The King and Us: A former Anna recalls her time with Brynner

Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I Jose Llana. Photo by Matthew MurphyJose Llana as The King in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The King and I’  In Denver, playing 2-14. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The King and I is a triumphant survivor of changing theatrical fashions and wildly changing times

By Sylvie Drake
For the DCPA NewsCenter

How unfamiliar can anyone possibly be with the plot, music and subject of The King and I? It’s only been around for 66 years and it has hardly stopped playing somewhere in the world since it was launched in 1951.

At first, incredibly, composer Richard Rodgers and book-writer Oscar Hammerstein II resisted writing this musical, doubting there would be much of an audience for it. Yet the musical about to emerge from their serendipitous collaboration turned out to be their fourth gigantic Broadway-and-beyond success. It made Yul Brynner virtually a one-role star; he played The King 4,625 times over a 34-year span. At an uninterrupted clip, that’s 12 years, seven weeks and five days.

But a stage musical is not an endurance test (although there is that), but the result of a creative impulse. And The King and I is that result, plus the triumphant survivor of changing theatrical fashions and wildly changing times.

It all began in 1873 when Anna Leonowens decided to write her two books of courtly memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem. Little did this gutsy Victorian widow dream that, all these years later, this uncommon episode in her life would become the basis for one of America’s most beloved musicals.

KING AND I 800When the urbane English comedienne Gertrude Lawrence chanced on a Margaret Landon novel called Anna and the King of Siam, inspired by Leonowens’ five years at the Siamese court, the aging Lawrence recognized Anna as a potential comeback role for herself. After failing to cajole Cole Porter into writing a musical for her based on the Landon novel, she turned to Rodgers and Hammerstein II, who had just delivered three successive Broadway megahits: Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945) and South Pacific (1949).

(Pictured above and right: Patricia Morison joined Yul Brynner on Broadway as Anna in 1954.)

The two men had heard about the Landon novel from their wives, and the wives must have insisted, because eventually their husbands offered not only to write The King and I(a title Lawrence reportedly did not like), but also to produce it. Opening in March 1951 with Lawrence in the lead, it became the fourth Broadway megahit for its creators, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. (A fifth, The Sound of Music, would follow in 1959.)

The production was an all-Broadway-royalty affair. Aside from the glittering Gertie Lawrence, it had fabulous songs (“Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Shall We Dance?”), Jerome Robbins’ charismatic choreography, opulent sets by Jo Mielziner, lavish Irene Sharaff costumes and, in the role of the King’s son — on Broadway and on tour, until his voice broke — a very young, very personable Sal Mineo.

As for The King, after turndowns from Nöel Coward, Alfred Drake and Rex Harrison (who’d played The King in the 1946 nonmusical film with Irene Dunne), it went to that little-known Russian-born actor with a funny name who had been a circus acrobat in Europe, the one-of-a-kind Yul Brynner.

So Lawrence got her wish, but while she created Anna on Broadway, she did not get to savor it for long. Developing cancer, she died in September 1952, after remaining with the show until the last possible minute. By then, Brynner was well on his way to making The King synonymous with himself, eventually wresting top billing and fulfilling the title’s promise, which placed The King before the I.

Patricia Morison, who at the time had created her own Broadway sensation in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, was Rodgers’ first choice to replace Lawrence. But Morison was in London with Kate and had a year to go on her contract. She eventually joined Brynner in 1954, continuing the Broadway run of The King and I for another four months — the fourth longest of that decade — before going on the road with Brynner and the show for more than three years.

Still lucid and luminous at 102, Morison gladly shares memories of those heady days, recalling especially the joy of working and traveling with all the young children in the company and their mothers.

“Yul was remarkable,” she says of Brynner, who continued to draw worldwide admiration if, later in life, also a different set of whispered adjectives (try arrogant, demanding and imperious). Over time, Morison insists they became the best of friends.

“Yul had broken every bone in his body when he was with the circus and had built himself up again,” she says. “He was wonderful with the children. Every Monday night he would hold acting classes for the actors and dancers. At Sal Mineo’s final performance he and Sal were both in tears.”

Her biggest challenge? “Dealing with the 60-pound ball gown Anna wears in ‘Shall We Dance?’ It was quite a scramble to dance and leap around in those enormous crinolines.”

The King and I features José Llana as The King at The Buell, a role he’s played twice in this 2015 Tony-winning Lincoln Center revival directed by Bartlett Sher. Madeline Trumble is his Anna.

Sylvie Drake is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a translator, a contributor to and American Theatre magazine, and a former Director of Media Relations and Publications for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I: Ticket information
The King and I Set in 1860s Bangkok, this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical tells of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist King, in an imperialistic world, brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children.  score that features such beloved classics as “Getting To Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance” and “Something Wonderful.” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival.

  • National touring production
  • Performances Jan. 2-14
  • Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Tickets start at $25
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Sales to groups of 10 or more click here

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