The King and I

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Editors: David M. Galens and Lynn M. Spampinato
Date: 1998
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The King and I


In this romantic musical, the boy-meets-girl plot is woven into the historical context of British Imperialism in Asia. Thus it is also the story of a clash between cultures and the dynamics between Great Britain and “oriental” peoples. The King of Siam invites an English governess to come to his country and teach the children of his many wives about the modern world. Yet he himself resists changing his traditional role as benevolent patriarchal dictator until the attractive and bold young governess wins his heart and his respect. It is his son Prince Chulalongkorn who will carry on the King’s program of scientific modernization of Siam after the King’s death in the final scene. Oscar Hammerstein based the play on a novel by Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam. He and composer Richard Rodgers transformed it into one of the most memorable musicals they produced in their long association together, departing from the more typical “musical comedy” with a more serious treatment of their subject. Yul Brynner played the king in the Broadway production and then in the film version with co-star Deborah Kerr, whose singing was dubbed. Over the years Brynner performed the role over 4,000 times. The film was a box-office success and is still considered one of the better musical films of the twentieth century. The play’s enduring popularity was verified in 1996, when film star Lou Diamond Phillips assumed the title role for a successful Broadway revival.

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While both Rodgers and Hammerstein are credited as the authors of The King and I, there was a distinct division of labor in the writing of the play-as there was with all of their collaborations. Technically, Rodgers is the author of the music and Hammerstein the author of the lyrics and book (or story). This section focuses on Hammerstein’s background, as he is the author of the material this entry will examine.

Oscar Hammerstein II was born July 12, 1895, in New York City to a family with deep roots in the theatre. Although the Hammerstein family myth holds that Oscar was discouraged from going into the theater, he could have heard of little else at family gatherings. His grandfather and namesake Oscar Hammerstein spent the fortune he made on cigar-rolling inventions building new theaters in New York City and investing in the staging of operas. He passed his interest on to his two sons, Willy and Arthur. Oscar II’s father Willy Hammerstein managed a highly successful vaudeville house and his uncle Arthur was the producer who gave Oscar his first theater job—assistant stage manager, which he began at the age of twenty-two. Oscar’s decision to take the theater job ended his plans to finish law school at Columbia University. Not that his heart was in the law anyway—he decided to attend Columbia more for dramatic activities such as its annual varsity show than its law program. Once launched into the world of the theater, he stayed there for the rest of his life.

By the time he teamed up with Richard Rodgers in 1942 to work on Oklahoma!, he had already collaborated on forty-five musicals, including the groundbreaking Show Boat with Jerome Kern. Together, Rodgers and Hammerstein would set the standard for the “musical play” for the next two decades, churning out nine memorable productions for the stage (in addition to Oklahoma! they wrote Carousel, Allegro, South Pacific, The King And I, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound Of Music), the film musical State Fair, and the television production Cinderella. Hammerstein’s lyrics are known not for their clever wit but for their simplicity and directness, their sincere emotion. He took great pains to make smooth transitions between the spoken dialogue of his plays and the songs. Sometimes Rodgers would write the music first and Hammerstein fit the lyrics to it, and at other times Hammerstein created the mood and

Oscar Hammerstein II, author of book and libretto Oscar Hammerstein II, author of book and libretto

rhythm in his lyrics and then Rodgers, always one who composed quickly, would in a day or so compose the music for it. Their partnership was known for its compatibility and fertile productivity and for their congeniality toward their casts. Oscar Hammerstein II died in 1960, Richard Rodgers in 1979.


In Bangkok, Siam (which would later come to be known as Thailand), in 1862 a strong-willed, widowed schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, arrives at the request of the King of Siam to tutor his many children. Anna’s young son, Louis, fears the severe countenance of the King’s “Prime Minister” the Kralahome, but Anna refuses to be intimidated. She teaches her son to “Whistle a Happy Tune” whenever he is afraid. The Kralahome escorts them to the palace; he rides on a carried chair, while Anna and her son follow on foot behind him. Anna is bristling to confront the King about his broken promise regarding a house for Louis and herself outside of the palace walls. As they await an audience, the King receives a gift from the king of Burma, a

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Richard Rodgers, composer Richard Rodgers, composer

lovely girl named Tuptim. The King sends her off to his harem of wives, dismissing the young man who delivered the gift, Lun Tha, who has fallen deeply in love with Tuptim. The King turns to go, so Anna marches up to him, demanding to be heard. She is taken aback by the King’s dominance, as he claps his hands and orders her to “stand here” to meet the royal children. Anna plans to depart on the waiting ship if she does not get what has been promised to her, but she is so taken with the children that she decides she will stay. She announces that she will pursue the topic of the house later.

For the next several weeks, Anna proceeds to teach the children songs, proverbs, and poems all having to do with longing for a home. The King recognizes her subterfuge and refuses to supply the house. The handful of wives who also have been allowed to partake of Anna’s teaching continually refer to Anna as “Sir.” When she asks them why, Lady Thiang, the King’s number one wife, explains “because you scientific, not lowly like woman.” Tuptim reveals her secret love for Lun Tha to Anna, and Anna sings “Hello, Young Lovers,” in sympathy for the star-crossed couple.

The King is quite pleased with Anna’s teaching. His eldest son Prince Chulalongkorn has some concerns, however. The young prince asks his father when he will know he knows everything and thus be ready to rule. This prompts the King to sing “A Puzzlement,” in which he expresses his own doubts about how best to bring justice and knowledge to his people. In the meantime, Anna confirms that she loves the children, singing to them “Getting to Know You,” a song about the joys of new friendship. Then she launches into a new lesson—geography—having just received a more accurate map from England. The new map shows Siam in its proper size in relation to other countries. She has to end her lesson prematurely, though, when Prince Chulalongkorn refuses to believe that Siam is so small and that there is such a substance as snow. His father rescues Anna by ordering the children to believe her.

The Kralahome demands that Anna cease encouraging the King to modernize; he foresees danger ahead because he thinks that the King will not be able to lead effectively if he loses his authoritarian style. When Anna disregards this warning, the Kralahome retorts by predicting she’ll become the King’s slave. As if to confirm this, the King sends for Anna in the middle of the night and demands that she take a letter. During this menial task, to which Anna submits because she is charmed by the King’s desire to write to Abraham Lincoln, the King extracts from Anna the promise that she will conform to the tradition of never letting her head be higher than the King’s. In spite of her scientific and liberal beliefs, Anna promises to comply.

During another confrontation between Anna and the King, he finally articulates the phrase that Anna least wants to hear, “You are my servant!” Now Anna can no longer pretend to herself that she has not submitted to the King’s will, and she threatens to leave, saying “I cannot stay in a country where a promise has no meaning.” Anna is awaiting the next available ship when Lady Thiang comes to seek Anna’s help in advising the King on a new matter of great urgency. She sings “Something Wonderful,” expressing her way of loving a man who is both brutal and unexpectedly generous. Anna recognizes the wisdom and grace of Lady Thiang’s kind of love.

Anna agrees to go to the King and to protect his male ego by acting as though she is not there to help him. The problem is that rumors have reached Queen Victoria that the King of Siam is a barbarian. If that is the case, or even if the perception is generally accepted, then the Queen will have little

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Yul Brynner as the King and Deborah Kerr as Anna in the film adaptation Yul Brynner as the King and Deborah Kerr as Anna in the film adaptation

trouble making a protectorate of Siam. The King cleverly demands that Anna “guess” what he should do, thus opening the door for her to give him some much-needed advice. She guesses that he will entertain the British Ambassador and the prominent British citizens of Bangkok, to demonstrate his civility. The King is elated and he rushes all of his women, Anna included, off to the Buddhist in order to pray for success. Amid his wishes and demands that Anna supervise sewing European dresses for each of his many wives, he at last promises to give Anna her house.

The European style dinner and entertainment have the desired effect. Tuptim has written a play for the entertainment of the notables, an Asian-style version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The guests find the King witty, love Tuptim’s play, and toast the continued sovereignty of Siam. The King has won. However, he is disturbed by the note of rebellion he and Anna each have detected in Tuptim’s play. The cruel Simon Legree, whom Tuptim has transformed into a King rather than the plantation owner he was in Stowe’s novel, drowns in the pursuit of the escaped slave Eliza. The King knows that Tuptim is unhappy in his court and resents her expressing rebellion in this way. He initiates a search of the palace so that he may reprimand her, but she has fled with Lun Tha. As the guards continue their search, the King and Anna celebrate their victory by dancing a polka together. They are abruptly interrupted by the guards carrying a screaming Tuptim. The King furiously prepares to beat her himself, but Anna appeals to him to contain his anger and refuses to leave the room. The King cannot bring himself to whip the girl in front of Anna and runs offstage. The Kralahome snarls at Anna that she has destroyed the King. At this painful moment more bad news arrives—the guards have found Lun Tha’s drowned body in the river.

Once again Anna is awaiting the arrival of a ship to take her home to England. Lady Thiang once again arrives to plead with Anna to overcome her pride and visit the King. This time the situation is more grave; he is dying, having refused nourishment for many weeks. Lady Thiang hands Anna a letter that the King has managed to write her. In it he declares his admiration for Anna, who has been “much trouble” but who has affected him greatly. She runs to his side.

The children are brought in to their father. One child recites a letter to Anna begging her not to leave. Anna decides to send Louis to the ship to retrieve their luggage—she will stay after all.

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Young Prince Chulalongkorn fears being made King before he is ready. The dying King asks him what he would do first as a ruler. As the prince explains his proclamation abolishing the traditional groveling bow, an idea clearly influenced by Anna, the King dies. Anna reverently kisses the hand of the dead king.


British Ambassador

The British Ambassador comes to the royal palace in Bangkok expecting to confirm the rumors of the King’s barbarity. He is delighted to find him a civilized and learned man. The Ambassador declares in a toast to the King that he will carry the message to Queen Victoria that Siam is quite capable of remaining a sovereign nation.


Eliza plays the runaway slave in the play-within-a-play written by the slave Tuptim. In traditional Asian dress Eliza dances and pantomimes scenes of escape from wicked Simon Legree.

Keeper of the Dogs

The Keeper of the Dogs dances a ballet chase of Eliza, across the frozen river, which miraculously melts and drowns him, his dogs, and Simon Legree.

Simon Legree

Wicked Simon Legree is a plantation slave owner in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. Tuptim converts him to a king in her adaptation, a more direct reference to the King of Siam, who angrily recognizes himself in the portrayal of the tyrannical ruler.

Anna Leonowens

Anna, a British governess has come to Siam at the request of the King. She is to teach his many young children about the world. She brings with her Louis, her nine- or ten-year-old son and a photograph of her beloved dead husband, Tom. Anna is a strong-willed woman who shows her character immediately by demanding that the King provide her with the house outside the palace walls that she had stipulated in her negotiations with him. She is also a warm-hearted woman, however, and the instant she meets the King’s charming children, she submits to live in the palace “for now.” She makes it clear, however, that the issue of the separate home is not over. In other ways, too, Anna defies the authority and machismo of the King, as when she deliberately orders a new map to replace the King’s map that showed Siam in exaggerated proportions. She is, as the King wanted her to be, a “scientific person” which is why the King’s many wives and children insist on calling her “Sir.” Lady Thiang explains that they call her this because she is “scientific, not lowly like woman.” Throughout the play, Anna’s soft-hearted, womanly side vies with her precise, rational side in dealing with the King’s traditional, chauvinistic attitude toward all women, even her. She finally wins her battle with the King for a house, but she does so through womanly charm rather than through scientific logic.

Louis Leonowens

Louis is the nine- or ten-year-old son of Anna. He plays a rather small role in the play, mostly serving as the civilized and rather timid counterpart to the more robust and feisty Prince Chulalongkorn. In the first scene Louis expresses fear for the severe-looking, “half-naked” Kralahome, so his mother shows him her method for overcoming fear—to “Whistle a Happy Tune”; at the end of the play Louis worries about missing the boat home. He’s a typical British schoolboy of the upper class.

Lun Tha

Lun Tha is a Burmese man charged with delivering the Burmese King’s gift to the King of Siam—a beautiful and intelligent young woman named Tuptim. He makes his delivery, but not before falling completely in love with Tuptim. He risks his life just for moments with her and later runs away with her when the palace is occupied with the British visitors. After Tuptim is captured by the angry King, Lun Tha is found drowned in the river.

The King

The King of Siam is a study in nineteenth-century contrasts. He is at once the patriarchal and despotic leader, unused to being defied and quick to anger; yet he is also a budding cosmopolitan leader, eager to learn the ways of the “scientific” modern world he wants his country to join. He thinks of

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • A 1946 black and white film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne and produced by John Cromwell was adapted from Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam before Hammerstein undertook the musical version of the work.
  • Charles Brackett produced the famous film version with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (1956); it is available on videotape from CBS/Fox Video.
  • A sound recording featuring Julie Andrews, Ben Kingsley, and Marilyn Horne is available on Philips records (1992). A 1989 disc includes selections from various Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals sung by Samuel Ramey (available from EMI). Decca carries the sound track of the original Broadway cast with Gertrude Lawrence, while RCA carries one made in 1977 with Yul Brynner and Constance Towers (who took over the role of Anna in the original Broadway production after Gertrude Lawrence died of cancer). Capital Records carries the 1956 motion picture sound track recording as well as a disc of musical excerpts from the film.

himself as an innovative and open-minded leader, but, as Anna finds, he is blindly tied to traditional ways of thinking and acting. He is intelligent enough to read the Bible and find parallels between the words of Moses and new scientific thinking, but also brutal enough to want to beat an unhappy slave for running away. His chauvinism prevents him from directly seeking the advice he knows that Anna can provide him, so he cleverly challenges her to “guess” what he plans to do to impress the British Ambassador, and then implements her ideas as his own. The King proves that he does, after all, have a heart, when he allows himself to waste away and die after Lun Tha drowns. He cannot manage to cross the chasm between his traditional, outmoded oriental world and the new, scientific world that Anna represents. He has to die so that his son, Prince Chulalongkorn, can take Siam into its future.


The Kralahome is the Siamese version of a Prime Minister—the King’s most trusted advisor. The Kralahome greets Anna’s ship and escorts her and her son to the palace. Anna quickly learns the station of women in Siamese society because he rides in a slave-carried chair while she walks behind. The Kralahome’s severe demeanor and looks frighten young Louis, but Anna refuses to be bullied by him, even when he demands that she stop encouraging the King to become something he is not—a cosmopolitan and egalitarian leader. When the king falls ill, Kralahome blames Anna for destroying him.

Prince Chulalongkorn

The young Prince is a wonderful combination of his father’s self-assured leadership and his mother’s careful wisdom. Prince Chulalongkorn brings to Anna’s classroom a healthy skepticism and a junior version of his father’s arrogance. Prince Chulalongkorn bridles at the geography lesson which reveals Siam to be smaller than he’d thought, then rebels and refuses to believe in snow, turning the classroom to pandemonium until his father orders the children to believe the schoolteacher. While the king is dying, the young prince makes his first proclamations, one of which is to abolish the established tradition of bowing low to the ground “like a toad”; instead, he wants his people to show their respect with straight backs and a confident look in their eyes. His display of command and concern for his people demonstrate his readiness to rule as well as his successful assimilation of modern Western thought.

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George Ramsay

George Ramsay accompanies the British Ambassador on his fact-finding mission because he once loved Anna Leonowens and hopes to win her back. He had proposed marriage to her once in London; now he is prepared to renew his offer. He accepts Anna’s rebuff with the dignity of an Englishman and the resignation of a man who does not love intensely enough to feel much regret.

Ship’s Captain

The Ship’s Captain helps to set the scene of The King and I by warning Anna Leonowens about the unnamed dangers that an Englishwoman alone with her young son may face in Siam. He tells her that the Kralahome (the Siamese “Prime Minister”) who has been sent to escort Anna to the palace, is a powerful man of whom she must beware. The Captain several times offers to take Anna back with him, but his chauvinistic concerns and patronizing attitude do not faze Anna.

Lady Thiang

Lady Thiang is the King’s “number one wife.” She is the mother of Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne, and the most dignified, poised, well-educated, and wise of his many wives. She forms a fast friendship with Anna. Lady Thiang is a ready pupil for Anna’s teaching, but she, like the King, has many traditional ways and views that clash with Anna’s modern ideas. By the end of the play, she teaches the worldly schoolteacher about her way of loving—to accept the faults of her husband and to love him because of the moments when he is “wonderful”—and because he needs her.


Tuptim is the beautiful gift that the king of Burma has delivered to the King of Siam, who makes her his newest wife. She is mocked by the other wives, who cannot understand how she could possibly be unhappy in the king’s luscious palace. Tuptim, however, loves Lun Tha. She tries not to fall in love with him, knowing she is fated to be given away, but she cannot help herself. She befriends Anna and receives comfort from her, as well as English books to read. One of these is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The story of the runaway slave appeals to Tuptim, and she writes an adaptation of the story for presentation after dinner to the King’s important British dinner guests. The guests love her saucy blend of American ideology with Asian culture and style, but the King perceives the note of rebellion in the death of the wicked King Simon Legree. Under cover of the evening’s festivities, Tuptim runs away with Lun Tha, but she is quickly caught and brought to the king. Only the intervention of her friend Anna prevents her from being cruelly beaten for her insubordination. The news of Lun Tha’s death crushes her.


Custom and Tradition

The King of Siam announces from the very beginning of The King and I that he wants to lead Siam into the modern world. He says “Siam is to be modern, scientific country.” However, when it comes to renouncing traditional attitudes in order to replace them with modern thinking, the King himself is the last to change. He maintains a chauvinistic posture toward women and his subjects, snapping his fingers to call them to attention or to do his bidding. He might admire Abraham Lincoln and express agreement with abolishing slavery, but he is blind to the slavery in his own palace. Anna chides the King for treating Tuptim like a possession, just “a bowl of rice.” Then she realizes that he treats her, an English schoolteacher, in the same way, presumptuously demanding that she “take a letter” for him and ordering her about as though she were one of his wives or slaves. Anna tolerates his behavior because she understands that habits are difficult to change, even when one wants to embrace new ideas. She also understands that her modern attitude about women threatens his sense of manhood. The King respects Anna and recognizes the value of her opinions, but he refuses to ask for them, for to do so would raise a woman to equal status with him. When considering how to resist England’s making a protectorate of Siam, he cannot bring himself to ask Anna for advice. Instead he pretends to have her play a guessing game so that he can adopt her guess as his plan. To combat the sense that Anna is indeed gaining in status with him, he demands that she follow the custom never to let her head be higher than his. He tests her by dropping nearly prostrate on the floor, and when she hesitates he reminds her that “a promise is a promise.” The custom and traditions of old Siam are so deeply

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Is Anna a feminist? What are the principles of feminism that she upholds, and how does she demonstrate her interest in the rights of women? Where and how does she depart from your idea of feminism?
  • How is “orientalism” portrayed in The King and I? What role do you think “orientalism” played in the British Commonwealth’s interest in Siam in the nineteenth century? What role does this play indicate that it had?
  • What effect on the meaning of the story would occur in adapting The King and I to a dramatic play with no music or songs?
  • How would the story of The King and I be different if Anna were happily married when she took the assignment to act as governess to the King’s children? Is this play a love story?

embedded in the ambitious King that his death is a necessity to allow his more flexible young son to carry Siam the next step forward.

Culture Clash

The Ship Captain warns Anna of the unnamed dangers that threaten an Englishwoman alone in Bangkok. He expects harm to come of this confrontation between Western and Eastern cultures. Of course, the King himself has arranged for it by bringing Anna to his palace to teach his children about the world outside of Siam. What he does not realize is how difficult it will be for him to adapt to Western culture and how much he will have to sacrifice to do so. The play overtly assumes that in this encounter Siam stands to gain in modernity, while England generously and paternalistically contributes values to be adopted. Underlying the culture encounter is an issue of economics. Lady Thiang tells Anna that because of a rumor saying that the King is a barbarian, Queen Victoria may make Siam into a protectorate. The King understands that he would lose his kingdom under a British protectorateship. His goal conflicts with the goal of the British Queen. Queen Victoria wants to develop trade routes and to establish a foothold in Siam. The King wants to take advantage of British interest in his country to develop Siam into a modern country with a place in world trade but to do so as a sovereign nation that keeps its profits in his coffers, not in England’s. These larger issues at stake beneath the culture clash compromise the relationship between Britain and Siam so that they cannot confront each other as equals. Anna acts intellectually and morally superior to the King, proffering advice on how to impress the British government and congratulating him for reading the Bible. She barely tolerates being in the Buddhist temple, as though it was a profane place and not a religious sanctum. The British see the Siamese as culturally inferior but also enticing—a possession to be captured and controlled. This enticement is almost sensual, especially in scenes such as when the wives throw their skirts over their heads to run away from the British Ambassador because he “looks like a goat” and when Anna dances with the King with his hand on her waist. Hammerstein’s play seems to suggest that if only Siam would submit to the teachings of modern British people like Anna, it would be taken seriously among the world powers. It could always save its cultural heritage in the form of entertainment such as Tuptim’s orientalized version of Western ideology.

Knowledge and Ignorance

With very few exceptions the characters in The King and I can be ranked in prestige according to their relative knowledge and ignorance—of Western culture. For instance, Tuptim ranks very high because she speaks and reads English; Page 148  |  Top of Articlehers is a courageous spirit. She even writes her own play, although she bases it on an American (Western culture) novel. The wives who do not take their learning as seriously as Tuptim behave in a silly, “womanly” manner and ignorantly make fun of Tuptim for her unhappiness. They irresponsibly paw through Anna’s clothing and assume that her body is shaped like her hoop-skirted dresses, while Tuptim politely asks for English books. The Kralahome ranks low because he resists Anna’s teaching, even reveals his ignorance by suggesting that the young Prince should not waste his time learning about Western culture because it will make him a less effective leader. The King ranks high because he reads the great books of Western culture, such as the Bible. Anna stands on the pinnacle of knowledge because she dispenses knowledge to others and seldom appears ignorant or in need of teaching herself. Lady Thiang ranks fairly high because she has the most education of all the wives, and she is entrusted by Anna to teach a lesson now and then. Even more importantly, Lady Thiang actually teaches something to Anna. When Lady Thiang comes to convince Anna to help the King strategize how to avoid the protectorateship of Siam, she sings a song about her tolerant love for the imperfect but admirable king. Although Thiang does not impart factual knowledge to Anna, she does impart her special kind of wisdom about love.



Together Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein produced eleven musicals. The King and I was one of their most popular. A musical is a drama with singing, music, and spoken dialogue. The songs express the sentiments of one or more characters and may be addressed directly to other characters in the play. For example, Anna sings “Whistle a Happy Tune” in direct address to her son Louis, and Lady Thiang sings “Something Wonderful” to Anna. Sometimes the song is simply an expression of a character’s state of mind, as when the King sings “A Puzzlement.”

In the case of some musicals, existing songs are worked into a storyline. The lyrics (by Hammerstein) and music (by Rodgers) for The King and I were written specifically for the play, so the songs correspond seamlessly with the narrative. The songs enhance the richness of the action, they are part of the dialogue that moves the plot along, although the songs, dance, and music of The King and I could be removed without disrupting the plot line altogether. A musical differs from an opera in this respect, for an opera contains little or no dialogue and limited action, thus the songs must carry the weight of advancing the plot. Musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy, works with little or no spoken dialogue, are called “rock operas,” not musicals. The musical enjoyed its heydey between 1920 and 1950, when producers and writing teams such as Rodgers and Hammerstein created dozens of musicals to showcase the talents of such dancing and singing stars as Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Ginger Rogers. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, beginning with their first work together, Oklahoma, undertake a more serious topic than the musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s, and their songs and music are more integrated with the plot. Musicals “came of age” with the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The successful 1996 revival of The King and I, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as the King, demonstrates that the musical still continues to enjoy great popularity.

Play within a Play

The slave girl Tuptim creates a Siamese version of a book she admires, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book would have been making a stir in America in 1862 (the year portrayed in The King and I) because it championed the cause of the abolition of slavery, an issue over which American president Abraham Lincoln was waging war with the American South (the Civil War) at the time of Anna’s visit to Siam. The King admires the self-taught Lincoln and his principles of freedom, so it is ironic that Tuptim’s play should offend him. It does, because the King has not recognized the suffering his own brand of slavery inflicts on his wives and subjects. Tuptim intends to shock the King. Hers is a rebellious spirit, and she not only wants to escape, she wants to confront the King’s hypocrisy as well. Hammerstein has Tuptim use the same technique as Shakespeare does his title character in Hamlet, although her purpose differs. Hamlet uses his play to “catch the conscience of the king” in order to entrap Claudius and justify murdering him. Tuptim’s motives are less clear. She may not have had any particular plan of reprisal in mind nor realized the power of her creation until she Page 149  |  Top of Articlesaw the King’s face. When Tuptim sees that her play has affected the King, she begins urgently to plead the cause of unhappy slaves everywhere, but the King’s quick temper immediately cuts her off. The effect of the play within a play in The King and I underscores the theme of culture clash and the irony of a leader who wants to modernize his country but cannot bear to modernize himself.


British Imperialism

In the nineteenth century, the British held the point of view that trade was “the true herald of civilization” and that Great Britain’s expertise in commerce gave it the right to its leadership role in international trade (Great Britain controlled forty percent of the world’s manufactured trade in 1860). The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London showcased the world’s fascination for technology and trade in a gigantic structure of glass and iron called the Crystal Palace. It housed exotic booty harvested from Britain’s colonies and overseas trade—inventions, consumer products, and the contributions of many other countries, all crammed on over eight miles of display shelves. Queen Victoria visited the stunning Crystal Palace nearly every day, joined by throngs of pride-filled British subjects, to view the exhibits and to reinforce a sense of manifest superiority in technology and trade.

The Great Exhibition helped to allay any disquiet over the aggressive expansion of the British Empire. And there were reasons for disquiet. Just prior to Anna Leonowen’s visit to Siam, the two “Opium Wars” (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) were fought in China to secure Britain the dubious right to export opium from India (a colony of the British Empire) into China and to establish British-governed trade posts in China’s most active ports. The “treaty-port system” became Great Britain’s mode of dominating Chinese trade for the next forty years; it was also used in many other countries not officially colonized into the Empire. In 1855, Siam ceded to diplomatic pressure to sign the Bowring Treaty, which added Siam to Great Britain’s extensive “informal empire,” by granting Great Britain certain trade advantages as well as the rights to establish a consulate in Bangkok and to try its people in British and not Siamese courts. This agreement granted economic power over Siam and also provided Britain a buffer zone between its South Asian holdings (Malaya and Burma) and the holdings of the French (Indochina), thus making it easier for competing colonizers to cohabitate South Asia. Siam, unlike India, New Zealand, and Burma, retained its sovereign status; however, as Margaret Marshall wrote in the Nation,“the divide between empire and influence was often indistinct,” and British predominance in education, religion, the economy, and politics took the form of a cultural authority that would change Siam irrevocably.


Besides the obvious naval and trade superiority of nineteenth century Great Britain, cultural stereotyping of non-European peoples contributed to the building of the British Empire upon the backs of Asian, African, and Arab nations. The Nation’s Marshall wrote that “there can be little doubt that, as British acquaintance with the non-European world grew in the nineteenth century, so did a readiness to be highly critical and even totally dismissive of alien cultures as well as a view that Britain had a mission or national duty to spread the benefits of its civilization, economy, and religion as widely as possible overseas.” Since the eighteenth century, the term “Orientalism” had referred to a negative perception of Asia, which Edward Said summarized in Orientalism as “its eccentricity, its backwardness, its silent indifference, its feminine penetrability, its supine malleability.”

This culturally annihilative description in turn justified the Western colonizing agenda, because it made the Orient into “a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption.” With the justification of this cultural bias in hand, colonizing “oriental” nations became a gift of civilization granted by British colonizers. It also blinded British subjects to the true nature of Britain’s interest in the Orient—to establish advantageous trade relationships, obtain inexpensive products and labor, and to hold the Asians in thrall. A more fundamental reason for Orientalism also existed. Often humans make use of foreign “others” as repositories of projected “bad” traits so that the subject’s identity remains “clean.” Literary critic Said asserted that “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.” Orientalism, then, is a construction of the other that is used to bolster the identity of the

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  • Nineteenth-century: In Anna Leonowens’s day, women were expected to show respect for men by not challenging their authority. They were to be demure and beautiful, not strong and self-willed. Few career opportunities existed for women who had no husbands to provide for them.

    1950s: World War II necessitated women joining the work force to replace the men who were fighting overseas. By the 1950s, women had a secure place in the work force, although their career options were usually limited to clerical functions.

    Today: Women can choose from almost unlimited career possibilities and are no longer expected to appear subservient to men.

  • Nineteenth-century: Europeans looked down on “Orientals” as backward, morally inferior people who could only benefit from an encounter with Western culture, an encounter that would place the Asian countries in a socially and economically dependent position.

    1950s: World War II interrupted the establishment of trade practices between Asian and European/American countries. The American internment of Japanese-American citizens during the war years proved that the specter of Orientalism still persisted.

    Today: Trade with Asian countries is more equitable and fair; however, vestiges of racism against Asians persists in many places and is still slow to disappear.

speaker—the real identity of the subject, the Siamese in the case of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s play—becomes lost in translation.

American Musicals

The King and I produced in 1951 by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (book, libretto, and lyrics) was part of a new tradition of musical drama. Up until 1927 when Jerome Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat broke the mold of the musical comedy by blending music, lyrics, dance, and libretto, staged musical productions typically consisted of a series of unrelated songs, dances, and comic routines loosely clustered around a simple, even inane, boy-meets-girl plot. With Show Boat, the musical came of age. Now songs were integrated into the plot and advanced the action in the same manner that operatic arias did. It took a few years for audiences to appreciate the transformation, but by 1951, the form had sophisticated to the point that most critics were on the lookout for songs that didn’t have a place in the narrative, although a few still longed nostalgically for the more comedic elements of musical comedies typical of the Ziegfeld Follies days. Rodgers and Hammerstein together would create eleven memorable “musicals” to join the ranks of the dozens of artistic and commercial successes produced by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Kurt Weill, and others, as well as the twenty-four musicals Rodgers had created in his partnership with Larry Hart.


Expectations were high for the latest production by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein when The King and I opened at the St. James Theater in New York City in 1951. It earned mostly favorable reviews, with only a few being less than enthusiastic. The lavish sets by Jo Mielziner and costumes by Irene Sharaff created a glamorous backdrop; As David Ewen quoted an admirer in New Complete Book of American Musical Theater, the work represented “a flowering of all the arts of the theater with moments that are pure genius.” Page 151  |  Top of ArticleHowever, some critics found fault with the boyscout-ish seriousness of the play, especially its melodramatic ending. The New Yorker reviewer John Lardner liked the exotic touches, but found the play “a little too unremittingly wholesome” and the lyrics too “corny.” Lardner disliked the “touch of Walt Disney in all the recent Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.” Nation reviewer Margaret Marshall lamented that the play took all of actress Gertrude Lawrence’s showmanship to prevent the play’s drawn-out plot from “sagging too often” but added that “even Miss Lawrence [could] do little with the last scene.” A reviewer for Time found the “battle of sexes, collision of races and conflict of ideas sometimes touching, and far less insipid than the usual musicomedy romance.”

Other reviewers struggled to find words to describe this new musical form that departed from musical comedy in its seriousness of plot and theme. A critic writing in Harper’s noted that The King and I was not billed as a musical comedy but as a “musical play,” and suggested that “it might better have been billed as ‘a sentimental fantasy with music and a message thrown in.’” Later in the article, the reviewer’s distaste gathers steam: “Mr. Hammerstein has got his mediums mixed up. He wants to perform the function of the serious problem-drama (that is, to provide searching insight into the psycho-philosophical stresses of individuals and of society) with the light, but not too light touch. The theater provides two established methods for such delving: the serious drama and high comedy.” Rodger’s and Hammerstein had introduced this a form of musical back in 1927 with the groundbreaking Show Boat, which, like The King and I has a more fully developed plot and songs that advance the story along. The King and I also tackled a more serious topic, and reviewers had not yet developed a critical vocabulary for evaluating this new form of “musical” (as opposed to the “musical comedy”) on its own terms. Nevertheless, the 1951 stage production with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner received Antoinette Perry (also called Tony) Awards for best musical of the year, and the play was the first musical to win the Theater Club Award.

By the time of the release of Twentieth Century-Fox’s film of adaptation of The King and I—with Brynner reprising his stage role and starring Deborah Kerr as Anna (her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon), critics had accepted Rodgers and Hammerstein’s new form, but some still rankled at the melodrama of the King’s death at the end. A Time reviewer found that the film “moves along satisfactorily from spectacle to spectacle until the conclusion, when it’s message (democracy is good; slavery is bad) gets a truly pedestrian delivery at Yul Brynner’s deathbed.” On the other hand, a critic for Commonweal called the film a “magnificent production” and actually praised the finale, calling it “joyful and tearful.” Former musical conductor turned critic Lehman Engel writing in 1967 also found the end fitting; he pointed out in his book The American Musical Theater, that in comparison to the original story by Leonowens and its adaptation by Margaret Landon in which the King does not die, Hammerstein’s decision to have the King die is “a far more effective (and conclusive!) piece of dramaturgy.” The film received nine Academy Award nominations and won five, including one for Yul Brynner’s performance and one for the musical score. It also won two Golden Globe Awards for best film and best actress in a musical/comedy (for Deborah Kerr).

A spate of six new or revived musicals competed for New York theatregoers’ attentions in 1996, among them a revival of The King and I starring Lou Diamond Phillips (best known for his portrayal of Ritchie Valens in the film La Bamba) as the King and Donna Murphy as Anna with direction by Christopher Renshaw. In spite of trepidation over whether anyone could erase the memory of Yul Brynner in the role that seemed custom designed for him, the revival enjoyed ecstatic reviews on its debut. As a Newsday reviewer noted, Lou Diamond Phillips “was the wild card when he dared to step into Yul Brynner’s footsteps,” and while a People reporter found that he fails to bring Brynner’s “heft or authority to the role,” a critic writing in Time agreed with the majority of critics who commended Phillips because he “eventually shrugs off the shroud of Yul Byrnner” to create a his own memorable version of the Siamese king. New York audiences, hoping for an evening of nostalgia, got even more than they could imagine from the $5.5 million-dollar production. The staging was so successful that it catapulted the musical into a new realm of legitimacy; New York magazine critic John Simon found himself comparing it to opera: “I never thought I would say this about a musical, but in a production such as this, The King and I is the equal of all but the supreme operatic masterpieces.” Perhaps the musical has, indeed, come of age—Time concluded that “Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are secular hymns—liturgical music for the American mid-century.”

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Carole L. Hamilton

Hamilton is an instructor at Cary Academy. Her essay examines the themes of subservience prevalent in the play.

Over the years, many reviewers of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The King and I have complained about the ending of the musical, in which the king dies. Critics have called his deathbed scene too solemn and melodramatic—simply not in keeping with the musical comedy tone of the rest of the play. What these reviewers fail to recognize is that The King and I is not simply a “love” story between people of different cultures; the story is actually an analogy for a political relationship between their two countries. It is this political analogy underlying the relationship between Anna and the Oriental King that gives weight to the death scene (which Hammerstein added to the narrative when he adapted the story from Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King ofSiam). The deathbed scene resolves both of the central conflicts in the play—both the one between Anna and the King and the larger national conflict. The King’s death resolves the first issue by removing the potential of an interracial union; it resolves the second by removing the King’s backward politics from Siam’s foreign policy, allowing his more modern—and anglicized—son to rule the country with better diplomacy.

The conflict between Anna and the King resides in the hierarchy of their relationship—who will rule, who will decide, and whose influence will predominate the lives of the King’s children, and his subjects. The conflict between Great Britain and Siam is essentially the same. The presence of the British Ambassador in the plot attests to the economic and political context within which the schoolteacher and the King both operate. The British Ambassador may report the rumor that the King is a barbarian, precipitating the Queen’s decision to make Siam a protectorate. Thus the political analogy of the variation of boy-meets-girl plot in The King and I is the ascension of unofficial British domination over Siam (later known as Thailand), a domination that will transform the economic, political, and ideological Siamese culture. By the same token, Anna’s presence will transform the King’s children, and ultimately his kingdom, in a similar manner. Great Britain’s relationship with Siam was not destined to be an official political colonization such as the kind achieved in Malayasia, Burma, Africa, and Hong Kong; in Siam Great Britain pursued more of an unofficial alliance. Just as the courting between Anna and the King results in a kind of marriage (one that affords Anna some of the privileges of being a King’s wife), Britain’s courting of Siam ended not with an official colonization but with an agreement that gave Great Britain trade advantages with Siam.

The British actively sought trade advantages in Oriental nations, but this self-serving aspect of their interest was conveniently subsumed under the more commendable label of colonial development. It was in the interest of cultural development that Anna embarked on her program to educate and Westernize the royal children. To the British, the Siamese—as well as Africans, Indians, and Arabs—desperately needed exposure to Western religion, economic practices, and culture; and it just so happened that the British economy could use Siamese goods and services as well. Great Britain undertook the monumental task of civilizing “Oriental” nations and, in the process, wove their economies into these countries.

To accomplish this act of cultural dominance required an attitude of superiority over Oriental peoples-in much the same manner that men were once thought to be superior to women. Social Darwinism was invoked to explain why the Asians (an other non-whites) had not advanced as far as Western nations, and the word “oriental” came to be associated with backwardness and moral corruption, thus justifying the British program of anglicizing Oriental people. The “Orientalism” of Asian countries consisted of the imposition of a negative stereotype (immoral, inferior, and backward) that filtered actual observations. It is a form of racism that persisted for many centuries and still has residual effect on modern Western/Asian relations. In her book The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok, the original Anna Leonowens tells of falling prey to cultural bias toward Orientals. She describes the Siamese people as “apt to be indolent, improvident, greedy, intemperate, servile, cruel, vain, inquisitive, superstitious, and cowardly.” Her terms coincide with the accepted sentiment that Orientals were morally inferior, child-like people whose culture would not progress without the intervention of their Western neighbors. As Edward Said commented on this relationship in Orientalism: “Orientals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen though, analyzed not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved or

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  • The real Anna Leonowens wrote two books about her adventures in Siam teaching the children of King Mongkut. Her books, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873), were renounced by Mongkut’s biographer, who claimed that her accounts grossly misrepresented the Siamese king as a tyrant and that her description of the court was inaccurate.
  • Margaret Landon wrote a popular novel based on Leonowens’s books, called Anna and the King of Siam (1944). It was also the basis for a 1946 film, starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, before Hammerstein adapted it to the stage play.
  • Maxine Hong Kingston’s novels China Men and The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girl among Ghosts discuss the situation of contemporary Chinese Americans in California.
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston portrays the experience of Japanese-American citizens in internment during World War II.

confined or . . . taken over.” Sometimes the takeover was overt, as it was in India in the eighteenth century, when Great Britain replaced the fragmenting political structures in Bengal and elsewhere with its own governors. But in Siam, as well as in some other Asian countries, the defeat of the sovereign body was accomplished from within—through education.

The King of Siam himself (the real King Mongkut as well as the Hammerstein character) played into the British imperialist hand and conveniently asked for Ms. Leonowens’s teaching services. The King had already been brainwashed to value Western culture over his own. He viewed his world as substandard, in need of an infusion of Western culture that could be introduced through the education of his children. Unfortunately, he himself was unable to make the leap to the “scientific” and “modern” Western stereotype. He sings a song in which he expresses his doubts and insecurities; he finds leading his people “A Puzzlement,” and the implication is that Anna can help him to sort out his confusion. Lady Thiang corroborates this view of the King, singing about his limitations and his many dreams that will never unfold, adding the faint praise that “at least he tries.” His inability to suit the values of the new society he himself wants to impose upon his kingdom necessitates his death, to make room for young Prince Chulalongkorn to complete the transformation of Siam from a “backward” country to a modern one.

In the analogy between the human relationship and the political one, the courtship and ritual marriage (in which the King gives Anna a ring and demands that she place it on her finger) corresponds to the courtship and unofficial alliance between Great Britain and Siam. The King invites Anna to his palace, hoping to benefit from her teaching while controlling her as a “servant.” On a political level, he invites Great Britain to create an economical presence in Bangkok, while hoping to prevent the British from taking over the country. But the King cedes more than he plans to in both arenas. He refuses at first to give Anna the house she bargained for, but eventually he gives in and offers to build her one that adjoins the palace. Granting her the right to own property and build a proper English home is equivalent to offering her the right to colonize, and she jumps at the chance. On the political level, the King’s first reaction to the threat of being made a protectorate is to send the British Ambassador packing, but Anna convinces him to put on a show of Westernization instead. Just as the show of “whistling a happy tune” ends up restoring confidence to Anna and her son, preparing for a display of Western culture has the ultimate effect of actually Westernizing

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Yul Brynner in a 1985 revival of The King and I Yul Brynner in a 1985 revival of The King and I

the King’s palace. In the process of sewing European dresses and learning to use European eating implements, the King’s court is transformed into a quasi-European court, displaying many of the earmarks of British civilization. This is precisely where Great Britain wants Siam—eager to adopt to Western customs.

Giving Anna a home and adopting Western customs for an evening represents the King’s hand in the colonizing of his culture. The Kralahome sees the imminence of assimilation more clearly than does the King, and he fears it. On two occasions he warns Anna not to “ruin” the King or the Prince with her Western ideas, but he soon he realizes his own impotence in resisting her. The Kralahome represents a throwback to old Siamese culture. His role in the new Siam is left undefined at the play’s end. He has tried to arrest the inevitable union between the King and Anna and between Great Britain and Siam, but he has failed.

There are several moments in the play that reinforce the symbolism of a ritual marriage between the King and Anna. Her elaborate preparations for the entertainment of the British Ambassador place her in the role of “first lady” of the house—ordering the King’s wives about, deciding on decor, going into dinner on his arm, and engineering the conversation to display his scholarship. These are the tasks of the wife, and she reaps her rewards after the guests have departed in an intimate dance with the King and in the gift of a ring. To further underscore her status, Lady Thiang on two occasions begs Anna to go to the King, at one point telling her that she herself cannot meet the King’s “special needs,” that only Anna can. Lady Thiang, the King’s number one wife, also releases her son to Anna’s teaching, recognizing that Anna can provide the young man with instruction that she cannot.

The King’s death scene is unusual in that the focus rests not on the dying King but on Anna’s decision to stay in Siam. The children certainly show more interest in that outcome than in the death of their imperious father. Anna stands at center stage during most of this scene, with the King dying on a divan on one side and Prince Chulalongkorn addressing the wives and other children on the other. Besides Anna’s decision, the other business to be accomplished here is the transfer of power from the King to the prince. This is duly accomplished and then the final conflict of the play is happily resolved—the Prince’s second proclamation proves that Anna’s teachings have taken hold, for he proclaims that no longer will his subjects have to bow in the lowly position of a toad but will stand erect and look him in the eye with confidence. He will be a King who values his subjects as people. The Prince has shown his mettle in Anna’s classroom—challenging her authority at times but also displaying an appreciation for pragmatism and the demands that the modern world will make of him. At the time of his ascension to the throne, he is still a child—still in need of a governess, and still malleable. Anna’s decision to stay assures that the young prince will complete his Westernization and, more importantly, not forsake his humanity in a quest for power. In addition to fulfilling this political task, Anna’s continued presence will also serve the personal relationship she had with the King; she will continue to be a loving, guiding force in the children’s lives.

Source: Carole L. Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale 1997.

Steven Erlanger

In the following article, Erlanger examines the differences between the original Broadway production of The King and I and the 1996 revival of the play, illustrating how the later production places more emphasis upon historical and cultural accuracy. Page 155  |  Top of ArticleErlanger provides historical background for the play.

The new $5.5 Million Broadway revival of The King and I, the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that Yul Brynner built a carrer on, lavishes enormous attention and money on constructing a sumptuous and remarkably authentic stage version of Thailand in the last century.

But the concentration on esthetic authenticity begs the question of whether the show, which opens on Thursday at the Neil Simon Theater and stars Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips, reflects a historical authenticity. The team of Australian designers involved has labored mightily to create the look of a Thailand that never existed.

The King and I, after all, is a romantic entertainment, much better known for its songs (“Shall We Dance” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You”) than for its story. The musical, which starred Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, opened soon after World War II. Three years later, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu would begin to pull the United States into what became the Vietnam quagmire. But at that time, Thailand was about as far from America, and about as exotic, as Oscar Hammerstein or anyone else could have imagined.

The original show (and the popular 1956 film version with Brynner and Deborah Kerr) employs a form of pan-Asianness that derives from a variety of sources: a generic restaurant in a shopping mall, say, with a bit of Japanese kabuki thrown in, along with white face to hide Western facial features and a peculiar, even eccentric vision of Buddhism.

The current version, based largely on a 1991 Australian production starring the English actress Hayley Mills, was first licensed by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and then embraced by it. This King and I seems to struggle hard to present a Thailand that a more sophisticated audience today would accept as truthful.

Indeed, the sets aim for the spectacular, with 2,000 square feet of gold leaf, majestic thrones and shimmering headdresses. The stage curtain—six panels depicting traditional costumed dancers—is flanked by the profiles of 30-foot elephants with gilt-edged trunks and jeweled eyes. Incense wafts from altars built over the box seats on either side of the stage, and before the curtain goes up, the audience can watch saffron-robed monks at prayer.

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Brian Thomson, the set designer, has used the color deep burgundy to frame authentic Thai murals and designs taken from the Grand Palace in Bangkok, from old photographs and paintings, and even from a richly lacquered, elephant-legged coffee table that he bought in northern Thailand.

The costume designer, Roger Kirk, also an Australian, has used Thai materials and clothing making sure that some of Anna’s hoop-skirted dresses are of Thai silk and that the royal dancers (in numbers originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with added choreography by LarLubovitch) wear Thai sarongs and use Thai masks. Some of the “gold-bullion” embroidery and beadwork was done in India to keep down costs.

“For Australians, Thailand is next door,” Mr. Kirk said “So a cheap sarong won’t wash.” The glittering outfits that Mr. Phillips wears as the King are based on old photographs of the real monarch, as is the actor’s haircut.

The striving for authenticity has also meant putting Asian faces in Asian roles. And even the accent of the actors as they speak English is as Thailike as possible, with help from a dialect coach and a Thai waiter at a Bridgeport, Conn., restaurant named, implausibly. The King and I. The waiter was found after an appeal on the Internet, said the show’s director, Christopher Renshaw:

Dodger Productions, one of the producers, and Wendy’s International, the hamburger chain, in its first association with Broadway production, are helping to market the musical as family entertainment. Page 156  |  Top of ArticleBut Mr. Renshaw and his Australian team are more subversive than that.

They are modernizing this musical, and not only through the lavishness of the sets, the vast computerized lighting system designed by the other Australian on the team; Nigel Levings, and the sheer busyness of 54 actors: they are seeking to stress the deeper, even darker themes of colonialism, slavery, feminism and cultural ambiguity that they believe are buried in the text.

“To do it just as an entertainment, that’s been done before,” declared Mr. Renshaw, an Englishman who said that he reveres Thailand. Living there for a time, he added, made him question some of his Western assumptions about what it is to be civilized, and ultimately it changed him profoundly.

“If you’re doing a piece that is 40 years old,” he said, “you have to come in with a viewpoint. If you take all this new understanding on board, it shifts emphasis and changes the show, so it’s worth doing.”

The show itself, however, is viewed with displeasure—even banned, in fact—in the relatively easygoing, unpuritanical Thailand, largely because it treats one of the country’s most enlightened monarchs, king Mongkut, as a vaguely silly barbarian who is introduced to “civilization” (and the polka) by a Western governess. For many Thais, The King and I diminishes both the terror of a truly omnipotent monarchy and the importance of the complex culture that produced it.

The musical tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a supposedly Welsh-born woman who was said to have served as a governess to the children of the King of Siam, as Thailand was known, in the 1860’s.

The show’s script, however, is based on a 1943 best-selling novel, Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, which itself was loosely based on Anna Leonowens’s two books. The English Governess at the Siamese Court, (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873). Both are full of historical errors, beginning with the title of governess, since the King’s diaries make clear that Anna was hired only as a teacher of English.

William Warren, a longtime American scholar of Thailand, said Anna’s worst errors were in the second book, when her need to publish began to outrun her experiences. She asserts that the King threw wives who displeased him into dungeons and that he ordered the public torture and burning of a consort and the monk with whom she had fallen in love, an incident that Anna claims to have witnessed and which serves as the model for the Tuptim episode in the musical.

But Bangkok’s Watery soil could support no dungeons or even basements, nor, Mr. Warren notes, is there mention of a public burning in domestic or foreign accounts of the time. As one of the king’s biographers, Alexander Griswold wrote about Anna, “Virtue was not unknown in Siam before her arrival, and a cool assessment suggests that she did not loom very large in the life of King Mongkut or his children.”

Anna’s version of her own life was just that: a version. She was not born in Wales and brought up in a middle-class English family; she was born Ann Edwards and brought up in India. Her father was not a high-ranking British officer but a soldier who died before her birth. She grew up in an army barracks, where blankets served as walls to separate families and her mother found another man. Anna’s own husband, Thomas Leon Owens, was a clerk in the army pay office at Poona. When he died, she was left with two children to support. She altered her name to the more exotic Leonowens and taught in the British community of Singapore before hearing of —and landing —a job as teacher to the many children (and many wives) of King Mongkut.

The musical, then, is a confection built on a novel built on a fabrication. It is an outpouring of American innocence, like so much of Rodgers and Hammerstein, suggesting that a pure American liberalism will lead, if not always to happy endings, then to a better civilization than the barbarity of the past.

American influence on Southeast Asia was apparent soon enough, and to their credit, Rodgers and Hammerstein, for all the conventional fantasies of The King and I, toy with some of the paradoxes. Even Anna starts to understand that her effect is helping to destroy the king she loves, let alone Tuptim, the Burmese slave she teaches. And as she tries to bring Western “enlightenment” to Siam, while protecting it from British colonialism, she begins to sense the strain and damage she has caused.

“We blunder into cultures other than our own and we do such terrible damage,” Mr. Renshaw said of Anna. But did she ever feel that way? “I don’t think she ever felt it,” he said slowly. “But it’s in the text; there’s more in it than they wrote.” Similarly, he said, King Mongkut seems to understand Page 157  |  Top of Articlein the script that he must modernize Siam if it is to survive and escape colonialism,“but he knows that change will be tainted and destroy him.”

The oddest part of the musical is the bizarre ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” enacted for the King and his British guests. It is the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, narrated by the slave Tuptim, which Anna suggests to show the British how civilized Siam really is. Under Anna’s influence and teaching, Tuptim turns it into a parable about her own subjugation and that of the King’s other women.

In America, at roughly the same historical moment, there was a civil war about slavery of a far harsher kind than the servitude then practiced in Thailand. Rodgers and Hammerstein seem, at least, to be warning their audiences not to be too smug in their attitudes toward this “barbarian” king.

Theodore S. Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which licenses 2,500 R&H productions annually, said, “In any given year, every producer in Australia asks us about The King and I.” But Richard Rodger’s daughter, Mary Rodgers Guettel, was especially taken with this Australian production and its sets and thought it would do well on Broadway.

Five years later, with more money and two actors who are under contract for a year, Mr. Renshaw and his team believe they can pull off their real vision of the play.

“We’ve given them lots of leeway,” Mr. Chapin said, from using lines about Abraham Lincoln in early rehearsal scripts to lots of “soundscape”—music, much of it Thai —to carry the action and make the show more like a film. “You can add music,” Mr. Chapin recalled telling Mr. Renshaw, “but remember, there’s a polka in this score.”

He paused, and added with a hint of irony: “I don’t think they’ve pulled it too far toward authenticity to keep it from being an American musical.”

Before King Mongkut becomes too romanticized through revisionism, however, it should be noted that he did speak a remarkably embellished and florid English and had added to the Grand Palace a clock tower modeled after Big Ben in London. According to Mr. Warren, the King also provided his favorite artists with scenic photographs sent to him by President Franklin Pierce. The result was some startling glimpses of Mount Vernon and Monticello in traditional murals on the walls of one temple, Wat Bovorn-nives.

And it was King Chulalongkorn, Mongkut’s son (whom Anna most influences in the show), who traveled widely and built the Throne Hall, a strange Italianate structure that still stands in the Grand Palace complex, with its Thai-style roofs instead of the planned domes.

“I would hope,” said Mr. Thompson, the set designer, “that in this production the story comes across that it isn’t the Thais who are the strangers but Anna herself; that Anna, being a woman of that period needing to wear those garments and needing to have those beliefs, is the real stranger in that court.”

Source: Steven Erlanger, “A Confection Built on a Novel Built on a Fabrication,” in the New York Times, April 7, 1996, pp. 4, 23.

Brooks Atkinson

In the following review, which originally appeared in the New York Times on March 30, 1951, Atkinson argues that while The King and I is a less innovative, accomplished musical than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! or South Pacific, it “is an original and beautiful excursion into the rich splendors of the Far East, done with impeccable taste by two artists and brought to life with a warm, romantic score, idiomatic lyrics and some exquisite dancing.”

As drama critic for the New York Times from 1925 to 1960, Atkinson was one of the most influential reviewers in America.

Nearly two years having elapsed since they invaded the South Pacific, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have moved over to the Gulf of Siam. The King and I, which opened at the St. James last evening, is their musical rendering of Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam. Asa matter of record, it must be reported that The King and I is no match for South Pacific, which is an inspired musical drama.

But there is plenty of room for memorable music-making in the more familiar categories. Strictly on its own terms, The King and I is an original and beautiful excursion into the rich splendors of the Far East, done with impeccable taste by two artists and brought to life with a warm, romantic score, idiomatic lyrics and some exquisite dancing.

As the English governess who comes out from England in the Eighteen-Sixties to teach the King’s

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children, Gertrude Lawrence looks particularly ravishing in some gorgeous costumes and acts an imposing part with spirit and an edge of mischief. Yul Brynner plays the King with a kind of fierce austerity, drawn between pride of office and eagerness to learn about the truth of the modern world from a “scientific foreigner.” Apart from the pleasures of the musical theater, there is a theme in The King and I, and, as usual, Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hammerstein have developed it with tenderness as well as relish, and with respect for the human beings involved.

Part of the delight of their fable derives from the wealth of beauty in the Siamese setting; and here Jo Mielziner, the Broadway magnifico, has drawn on the riches of the East; and Irene Sharaff has designed some of her most wonderful costumes. As a spectacle, The King and I is a distinguished work. In the direction, John van Druten has made something fine and touching in the elaborate scene that introduces the King’s charming children to their English school marm. Jerome Robbins, serving as choreographer, has put together a stunning ballet that seasons the liquid formalism of Eastern dancing with some American humor. Yuriko, the ballerina, is superb as the Siamese notion of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Mr. Rodgers is in one of his most affable moods. For Miss Lawrence he has written several pleasant and ingratiating numbers which she sings brightly—“Hello, Young Lovers!” “The Royal Bangkok Academy” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” Dorothy Sarnoff does something wonderful with “Something Wonderful,” which is one of Mr. Rodgers’ most exultant numbers. Probably the most glorious number is “I Have Dreamed,” which Doretta Morrow and Larry Douglas sing as a fervent duet. Mr. Brynner is no great shakes as a singer, but he makes his way safely through a couple of meditative songs written with an agreeable suggestion of Eastern music.

Say a word of thanks to Russell Bennett for his colorful orchestrations that make a fresh use of individual instruments and that always sound not only interesting but civilized. His orchestration should be especially appreciated in the long and enchanting scene that brings on the children one by one.

Don’t expect another South Pacific nor an Oklahoma! This time Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hammerstein are not breaking any fresh trails. But they are accomplished artists of song and words in the theatre; and King and I is a beautiful and lovable musical play.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, in a review of The King and I (1951) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from The New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 333-34.


Engel, Lehman. The American Musical Theater, Macmillan, 1975.

A narrative history of musical theater in America that describes the form and conventions of various forms of musicals: musical comedy, operetta, reviews (revues), and others.

Ewen, David. New Complete Book of American Musical Theater Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.

A useful compendium of musical plots and brief biographies of composers, lyricists, and producers.

Fordin, Hugh. Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein 11, Random House, 1996.

An in-depth biography of the life and works of Oscar Hammerstein.

Jackson, Arthur. The Best Musicals: From Show Boat to A Chorus Line Broadway, Off-Broadway, London, Crown Publishers, 1977.

A coffee-table book of photographs and text chronicling the history of musicals from 1866 to 1977.

Landon, Margaret. Anna and the King ofSiam, The John Day Company, 1943, 1944.

A faithful prose rendition of Anna Leonowen’s book about her exploits as governess in Siam.

James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

An objective and scholarly look at the causes and consequences of the extensive empire England built and then had to disband.

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Marshall, P. J. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

This illustrated text adopts a neutral position regarding the impact of the British Empire on its colonies and on its own national development.

Mast, Gerald. Can’t Help Singin’: The American Musical on Stage and Screen, Overlook Press, 1987.

An in-depth review of the most popular musicals in America, with photographs.

McConache, Bruce. “The ‘Oriental’ Musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the U. S. War in South East Asia” in Theater Journal, Volume 3, October, 1994, pp. 385-98.

Compares narrative patterns of musicals with patterns of foreign policy. Asserts that three Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals helped draw the United States into the Vietnam War.

Said, Edward. Orientalism, Penguin, 1995.

Using Egypt and the Arab nations as examples, Said asserts that “orientalism” is a form of identifying the “other” in stereotypical terms as a means of bolstering the national identity of European countries and of justifying their domination of the Asian countries.

Time, Volume 57, number 78, April 9, 1951).

A positive theater review of the stage debut of The King and I.


“After Hours” in Harper’s, Volume 203, September, 1951, pp. 99-100.

“Getting to Know Lou” in People, Volume 45, June 3, 1996, p. 100.

Lardner, John. “The Surefire Boys in Siam” in the New Yorker, Volume 27, April 7, 1951, pp. 70-71.

Marshall, Margaret. Review of The King and/ in the Nation, Volume 172, April 14, 1951, p. 353.

Review of The King and I’m Newsday, April 25, 1996.

Simon, John. Review of The King andlin New York, Volume 29, number 16, April 22, 1996, p. 34.

“A Stately Pleasure Dome” in Commonwealth, Volume 64, July 20, 1956, pp. 396-97.

Time 68:90 (July 16, 1956).

Time 147 (April 29, 1996): 84.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692600017