GETTING TO KNOW ANNA LEONOWENS By Peter Filichia
If an event hadn’t happened eighty-nine years earlier – on March 15, 1862, to be precise – we wouldn’t have one of Broadway’s much-praised and oft-revived musicals.
On that date, Anna and Louis Leonowens arrived in Siam.
Because she did make the trip, we’ll soon be celebrating the seventieth anniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I which opened at the St. James Theatre on March 29, 1951.
It would become the third-longest running book musical in Broadway history. (Numbers one and two, not so incidentally, were also Rodgers and Hammerstein creations: OKLAHOMA! and SOUTH PACIFIC.)
Similarly speaking, the 1977 revival for which Yul Brynner was catapulted from his original below-the-title status to top-billed, became the third-longest musical revival in Broadway history. One could even argue that it was, at 695 performances, the longest-running-ever musical revival, for the two that had lasted longer – NO, NO, NANETTE and CANDIDE – were actually revisals.
(All three of those, not so incidentally, yielded recordings that can be found at Masterworks Broadway.)
“Based on the novel ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM by Margaret Landon,” the credits proclaimed. Hammerstein’s book actually owed more to the 1946 film of the same name. Whatever the case, all three properties left out a great deal about Anna, which was rectified in 1991 through Leslie Smith Dow’s biography ANNA LEONOWENS: A LIFE BEYOND THE KING AND I.
Ann Harriet Emma Edwards (1831-1915) was, Smith Dow says, “creative with the truth” and that “her finished portrait may still prove to be painted more in the style of the Impressionists than the realists.” Perhaps few took issue with Anna because she had “a gaze as direct and searching that it sometimes made people feel uncomfortable.”
She did indeed have a husband whose first name was Tom, as the musical says, but his middle one was Leon and his surname Owens. Smith Dow suggests that Anna merged those two names and made them her last one “perhaps as a way of making herself seem more exotic and less easily traceable.”
They were married seven years before Tom died “of either a heart attack or heat stroke.” Anna did have some marriage offers, but turned them all down.
Most interesting to those who know THE KING AND I is that one who wanted to toss his hat into the romantic ring was Captain Orton, who commanded the boat that took her and Louis to Siam. Anna genuinely feared that he was going to make an advance, for she wasn’t interested.
Louis wasn’t an only child. Anna first had two daughters who perished in infancy. Next came Avis, whom Anna shunted off to boarding school before she headed to Siam. Considering that King Monghut was well-known for his harem, some friends questioned her “bringing up her young son in that den of iniquity.”
One of the musical’s conflicts is whether or not The King will give Anna her own house. In actuality, Monghut’s initial offer said that she could “live in this palace or nearest place thereof” if she would “desire to live with her husband or mail (sic) servant.” In actuality, The King gave her a house a mere week after she’d arrived, albeit a dilapidated one.
The musical never pinpoints the reason why a house is so important to Anna, but Smith Dow does: Anna was afraid that living in the palace would lead to her becoming part of the harem. She didn’t wish to become one of The King’s 600-plus wives, many of whom gave birth to his eighty-two children.
(Although casts of musicals were larger in the fifties, they couldn’t be THIS large.)
And yet, “to be part of King Monghut’s harem was the greatest honor a Thai woman could hope for.” Anna disagreed: “I have pitied these ill-fated sisters of mine,” she wrote in a letter. How ahead of her time she was, not only because she could put racial differences aside, but also by her referring to these women as “sisters.” Not until the late twentieth-century would feminists use the word in that manner.
The King had his own fears about Anna’s living off premises. He felt that she’d be in the company of missionaries who’d pressure her to convert him to Christianity. If His Majesty sounds paranoid, Smith Dow admits that the missionaries precisely did ask that of Anna who “hated their attempts.” As time went on, Anna in fact came to prefer some tenets of Buddhism to those of Christianity.
The King also gave Anna her own slaves. Although she eventually either freed them or retained them as paid employees, she made these decisions more slowly than many of us would expect.
Writers who adapt a property into a musical always take liberties and make changes. So too did Hammerstein. Lady Thiang was not Prince Chulalonghorn’s mother; she never met Anna, for she had died years earlier. There was a Tuptim, but her Lun Tha was actually named P’hra Balat. For his part in their illicit romance, he was burned at the stake. Smith Dow adds that The King later regretted ordering the execution. The author could find no record of Tuptim’s being whipped for her part in the forbidden romance.
The musical has Anna complain that The King treats her as a servant, which Smith Dow substantiates. After he had offered a post to a diplomat and then changed his mind, he demanded that Anna write him and say that SHE had made the mistake in making the offer. Anna refused, not once, but twice; when she arrived at the palace the following day, soldiers holding rocks “greeted” her. Anna retreated. Only after an advisor urged The King to reconsider was she out of danger.
Not everyone took her side. The Kralahome’s brother and others “were bitterly resentful of what they perceived as her growing power” over The King.
How much can one take? After five years, Anna left. Besides, Louis was now eleven and Chulalonghorn was getting the boy much too interested in the harem. Anna had reason to fear, for Smith Dow makes clear that Louis wasn’t a particularly well-behaved kid.
Chulalonghorn was not first in line for the throne; Prince Nooyai was, but died young. Although the musical shows Chulalonghorn and Louis as bosom buddies, Smith Dow says that at first they didn’t get along. They even had a vicious no-holes-barred fight, and Louis, although two years younger, emerged victorious.
Have you ever thought that The King’s writing Abraham Lincoln and offering to send him male elephants to help win The Civil War was a joke? No, The King did just that, right down to limiting his gift to bull pachyderms.
Anna said that she would return to Siam only if given more money and less work. After nearly a year of negotiations through slow-traveling letters, The King died (not, as the musical has it, in her presence). Fifteen-year-old Chulalonghorn assumed the crown as King Rama V. He did abolish bowing and scraping to royalty, as the musical shows, but more significantly, he outlawed slavery as well. After his ol’ pal Louis got in trouble in Australia (where some say he’d been jailed), he offered him a job, which Louis returned to Siam to take.
Anna moved to the United States where she wrote THE ROMANCE OF THE HAREM. Imagine her excitement when, in 1872, she met Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was indeed the book that Anna had introduced to her students. Stowe thrilled Anna by saying she’d read and had enjoyed her book, too.
Atlantic Monthly also published four of Anna’s stories, but money from writing wasn’t enough to support her and Louis. Anna was forced to take a job teaching on Staten Island, but also “spearheaded prison reform and founded schools for the blind.”
Did Ms. Leonowens bear any resemblance to Gertrude Lawrence, Constance Towers, Donna Murphy or Kelli O’Hara, all of whom played her on Broadway? Smith Dow reports that Anna had “hair parted in the middle, braided upward and coiled like a pretzel on the top of her head.” As much as Hammerstein veered from reality, we must be grateful that all the hair designers of every production of THE KING AND I did, too.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.