RODGERS: The King and I (Original Broadway Cast) (1951) / Original London Cast (1954) (Naxos: 8.120792)
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The King And I
Original Broadway, London and Studio Cast Recordings, 1951-1954
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Irony is not always the first quality that comes to mindwhen discussing a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but it certainly rests at theheart of the creation of The King And I
Even though the work was originally conceived and written asa vehicle for its starring lady, the show has come to linger in the publicconsciousness as a triumphant showcase for its leading man.
It all began in 1950, when Fanny Holtzmann, the super-agentbehind musical comedy legend Gertrude Lawrence, set out to find a vehicle forher client.
Although once the toast of Broadway and London, it had beennine years since the opening of Lawrence's last solid-gold hit, Lady in theDark
In the intervening time there had been someless-than-winning plays (September Tide
) and a disastrous film versionof The Glass Menagerie
. Ethel Merman had Annie Get Your Gun
; MaryMartin had South Pacific
. Gertie needed a hit musical of her own.
Holtzmann was sent a copy of Margaret Landon's 1944best-seller Anna and the King of Siam
, which had been turned into a successful1946 movie starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, and instantly saw it as a vehiclefor her client.
But at first, no one else agreed. Both Cole Porter and NoelCoward declined writing the score, finding nothing to entice them in the storyof the woman who came to Siam in the 1860s as the governess to themultitudinous children of the Siamese monarch.
A chance meeting with Dorothy Hammerstein, on the way to thedelicatessen to get a sandwich for her husband, Oscar, started another set ofwheels in motion and before long Broadway was surprised to hear that the unstoppableteam of Rodgers and Hammerstein, fresh from their Pulitzer Prize for SouthPacific
, were about to start writing a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence.
Rodgers, to be honest, had his doubts, both about Lawrence's tyrannical personality and her uncertain pitch, but Hammerstein's passion for thestory won him over.
They had trouble initially finding someone willing to sharethe stage with their diva, however. Rex Harrison refused the opportunity torecreate his film role, saying 'I never bathe in the same water twice'.
Alfred Drake wanted an unheard of $5,000 a week and an outafter six months, neither of which were acceptable. And Noel Coward, havingdeclined to write the show, now turned down the male lead as well.
They were at a loss until a Russian-born actor of mixedRoumanian-Mongolian heritage sat squat-legged on the stage and accompanied himselfon the guitar with a wild gypsy folk song. His name was Yul Brynner andalthough he had only appeared in one Broadway show, the 1946 Lute Song
,his leading lady from that production told Rodgers and Hammerstein to 'grab him'.
Since her name was Mary Martin, they heeded her advice.
Things were tense throughout rehearsals. Director John VanDruten was a low-key man best known as a playwright, not the ideal choice towhip a large musical into shape.
The cost of the show was $360,000 which was a record for thetime and Rodgers and Hammerstein were worried about their investment.
To top it all off a visibly weakened Lawrence struggledagainst ill-health, missing the final week of rehearsals before the first out oftown tryout due to pneumonia.
In New Haven, it ran four hours long and was found in needof serious surgery. A whole series of songs 'that we realized just in time wereboring', to quote Rodgers, were excised. They bore forgettable names like "Why?","Waiting","Who Would Refuse?" and "Now You Leave".
In their place went sure-fire winners like 'SomethingWonderful'
and revised versions of 'Shall We Dance?'
and 'We Kissin a Shadow'
that delivered their full potential.
But there was still something missing, and that sage veteranLawrence put her finger on it.
'Let me sing a song with the children', she pleaded withRodgers and Hammerstein, referring to the fifteen offspring of the King whowere delighting audiences. Hammerstein recalled a favourite melody of Rodgers thatJoshua Logan had made them cut from South Pacific
. In that show, as 'SuddenlyHappy', it didn't work and had been replaced by 'Younger than Springtime'.
But now, with the new title, 'Getting To Know You', itbecame the missing piece of the puzzle that made The King And I
When it opened on 29 March 1951, the reviews were generallyfavourable, but many of them echoed Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times whenhe called it 'no match for South Pacific
The other dissenting opinion involved Lawrence. She wascredited with 'a thoroughly professional, though uninspired performance' byJohn McClain in the Journal-American
and most of his colleagues agreed.
When it came to Yul Brynner's King, however, they trippedover themselves with superlatives like 'striking','excellent','regal' and 'dynamic'.
From that day forward, with rare exceptions, it's the roleof the King that has dominated most revivals of The King And I
, not thatof Anna, for whom the show was written.
Lawrence's voice continued to come in for much criticism throughout the run ofthe show. What no one (including her) ever knew was that she was dying of livercancer. After collapsing on stage one afternoon, she passed away on 6 September1952. She was buried in the pink ball gown she had been wearing in the 'ShallWe Dance?' sequence.
The King And I
, despite its mixed notices, went on to become one of theclassics of modern musical theatre. Its initial run of 1246 performances was asolid one and the 1956 film (starring Brynner and Deborah Kerr) scored a majorsuccess.
Brynner, in fact, found it hard to escape from the shadow ofthe King. He eventually stopped trying and toured with the show until he diedof lung cancer on 10 October 1985The original cast recording heard here leaves out (for timereasons) some of the numbers from the production, most notably 'Western PeopleFunny','Song of the King' and the lengthy ballet 'The Small House of UncleThomas.'Listening to Lawrence's thin voice, one might wonder at herstardom. So did dancer Gemze de Lappe, until she found herself watching theshow from the audience one night.
'She had such star quality,' she recalled, 'that you didn'tcare whether she sang off-key. She dominated the stage.'This disc also features selections from an RCA 'cover'recording made with popular vocalists of the period. It was actually released beforethe show opened on Broadway and features an Overture
that was puttogether expressly for the purpose. Patrice Munsel and Tony Martin deliver reliable versions oftheir assigned ballads, but Robert Merrill's 'A Puzzlement'
is a bit ofan oddity, with lines like his unpunctuated 'Is a puzzlement what to tell agrowing son', sounding like a preview of his later triumph as Tevye, ratherthan the King of Siam.
The 1953 London Cast features ever-proper Valerie Hobson,often called 'the Iron Maiden of British cinema' as Anna. Muriel Smith (the BloodyMary of London's South Pacific
) as Lady Thiang and Herbert Lom (best rememberedas Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther
series) as The King.
Last, but not least, is the composer himself conducting theNew York Philharmonic Orchestra in a 1954 recording of "The March of theSiamese Children".