The Back Story:
The story of The King and I “is essentially true: An English widow named Anna Leonowens went to Bangkok in the 1860s to tutor the crown prince of the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) in the manner of a cultivated English gentleman. She was so successful in her seven years there that she even had a profound impact on the old-fashioned King Mongkut. After leaving Bangkok in the 1870s, she wrote two popular books based on her experiences – An English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem” (Foil).
“These stories inspired a bestselling book by Margaret Landon entitled Anna and the King of Siam, published in 1944. The book enchanted Gertrude Lawrence, the British musical comedy star, and she suggested to [the famed Broadway team of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II] that they fashion a musical from it for her to star in” (Foil).
“Hammerstein was intrigued – he saw in Lawrence a star who had that ‘magic light’ – but the ever-pragmatic Rodgers saw problems. The team had never before written a show designed simply as a vehicle for a performer – indeed, they’d begun to liberate Broadway from that very thing. And this performer presented unnerving problems for a composer of Rodgers’ ambitious talents: the aging Lawrence had a voice of limited range and she was notorious for singing flat” (Foil).
“But Lawrence’s lawyer, Fanny Holtzmann, snapped up the musical rights in the hope that Rodgers and Hammerstein would be won over. The gamble paid off” (Foil). Rodgers and Hammerstein viewed a previously released black-and-white version of the film and “Rodgers was dazzled by the possibilities” (Foil).
“’There was the contrast between Eastern and Western cultures,’ Rodgers later wrote…‘there was the intangibility of the attraction between teacher and king; there was the tragic subplot between the king’s Burmese wife and the Burmese emissary; there was the warmth of the relationship between Anna and her royal pupils; there was the theme of democratic teachings triumphing over autocratic rule; and, lastly there were the added features of Oriental pomp and atmosphere. Here was a project Oscar and I could really believe in’” (Foil).
“But Rodgers and Hammerstein were coming up empty-handed in their search for a co-star worthy of Gertrude Lawrence, whose lucrative contract almost made it impossible to get a star of equal stature. A somewhat skittish Rex Harrison had another commitment. Alfred Drake had too many demands. Even Lawrence’s oldest and dearest friend, Noel Coward, was apparently considered, if only briefly. Rodgers and Hammerstein reluctantly decided to start auditioning actors. Disappointed…they hopped in a cab to go watch an audition being conducted by John Fearnley, their casting director” (Foil).
“’The first candidate who walked out from the wings was a bald, muscular fellow with a bony, Oriental face,’ Richard Rodgers recalled in Musical Stages, his 1975 memoir. ‘He was dressed causally and carried a guitar. His name, we were told, was Yul Brynner, which meant nothing to us. He scowled in our direction, sat down on the stage and crossed his legs, tailor-fashion, then plunked one whacking chord on his guitar and began to howl in a strange language that no one could understand. He looked savage, he sounded savage, and there was no denying that he projected a feeling of controlled ferocity. When he read for us, we again were impressed by his authority and conviction. Oscar and I looked at each other and nodded…we had our king’” (Foil).
“Brynner’s Broadway musical credits at that time amounted to one – Lute Song, a failed 1946 show that had starred Mary Martin – and his foray into films hadn’t been successful. But he wasn’t an unknown. At the time, he was directing and sometimes hosting TV shows at CBS. Martin urged Rodgers and Hammerstein to cast him, to ‘kidnap him, if necessary’” (Foil).
“Rodgers particularly faced some thorny challenges in writing a score for this show. Lawrence’s songs had to be kept low and within a fairly limited range of notes, though the scale and richness of the material kept pulling the score in a more operatic direction. And how would he evoke the dinstinctive musical color of 19th-century Siam? Rodgers elected, shrewdly, to handle it in the manner of a visitor, an observer from another culture…What resulted is a score that doesn’t try to reflect a world, but – and this is a vital difference – to imagine one” (Foil).
“Once the show hit the road for pre-Broadway tryouts, some key factors became clear. At almost four hours, The King and I was too long. Several songs weren’t working. And the ever-volatile Lawrence was singing so flat that audiences and critics were grumbling about it. The tour was a true shakedown cruise. At least three songs were cut. Shall We Dance? didn’t enter the show until Boston, and – reportedly at Mary Martin’s suggestion – a casualty from the South Pacific score was revived, given a new lyric and dropped in for Anna. ‘Sudddenly Lucky’ had been replaced in South Pacific by ‘A Wonderful Guy,’ but Hammerstein’s new inspiration transformed into the winsome melody into Getting to Know You” (Foil).
“None of that seemed to matter on opening night. Overwhelmed by the lavish production and the performances of Lawrence and Brynner, the New York critics tried to be cool to the show, at first slighting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work. But even Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times would revise his early, severe response to The King and I. Brynner became an overnight sensation. Lawrence was once again the toast of Broadway. By the time the show opened, Frank Sinatra had recorded three songs from the score and they were climbing the charts. Rodgers and Hammerstein had done it again” (Foil).
“It was logical that 20th Century-Fox would film The King and I. Rodgers and Hammerstein had written their only movie musical for the studio – State Fair in 1945 – and Fox, of course, had made Anna and the King of Siam and controlled the film rights. In fact, the studio was an investor in the Broadway production of The King and I…[it] would be the most expensive film to date for 20th Century-Fox” (Foil). They “lavished…a record budget of $5,625,000 – and unusual care of this project” (Foil).
“Brynner…had left the national company of The King and I in 1954 to begin work on Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic The Ten Commandments…Fox offered him the then-impressive salary of $300,000, plus a profit percentage to star in the film version of The King and I. He accepted” (Foil).
However, Lawrence died September 6, 1952, from cancer, so “the role of Anna was sought by a number of popular singers and actresses…but it was Brynner who pushed for Deborah Kerr, despite the fact that she wasn’t a singer. She had the gracious quality of an English lady, but her powerful performances in From Here to Eternity on the screen and Tea and Sympathy on the stage had the kind of sexual tension that Brynner wanted to emphasize in the relationship between Anna and the King” (Foil).
“On July 4, 1956, a few days after the film version of The King and I opened in Los Angeles, Daily Variety begain its review of the film this way: ‘Blockbuster of the year. One of the all-time greats among musicals. Sure to wow all classes and nations. Socko in all departments: story, performances, production, score’” (Foil).
“Chemistry sizzled between…Brynner and…Kerr…, and the rich multilayered story had an emotional pull that was rare in film musicals. The film made breathtaking use of color and of a new widescreen photographic process called Cinemascope 55. The format’s enhanced sound quality provided a sumptuous setting for the Rodgers and Hammerstein score. The King and I became the second highest-grossing film of 1956 and a multiple Academy Award winner. With the possible exception of The Sound of Music – a show that always seemed to echo The King and I – it still ranks as the finest of all the film adaptations of the musicals of … Rodgers and…Hammerstein” (Foil).
- David Foil, liner notes from CD of The King and I soundtrack (1956/1993).