Sunday, 21 April 2019

'The King & I' - live relay to cinemas from London Palladium.

This Lincoln Centre produc-tion with Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watan-abe is running for a season at the very theatre where I saw Yul Brynner and Virginia McKenna take on the main roles in 1979, that being the only time I've seen this musical live on stage. Pity then that I'd found that production, basically a reprise of the film, a disappointment - unlike this one. I've seen all the 'big' Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals live in glitzy, big-star West End productions and 'The King & I' is the only one of them where I felt the filmed version was better than seeing it live. 

Before talking about this new production, a few 'asides':-
Just one more comment about Yul Brynner in that earlier show. It only came out later that for the entire 15-month London run Brynner's presence was a running sore to both other members of the cast and also to the entire production team, as he steadfastly remained in his onstage role of despotic ruler offstage too, making imperious, unreasonable demands on all and sundry and insisting that he always be addressed only as 'Mister Brynner' - the running in-joke was why he didn't also demand to be addressed as 'Your Majesty'. Remaining in the persona of the character an actor is currently playing on film is actually a ploy which a number of actors adopt, Meryl Streep for example, though I doubt if anyone would have the need to maintain it continuously for as long as 15 months as Brynner felt he had to. It must have been unbearably wearing for those having to communicate with him.
On the day I saw it I must have caught Virginia McKenna on one of her 'off' days, at least I hope it was. She never lifted her speaking part or her songs, all delivered in a one-dimensional tone. When she was required to smile it appeared conspicuously more as a grimace. I can only assume that she'd had some negative news before coming on stage - or maybe she'd had a confrontation of some sort with Mr Brynner!
When the casting for that production was announced I'd felt that a brilliant choice for playing the role of Anna would have been Sally Anne Howes, though I've no knowledge of her being considered or if she would have accepted it anyway.

One final 'btw' which I only discovered a few years ago by way of a passing remark on a radio chat show, so if you didn't know it already it might be worth sharing it with you. When R & H were writing 'South Pacific' they had a song, a duet sung by Lt Cable and his love-at-first-sight inamorata, Liat, called 'Suddenly Lucky' (sometimes 'Suddenly Lovely') which was later dropped as being not fully appropriate to their situation and replaced by the weightier and beautiful solo for Cable,  'Younger than Springtime'. The story goes that when Mary Martin  ('South Pacific's original Nellie Forbush) saw the premiere of 'The King & I'  she felt that Anna needed another song and, remembering the dropped South Pacific number, she suggested to the composer and lyricist that the tune might be imported into their new show. And so it was - 'Getting to Know You'.   

So much for the past of 'The King and I' and back to this new production. 
It's now been thoroughly re-thought and, I must say, most successfully too. No more being strait-jacketed by the film version, Anna is now much more feisty, the King more clownish and out of his depth as royal ruler. The relative positions of these two as 'master and servant' were dubious even at the musical's initial production and in today's climate of greater awareness of gender inequality it becomes more important than ever to bring out its absurdity. Now Anna's attitude to being pushed around and told what to do has been gingered up a bit with good effect. 
Choreography and orchestration are quite different - and now there's a marvellous bonus of at least four songs excised from both film and the production I saw, including a major solo for the King alone, which Brynner could hardly have managed. 
The roles of the Siamese children are somewhat downplayed now so that their march of introduction doesn't outstay its effect as can happen. However the initial appearance of the two younger lovers still seems a bit problematic so that when they suddenly start singing 'We Kiss in the Shadow' one may still be left wondering "Who on earth are these two?"
The 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' ballet sequence is slightly changed without losing its national interpretation attraction at all.
I was not in the least familiar with Kelli O'Hara's name, and Ken Watanabe ('The Last Samurai', 'Inception') I knew only slightly. I thought they were both exceptionally good - as was the entire supporting cast, all with strong and accurate singing voices (even if the 'King' was clearly under some strain in his big, demanding solo).

I found the entire event both exhilarating and a discovery. I'm glad that it has to a large extent put to bed the film version (which, of course, has considerable merits) but that is the general trouble with filmed versions of stage musicals - they do tend to set in stone one's expectations. This production rises to the challenge of making it come out looking and sounding fresh while demonstrating just what a thoroughly fine piece of theatre it is. I congratulate all involved. for providing us here with a piece which truly is 'Something Wonderful'.


  1. Excellent and fascinating review of your experiences of The King and I. I would love to see this now.

    1. For all lovers of musical theatre it was a gem, Mitch. I hope you'll get the chance to see even just a recording of it.

  2. Not only would I love to see this, I lovelovelove your BTW's with some back story of the people and the production. That's one reason I love coming here, to read what you share about film and stage.
    The Brynner and martin stories, I'd never heard before.
    Thank you sir, this post made me smile.

    1. Your comment has lifted my spirits, Bob. Gives me great satisfaction to be able to tell you or anyone else some things you or they didn't already know. There's bound to be other stuff within on other subjects so we'll see what else we can quarry out in future.

    2. As always, i look forward.

  3. When this opened at Lincoln Center, I gave it a pass as I had seen O'Hara in a revival of South Pacific and "Carousel" which I loved. However, when O'Hara left the production and Marin Mazzie (one of my favorite B'way stars) stepped in, I had to see it. What a performance! I think everyone in the audience was rooting for her as she just beat cancer. Sadly, the show did not last long and Marin died not too long after. I still go to YouTube and watch her "Shall we Dance".

    As you did, I also saw the revival of "The King and I" with Brynner and I never saw so many women in the audience. After Brynner left, I went again to see Angela Lansbury take over the role of Anna. Guess they wanted star power and Angela can do no wrong.

    I am assuming that the production you saw is under the production of Bartlett Sher - the master of revivals. I hope you get a chance to see his "My Fair Lady" with Harry Hadden-Paton and Norbert Leo Butz. Has a new spin and the "Get Me To The Church" number is a real gender bender.

    I am delighted that you got to experience this.

    1. I'd not heard of Marin Mazzie, Paul, but I've just looked at the YouTube clip and in the short time she does look good. So sad that she didn't survive long after this/ (I'd not heard of this 'King' either - and he dos look very young for the part, but also very capable.) The setting is identical to what I saw yesterday (of course!)
      I'll follow up by viewing some more of Mazzie's clips.

      I never knew that Angela Lansbury ever played 'Anna'. That I would love to have seen. At least she'd have had no trouble with the English accent, though neither did O'Hara.

      Yes, this present Palladium production is directed by Bartlett Sher - yet another name I don't know. I never tire of seeing 'My Fair Lady' revivals, for me the ultimate musical - the perfect marrying of witty lyrics, sublime music, variety of spectacle - and all with such a darned good story.
      I should love to have seen the revival a few years ago with Jonathon Pryce actually SINGING his songs rather than the 'talking on pitch' Rex Harrison style. I wonder if you've ever seen the songs actually being SUNG?

      I love these cinema relays but even so you can't beat the almost electric charge of being physically present in the theatre itself, though the seat prices are now discouragingly prohibitive. yesterday cost me about a quarter or less of what a theatre seat would have been.