn agrees with her in many ways. Her battles are finally won, and thanks to the Prince, the government will not fall. The Prince perhaps can see what happened to his father, his confusion, his inability to navigate both worlds at once, and now Chululongkorn sees an opportunity to start fresh, without expectations, to begin anew. Perhaps by watching his father and Anna butt heads, he has learned important lessons, and now he can take the best of both worlds to lead his country toward the future.
Richard Rodgers needed a score for The King and I that sounded at once foreign and accessible to the Western ears of his audience. Like many other Western composers before him, he took one aspect of Oriental music, and sprinkled it throughout the score -- the open fifth chord (or when turned upside down, an open fourth). He used this chord throughout the show, most obviously perhaps in The Small House of Uncle Thomas when the chorus sings "Praise to Buddha." He also achieved a "foreign" sound by using chords that don't belong in the key of the song. In "Something Wonderful," the song is in A major, but Rodgers used lots of G-sharp major chords, chords that are just not found in that key. It gives the song an exotic, foreign feel that still isn't too strange to Western ears.
It's interesting, too, that the though the songs the Siamese characters sing are "fake Oriental," the songs sung by Anna are more conventional in their harmonies and rhythms. "Hello Young Lovers" alternates between a bacarolle, a staple of operetta, which gives the song not only a Western feel but also a period feel, and a traditional waltz. Anna switches into the waltz whenever she slips back into her own memories. "I Whistle a Happy Tune" is a traditional 4/4 show tune. "Getting to Know You" is a soft-shoe. "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You" is the kind of musical scene Rodgers and Hammerstein perfected in Carousel. And "Shall We Dance" is a good old-fashioned polka. But the other songs in the score, those sung by the King, by Lady Thiang, by Tuptim and Lun Tha, are full of open fifths, chords outside the key of the song, and other dissonances. None of this is really Asian music, but real Asian music is extremely difficult for Western ears to understand, so Rodgers has chosen a sound that is foreign to us. He tells us it's Asian and we accept that.
The exception to this are Tuptim and Lun Tha's two love songs. They retain some of the open fifths of the other "Oriental" music, but they are far less dissonant. Instead they are very simple musically, almost stagnant, very minimalist. The bridge to "We Kiss in a Shadow" still uses several chords outside the home key, like "Something Wonderful" does. "I Have Dreamed" is a pretty conventional love song, but its bridge uses that minimal accompaniment figure much like the one in "We Kiss in a Shadow," which serves to a small degree to unify the young lovers' music.
The music for the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, written by dance arranger Trude Rittmann, is the most dissonant of anything in the score. The music is very foreign, full of strange harmonies and rhythms. It's interesting to note, though, the two musical themes from earlier in the show that pop up in the ballet. When the angel comes down and freezes the river, Eva learns to skate to the music of "Hello Young Lovers," and when King Simon of Legree shows up to chase Eva across the river, the music turns to "A Puzzlement," a reference perhaps to the King's inability to see right from wrong?
One of the most dramatic moments is one of the smallest ones. The crossover before Act I, scene 3, the priests enter and cross the stage singing their chant, as the children enter from the opposite side of the stage, singing "Thereís No Place Like Home." First, it demonstrates Annaís Ė and therefore the Westís Ė influence on the children, and itís funny because it is further advancing Annaís campaign to get her own house by using the Kingís children against him. But more importantly, it contrasts the priests and the children, the old Siamese ways with the future of Siam, and of course, the Westernization of the future of Siam. The children are signing Annaís song and it subtly suggests that the future will adopt Western ways and, at least to some extent, reject the old Siamese ways.
There are several musical scenes in The King and I. The King's "A Puzzlement" and "Song of the King," and Anna's "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You" are all free form musical scenes, very much like Billy's "Soliloquy" and the Bench Scene in Carousel, only shorter. And there's a liberal amount of underscoring in the show, using themes from the songs to identify characters and their emotions. After the King and Anna have their argument in the classroom, and Anna storms out, the underscoring plays "A Puzzlement" as the King tries to figure out what just happened. This will be his "problem" theme. Itís significant that Hammerstein dramatizes the fact that the King is puzzled, confused, even before Anna arrives. Heís been thinking about all these things already; Anna just adds to his confusion When Anna suggests to the King that they have a party for the English and dress the women in European dresses, the music underneath is "Hello Young Lovers," as Anna remembers back to the parties of her youth, the parties she attended with her husband Tom. But as the King's mind turns to the logistics of how to pull off this party, the music changes to "A Puzzlement," again, the King's "problem" theme. In fact, this time, the music is the bridge from "A Puzzlement," the part in which he wonders if he should form alliances with foreign countries.
When Lady Thiang confronts Tuptim in Act II, we hear "We Kiss in a Shadow," Tuptim's love theme about forbidden love. As it looks like Tuptim and Lun Tha might actually run away together, they say their good-byes to Anna over "Hello Young Lovers" Anna's love theme. Later, when she is caught escaping and Lun Tha is killed, Tuptim says she will join Lun Tha in death, and we hear "My Lord and Master" laying underneath, her theme of disobedience. When Anna reads the letter from the King, expressing his gratitude to her, we hear "Something Wonderful," and as the next transition scene opens, we hear a very slow "Shall We Dance," as Anna remembers how much she loves the King. And again, as the King dies, we hear "Something Wonderful" again. He was a good King, and Anna has stayed because she loved him and believed in him -- perhaps even more than Lady Thiang. It's only when Anna has learned what Lady Thiang knew all along that the story is done, that Anna and the King's relationship is finally in balance. And it reminds us of a lyric from "Getting to Know You," early in the show, about how teachers can also be taught by their pupils. Anna came here to teach the people of Siam, but true to that lyric, she ends up learning a great deal from them, especially from her unofficial pupil, the King.
Once again, Anna has lost a man she loved. But this time, she has a family around her (quite a large one) and a reason to stay.
The script to The King and I is not available commercially, but the vocal selections and the score both are. You can only get the script through the Rodgers & Hammerstein Theatre Library. The movie version, which includes Jerome Robbins' "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet is available on videotape. The original Broadway cast recording is available on CD, as are several revival cast albums. But the best cast album is the 1996 Broadway revival with Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips, mainly because it's the best acted. A recording of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" is available only on the cast album of Jerome Robbins' Broadway; it has not been put on any of the King and I cast albums (because of its length). Margaret Langdon's novel Anna and the King of Siam is available and probably at your local library, and the first, non-musical film based on it is also on video.
Excerpt (expanded and revised) from Deconstructing Harold Hill by Scott Miller (Heinemann Publishing, 1999). All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.