Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I

The partnership between composer Richard Rodgers and librettist/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II is well known in the musical theatre world. Together, they have produced such works as Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. Check out these interesting facts about the creation of this timeless piece.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the royal children photo by Matthew Murphy

  • The King and I is loosely based on the fictional novel The English Governess at the Siamese Court.  
  • The novel, written by Margaret Landon, is an embellished re-imagining of the memoirs of Anna Leonowens’ account of teaching English in the court of the Siamese King Mongkut.
  • The idea for the musical was proposed by Fanny Holtzmann, an attorney for Gertrude Lawrence in an attempt to revive her dwindling career.
  • Neither Rodgers or Hammerstein were intitially interested in the idea but proceeded with the project as urged by their wives who were fans of the novel.
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Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are pictured auditioning hopefuls at the St James Theatre.

  • Both Rodgers and Hammerstein struggled with how to convey the cultural context of the story.
  • Rodgers wanted to reference Asian music without alienating a Western audience. He stopped short of incorporating traditional Thai music and instead settled on some unusual chords to convey a foreign mood.
  • Hammerstein wrote the King’s dialogue without using articles – a manner of speech common to many Asian languages.

Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao photo by Matthew Murphy

  • The romance between Lun Tha and Tuptim was scripted primarily so that Rodgers could write some of the romantic tunes he was famous for – as it would be inappropriate to stage a cross-cultural romance between the King and Anna. An attraction between the Thai King and British governess is merely suggested in the musical.
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Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the Broadway production of The King and I (1951)

  • The musical opened on Broadway in 1951 starring British actress Gertrude Lawrence as Anna and Russian actor and director Yul Brynner as  the King of Siam.
  • Brynner was then relatively unknown, but shot to stardom for his performance in the hit.
  • The show played for three years, but lost its leading lady when Lawrence died of liver cancer halfway through the run.
  • Gertrude Lawrence became the first person to ever have the lights on Broadway dim after her death. Check out our blog Dimming the Lights to learn more.
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Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas and Graham Montgomery photo by Matthew Murphy

  • The show had an initial budget of US$250,000 – which was at that time the most expensive Rodgers & Hammerstein musical ever made
  • Lawrence had to wear costume gowns that weighed up to 34 kg, and her character danced a total of 6.4km in every performance, eight shows a week. Lawrence was buried in one of her costumes from the show.

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  • Through the initial run and several revivals, Yul Brynner performed the role of the King more than 4,600 times.
  • Yul Brynner reprised his role as the king on tour at the Hollywood Pantages in 1979
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Show poster of The King and I starring Yul Brynner (1979)

  • a 1956 film took the musical from Broadway success to international smash hit. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five.
  • The film was (and still is) banned in Thailand as it was deemed disrespectful to the monarchy – an offence which breaks several of the country’s laws.

For tickets and more information about The King and I CLICK HERE.

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