Originally posted August 11, 2008. Last updated September 4, 2018.
The King and I (cast/soundtrack)
Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II (composers)
Opened on Broadway: March 29, 1951
Cast Album Charted: May 26, 1951
Soundtrack Released: June 11, 1956
Sales (in millions):
Quotable: “One of the all-time greats among musicals.” – Daily Variety
The King and I was the fifth collaboration for Rodgers and Hammerstein. The musical came about when Fanny Holtzmann, a theatrical attorney, was looking for a part for her client, Gertrude Lawrence. Holtzmann thought Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, would be a perfect vehicle and contacted Rodgers & Hammerstein. WK
The novel was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a British widow and school teacher who, in the 1860s, served as governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam. WK She was hired as part of the king’s effort to modernize his country WK and tutor him in how to become a cultivated English gentleman. DF The musical is marked by the conflict between the king and Anna and the love which neither can admit. WK
Rodgers was concerned that “the aging Lawrence had a voice of limited range and she was notorious for singing flat.” DF They’d also never written a show designed for a specific performer, and had tried to liberate Broadway of that very habit. DF However, Rodgers, later wrote, of some of the appealing elements of the story: “there was the contrast between Eastern and Western cultures…there was the intangibility of the attraction between teacher and king…there was the warmth of the relationship between Anna and her royal pupils; there was the theme of democratic teachings triumphing over autocratic rule.” DF
However, they were still challenged to find a worthy co-star. Rex Harrison played the part in a 1946 film based on Landon’s book – but he was unavailable. WK Alfred Drake and Noel Coward, Lawrence’s oldest and dearest friend, were also considered. DF They ended up holding auditions and the first candidate was an actor named Yul Brynner, whose only Broadway musical credit was in Lute Song, a failed 1946 show starring Mary Martin. DF Rodgers had never heard of him, but wrote about his first impression. He “was a bald, muscular fellow with a bony, Oriental face…He looked savage, he sounded savage, and there was no denying that he projected a feeling of controlled ferocity. When he read for us…Oscar and I looked at each other and nodded…we had our king.” DF
The musical debuted at Broadway’s St. James Theatre on March 29, 1951. WK Brynner was an overnight sensation and Lawrence “was once again the toast of Broadway.” DF They both won Tonys for their performances; The King and I was also given the Tony for Best Musical. With a run of nearly three years, it became, at the time, the fourth longest-running Broadway musical in history. WK
The 1956 film version was, at the time, the most expensive film to date for 20th Century Fox. DF Brynner was tapped to reprise his role, but Lawrence died of cancer on September 6, 1952, so was replaced by Deborah Kerr, at Brynner’s urging. DF “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.” DF
“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.” DF Daily Variety called it the “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.” DF
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning nine – including Best Actor for Yul Brynner.