Rodgers & Hammerstein's first musical play based on a true story was also the first project brought to them by a star who wanted to play the leading role. The star was Gertrude Lawrence, and her idea for a musical came from the highly popular novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon which, in turn, was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a 19th century Englishwoman who became governess to the children of the King of Siam.
Coincidentally, a few years before Miss Lawrence approached Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, they had already had the idea pitched to them by their wives. Both Dorothy Rodgers and Dorothy Hammerstein had read the Landon book, but it wasn't until Rodgers and Hammerstein viewed a screening of the 1946 film version of the Landon novel that they came around. The film, starring Rex Harrison as the King and Irene Dunne as Anna, provided Rodgers and Hammerstein with the clue they were looking for: yes, the history was fascinating, and yes the exotic themes and settings were ideal for musical pageantry and spectacle; but a good musical also needs story and conflict and here—in the multiple themes of East versus West, "civilization" versus "barbarism," despotism versus democracy and man versus woman—Rodgers and Hammerstein found plenty to write about.
Casting Gertrude Lawrence as Anna was the easy part. As for the King, Noel Coward, Rex Harrison and Alfred Drake, among others, were offered the role and all, for various reasons, turned it down. It was at an open audition that a young dancer whom Mary Martin had recommended walked out onto the stage of the James Theatre, sat cross-legged on the floor and, in Richard Rodgers' words, "plunked one whacking chord on his guitar and began to howl in a strange language that no one could understand...We had our king." He was, of course, Yul Brynner.
THE KING AND I was readied for Broadway with a budget of $360,000—making it the most expensive Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to date, and one of the most lavish in Broadway history. John van Druten was the director; Jerome Robbins served as choreographer, giving his unique touch to such memorable moments as "Shall We Dance?" and the Siamese treatment of Uncle Tom's Cabin, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." Jo Mielziner designed the sets, and Irene Sharaff the costumes. With a supporting cast that included Doretta Morrow as Tuptim, Dorothy Sarnoff as Lady Thiang, and Larry Douglas as Lun Tha, THE KING AND I began its trek to Broadway in the late winter of 1951.
The musical was greeted enthusiastically in New Haven where changes were made nevertheless. Searching for an Act I song for Anna to brighten her character, Rodgers and Hammerstein were stumped until Mary Martin, visiting from New York, reminded them of an upbeat soft-shoe discarded from SOUTH PACIFIC. A few changes in the music and a brand new lyric, and "Suddenly Lucky" was metamorphosed into "Getting To Know You."
THE KING AND I opened on Broadway on March 29, 1951, where it proceeded to run for three years, racking up 1,246 performances. It received five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and honors for both of its stars. Very quickly the allure of THE KING AND I began to spread worldwide. Valerie Hobson and Herbert Lom starred in the original London production, and the musical scored great successes in Australia, Japan, and throughout Europe—from LE ROI ET MOI in Brussels to DER KONIG UND ICH in Berlin.
In 1956 Twentieth Century Fox—which had presented the 1946 version starring Harrison and Dunne—released the motion picture version of THE KING AND I under the careful eye of studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck. "More than your eyes have ever seen," promised the posters—"More than your heart has ever known!" THE KING AND I starred Deborah Kerr as Anna (with her musical voice provided by Marni Nixon) and Yul Brynner recreating his role as The King. An immediate success, THE KING AND I became the second-highest grossing film of the year and was also critically acclaimed; nominated for nine Academy Awards, it received five, including the Best Actor Award to Brynner.
Yul Brynner's relationship to THE KING AND I is unique in the annals of theatre. Over the course of 34 years he played The King more than 4,600 times, first on stage, then on the big screen and then on television (co-starring with Samantha Eggar in the short-lived series, ANNA AND THE KING in the early '70s.) He brought THE KING AND I back to Broadway for two separate, triumphant engagements; the latter, the culmination of his farewell tour as The King, was presented in 1985, the final year of his life. At the conclusion of that run Mr. Brynner received a special Tony Award for his achievements.
Ultimately, the musical that was conceived by one star, and made a star out of another, has transcended its star vehicle status to live on as a classic in its own right with two starring roles. In addition to the legendary Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, a host of great names have played these star parts over the years. The honor roll includes, as Anna: Susan Hampshire, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Cook, Jan Clayton, Jeannette MacDonald, Betsy Palmer, Eileen Brennan, Betty White, Virginia McKenna and Florence Henderson. The King, meanwhile, has been played by, among others, Darren McGavin, Alfred Drake, Cameron Mitchell, Farley Granger, Ricardo Montalban, Pernell Roberts, Theodore Bikel, Stacey Keach, and Rudolf Nureyev.
In 1992 Philips Classics released a studio cast recording of THE KING AND I. Under the direction of John Mauceri and featuring the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the all-star recording was led by Julie Andrews (Anna) and Ben Kingsley (The King), with Lea Salonga (Tuptim), Peabo Bryson (Lun Tha), Marilyn Horne (Lady Thiang) and cameo appearances by Martin Sheen and Roger Moore.
Earlier that season, a new production of THE KING AND I starring Hayley Mills began touring Australia. The director was Christopher Renshaw, the designers were Brian Thomson for sets and Roger Kirk for costumes, and the producer was John Frost of the Gordon/Frost Organisation. Distinctive and unusual, this production caught the eye of composer Rodgers' daughter Mary, who declared it the best KING AND I she had ever seen. Within a short time the wheels were set in motion to bring this production 10,000 miles up to Broadway.
It arrived four years later, opening at the Neil Simon Theatre on April 11, 1996, starring Tony Award winner Donna Murphy as Anna and film star Lou Diamond Phillips as The King. Renshaw, Thomson and Kirk repeated their assignments, and Frost's primary co-producers were Dodger Productions. Hailed by the critics and public alike, THE KING AND I swept the triple crown of Broadway honors that spring, winning the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics' Circle Awards for Best Musical Revival; Murphy received her second Tony, and both set and costume designers won Tony Awards as well. During its second year on Broadway the leads were replaced by Faith Prince and Kevin Gray. Prince herself had been replaced by Marie Osmond (in her Broadway debut) by the time THE KING AND I closed on Broadway in February,1998; its tally of 807 performances made it the longest-running R&H revival in Broadway history.
A U.S. National Tour, starring Hayley Mills for its first year, opened in Minneapolis in April of 1997; the following year Ms. Mills was replaced, first by Marie Osmond and finally Maureen McGovern. A London version of this production, starring Elaine Paige, opened at the legendary Palladium in May of 2000, where it played for nearly two years before embarking on a U.K. National Tour into 2002.
Today, THE KING AND I still reigns, its majesty still shines. With its legacy assured, we leave the final word to Oscar Hammerstein II. In 1956 he wrote to his partner, Richard Rodgers: I am convinced that this is our best work. I have a kind of humble feeling of not knowing how we did it. It has more wisdom as well as heart than any other musical play by anybody. It will remain 'modern' long after any of our other plays.