About this Recording
8.120792 - RODGERS: King and I (The) (Original Broadway Cast) (1951) / Original London Cast (1954)

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 mind when discussing a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but it certainly rests at the heart of the creation of The King And I.

Even though the work was originally conceived and written as a vehicle for its starring lady, the show has come to linger in the public consciousness as a triumphant showcase for its leading man.

It all began in 1950, when Fanny Holtzmann, the super-agent behind musical comedy legend Gertrude Lawrence, set out to find a vehicle for her client.

Although once the toast of Broadway and London, it had been nine years since the opening of Lawrence's last solid-gold hit, Lady in the Dark.

In the intervening time there had been some less-than-winning plays (September Tide) and a disastrous film version of The Glass Menagerie. Ethel Merman had Annie Get Your Gun; Mary Martin had South Pacific. Gertie needed a hit musical of her own.

Holtzmann was sent a copy of Margaret Landon's 1944 best-seller Anna and the King of Siam, which had been turned into a successful 1946 movie starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, and instantly saw it as a vehicle for her client.

But at first, no one else agreed. Both Cole Porter and Noel Coward declined writing the score, finding nothing to entice them in the story of the woman who came to Siam in the 1860s as the governess to the multitudinous children of the Siamese monarch.

A chance meeting with Dorothy Hammerstein, on the way to the delicatessen to get a sandwich for her husband, Oscar, started another set of wheels in motion and before long Broadway was surprised to hear that the unstoppable team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, fresh from their Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific, 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 the story won him over.

They had trouble initially finding someone willing to share the stage with their diva, however. Rex Harrison refused the opportunity to recreate his film role, saying 'I never bathe in the same water twice'.

Alfred Drake wanted an unheard of $5,000 a week and an out after six months, neither of which were acceptable. And Noel Coward, having declined to write the show, now turned down the male lead as well.

They were at a loss until a Russian-born actor of mixed Roumanian-Mongolian heritage sat squat-legged on the stage and accompanied himself on the guitar with a wild gypsy folk song. His name was Yul Brynner and although 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 Van Druten was a low-key man best known as a playwright, not the ideal choice to whip a large musical into shape.

The cost of the show was $360,000 which was a record for the time and Rodgers and Hammerstein were worried about their investment.

To top it all off a visibly weakened Lawrence struggled against ill-health, missing the final week of rehearsals before the first out of town tryout due to pneumonia.

In New Haven, it ran four hours long and was found in need of serious surgery. A whole series of songs 'that we realized just in time were boring', 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 'Something Wonderful' and revised versions of 'Shall We Dance?' and 'We Kiss in a Shadow' that delivered their full potential.

But there was still something missing, and that sage veteran Lawrence put her finger on it.

'Let me sing a song with the children', she pleaded with Rodgers and Hammerstein, referring to the fifteen offspring of the King who were delighting audiences.

Hammerstein recalled a favourite melody of Rodgers that Joshua Logan had made them cut from South Pacific. In that show, as 'Suddenly Happy', it didn't work and had been replaced by 'Younger than Springtime'.

But now, with the new title, 'Getting To Know You', it became the missing piece of the puzzle that made The King And I click.

When it opened on 29 March 1951, the reviews were generally favourable, but many of them echoed Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times when he called it 'no match for South Pacific'.

The other dissenting opinion involved Lawrence. She was credited with 'a thoroughly professional, though uninspired performance' by John McClain in the Journal-American and most of his colleagues agreed.

When it came to Yul Brynner's King, however, they tripped over themselves with superlatives like 'striking','excellent','regal' and 'dynamic'.

From that day forward, with rare exceptions, it's the role of the King that has dominated most revivals of The King And I, not that of Anna, for whom the show was written.

Lawrence's voice continued to come in for much criticism throughout the run of the show. What no one (including her) ever knew was that she was dying of liver cancer. After collapsing on stage one afternoon, she passed away on 6 September 1952. She was buried in the pink ball gown she had been wearing in the 'Shall We Dance?' sequence.

The King And I , despite its mixed notices, went on to become one of the classics of modern musical theatre. Its initial run of 1246 performances was a solid one and the 1956 film (starring Brynner and Deborah Kerr) scored a major success.

Brynner, in fact, found it hard to escape from the shadow of the King. He eventually stopped trying and toured with the show until he died of lung cancer on 10 October 1985

The original cast recording heard here leaves out (for time reasons) some of the numbers from the production, most notably 'Western People Funny','Song of the King' and the lengthy ballet 'The Small House of Uncle Thomas.'

Listening to Lawrence's thin voice, one might wonder at her stardom. So did dancer Gemze de Lappe, until she found herself watching the show from the audience one night.

'She had such star quality,' she recalled, 'that you didn't care 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 before the show opened on Broadway and features an Overture that was put together expressly for the purpose.

Patrice Munsel and Tony Martin deliver reliable versions of their assigned ballads, but Robert Merrill's 'A Puzzlement' is a bit of an oddity, with lines like his unpunctuated 'Is a puzzlement what to tell a growing son', sounding like a preview of his later triumph as Tevye, rather than 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 Bloody Mary of London's South Pacific) as Lady Thiang and Herbert Lom (best remembered as Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther series) as The King.

Last, but not least, is the composer himself conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a 1954 recording of "The March of the Siamese Children".

The King And I may have been conceived out of opportunism, created in trepidation and forged in crisis, but in the end, it truly emerged as "Something Wonderful".

Richard Ouzounian

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