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The King and I – Studio Cast Recording 1964

The King and I – Studio Cast Recording 1964

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Synopsis

To the strains of the “Overture,” Anna Leonowens, recently widowed, and her young son sail on a ship into the harbor of Bangkok, Siam (now Thailand), with a mixture of fear and anticipation: Anna has been hired to teach the many children of the King of Siam. As she and the boy leave the ship, flanked by fearsome Siamese warriors, she tells him her secret for dealing with scary situations (“I Whistle a Happy Tune”). Anna’s relationship with the king and his counselors is a confrontational one from the start: instead of the house she has been promised, she is expected to live in the royal palace, like the king’s many wives. As if to drive home her status, Anna’s arrival coincides with the delivery of a “gift” to the king from the Prince of Burma: a beautiful slave girl named Tuptim. Left alone for a moment, Tuptim sings of her fear and bitterness toward “My Lord and Master.” The man Tuptim really loves, however, is the emissary from the Burmese court who has brought her to Siam, Lun Tha. She confides in Anna, who recalls her own love for her husband and wishes the new couple well (“Hello, Young Lovers”). Anna now meets her dozens of new pupils, one by one, in a formal palace ceremony (“March of the Siamese Children”). One of Richard Rodgers’s few orchestral compositions, the march becomes louder and almost military to announce the entrance of the Crown Prince. Finally, we begin to get an impression of the king in his soliloquy – “A Puzzlement” – (presented here in its entirety): a barbarian, perhaps, but an evolving one, who at least perceives the need for his children to be taught Western ways, the king swings from self-aggrandizement to self-doubt, wanting to embrace the future yet cling to the past. The king remains suspicious of Anna, but the children love her instantly, and in the palace schoolroom, East and West begin to harmonize (“Getting to Know You”). (The melody here was written for a song that was to have appeared in South Pacific, but was bumped in favor of another R&H favorite, “Younger than Springtime.” It resurfaced, with these lyrics, during the Boston tryout of The King and I, when R&H felt the need for some more lighthearted material in what was looking like a very somber show.) Lun Tha and Tuptim can only meet in secret, and even then can scarcely touch. “We Kiss in a Shadow” finds them kneeling, as if in prayer, across the stage from one another. The king, meanwhile, will still not make good on his promise to Anna, and she returns to her palace room furious – “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” – (also complete here) is her own, quite feminist, soliloquy. Lady Thiang, chief among the king’s many wives, overhears Anna and implores her to stand by the king, in the lovely “Something Wonderful.” The song tempers the mood of Anna’s wrathful outburst; one imagines the women in the audience in 1951, mad as hell after the soliloquy, hearing Lady Thiang and remembering that their husbands may perhaps have some redeeming qualities after all. An English diplomatic delegation arrives – headed by a former suitor of Anna’s – ostensibly on a friendly visit, but really to see whether Siam is ripe to be added to the British empire. To convince them instead that the kingdom would make a good civilized ally, Anna helps the king plan a gala evening and outfit his court in the Western manner, and the king finally keeps his promise to Anna and grants her a house of her own. Lady Thiang and the ladies of the court find the hoopskirts and shoes quite awkward – “Western People Funny” – (dropped from the original cast album and recorded here for the first time). While the king and Anna entertain the diplomats, Lun Tha and Tuptim meet to plan their escape back to Burma and talk of hopes that will never be fulfilled (“I Have Dreamed”). The party is apparently a success; the king is grateful to Anna, and we have even seen him jealously pull her away from the Englishman. But before their romance can bloom, word arrives of an attempted escape by Tuptim, and the king is perplexed that Anna seems to take the lovers’ side, while he has a very different view (“Song of the King”). Anna, still trying to convince the king, explains her view of the way things are – or should be – between men and women in the West, and in describing how a boy and girl might meet at a dance, she begins dancing herself. The king, fascinated, joins in, learns the steps, and they joyously dance (Shall We Dance?”). Their enjoyment of each other is abruptly shattered when the captured Tuptim is brought in. Lun Tha is dead. Anna’s influence is such that the king cannot bring himself to whip the slave, thus humiliating himself in front of his court. Their rapport now destroyed, the two retreat to their own worlds. The king, apparently realizing that his old ways are finished, falls ill, and Anna is packing to return to England when she hears he is dying. On his deathbed, he asks her to stay, to continue teaching the children and to advise the young Crown Prince. The reprise of “Something Wonderful” here is not in the show, which lacks a musical finale, but Shepard’s addition of it gives Anna the opportunity to sing what is in her heart: as the king dies, she decides to stay. – Marc Kirkeby

Credits

Anna Leonowens: Barbara Cook The King: Theodore Bikel Tuptim: Jeanette Scovotti Lady Thiang: Anita Darian Lun Tha: Daniel Ferro Children: Chorus from the United Nations International School, New York City