One of the greatest moments in musical theater history, says professor Roger Grodsky, occurs when an English governess and the King of Siam sweep across the stage performing the classic “Shall We Dance?”
Grodsky, who teaches musical theater at the University of Cincinnati’s renowned College-Conservatory of Music, calls the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which includes that iconic polka, a “masterpiece.”
The national tour of “The King and I,” based on the 2015 Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Theatre production, comes to the Schuster Center stage for eight performances Feb. 12-17 as part of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway series. Other famous songs from the show include “Getting to Know You,” “Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers” and “Something Wonderful.” Grodsky says another song from the musical, “We Kiss in Shadow,” has been adopted as an anthem by the gay community.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein were able to take everything that came before them and synthesize it all and make sure all of the elements — singing, dancing, acting — all worked toward one goal,” Grodsky says. “Every element furthers the plot. That’s their contribution to musical theater. Their shows are well written and have great characters.”
The Lincoln Center production was the winner of four Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical. It’s a unique love story, perfect for Valentine’s week.
The East meets West story is based on the real-life adventures of Anna Leonowens, an Englishwoman who traveled to Siam (now Thailand) to serve as governess to the children of King Mongkut in the early 1860s. Her memoir inspired a novel by Margaret Landon entitled “Anna and the King of Siam,” which in turn spawned the musical. The Broadway version, which premiered in 1951, focuses on the stormy relationship between the King and Anna, whom he has hired to help modernize his country by teaching his wives and children.
Initially, explains Grodsky, in shows like “Oklahoma” and “Carousel,” Rodgers and Hammerstein used a paradigm carried over from operettas: there’s a romantic leading couple and a second couple that serves as comic relief. “But by the time of ‘South Pacific’ and ‘The King and I” they were doing their own thing,” he says. “In this show, the King and Mrs. Anna — the romantic couple — aren’t even allowed to touch. The younger couple — Tuptim and Lun Tha — are not a barrel of laughs; one of them dies.”
WHAT MAKES RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN SPECIAL?
Ted Chapin, chief creative officer of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization in New York, ranks “The King and I” as one of the talented team’s top musicals and says it’s their third most-produced show.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein were attracted to stories that had big emotional stakes,” he says. “In this case, there’s a lot at stake — both personally and professionally — for both Mrs. Anna and the King.”
What made the writing team so successful, Chapin believes, is the way the partners approached musical theater. “They operated with one unified voice,” he explains. “If it’s a romantic song like ‘Hello, Young Lovers,” Rodgers would write a lush, romantic melody. On the other hand, if it’s a song like the King’s “Puzzlement” where the lyric leads the way, then Rodgers will write supportive music but not a big lush melody.”
The story appeals to both children and adults. “Kids always like musicals that have children in them and ‘The King and I’ has many children,” says Chapin. “The March of the Siamese Children is a wonderful set piece within the show.”
Adults in the audience, Chapin suggests, might want to look at the way people behave in this play. “Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and go forward, which Mrs. Anna does because she has a job to do, to teach the children. And even though she has issues with pride and the status of her employment, she knows it’s about the kids and she goes to the schoolroom and teaches them. The King learns he can’t get away with bad behavior. Nobody has ever questioned him the way this person does.
“You have a man who is very powerful and believes he can get away with anything — including completely ignoring a promise he has made to provide a house to this woman he has hired to teach his children,” Chapin says. “And from a feminist standpoint, you have a woman who is not fearful of calling him on it.”
Chapin doesn’t believe Rodgers and Hammerstein set out to be great innovators. “They set out to write musicals that attracted them and we are now the beneficiaries of the brilliance these two guys had coming out of their pores.”
PORTRAYING A KING
The character of the King, says Grodsky, can be difficult to play. “You have to be able to see beneath his bluster and see what a groovy guy he is,” he explains. “It’s a hard role.”
Taking up that challenge in Dayton will be Pedro Ka’awaloa, a Harvard University grad who grew up in Hawaii and is also a choir conductor, pianist, musician, teacher, and composer. He says some people arrive at the theater expecting to see actor Yul Brynner, who played the role 4,600 times on Broadway and was also cast in the film.
While Ka’awaloa says he wants to respect and to honor the famous actor, he also wants to bring the character to life in the way his directors envision. This production was directed by Shelley Butler, based on the work of Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher.
Historically speaking, the real king was complex and a very intelligent man, says Ka’awaloa. His research indicated the musical is still banned in Thailand because it disrespects the perception of a king known as the father of science and technology. “He was dealing with Imperialism and Colonialism in this period; Siam was the only country to remain free of foreign occupation during the Colonial period in the mid 1800s.”
“I love this king because we watch him go on a journey,” Ka’awaloa says. “He’s aggressive at the beginning and if he didn’t soften along the way you wouldn’t go on this journey with him. He constantly challenges his own beliefs; he needs and wants someone to make him think, so that he and his country can move forward. It’s all about surviving in the world of Colonialism and still retaining his culture and his country.”
His king can also be humorous. “One of the reasons I fall in love with him every night is that he goes through an array of emotions, and that makes him human,” says Ka’awaloa, who first saw “The King and I” with his grandmother at the age of 13. “I remember the polka, this feeling of joy with everything stripped away and that moment of ecstasy,” he says. “In that moment you see the two worlds colliding, but its not so much a collision as a coming together.”
His hope, he says, is that at the end of this journey the audience has something to take away in their own lives. “No matter what, he is always really listening and looking for other ways to view the world,” says Ka’awaloa. “That’s an important message for us today when there is so much conflict and not a lot of common ground. This king is always looking for common ground.”