Shall We Dance and Think About Privilege and Race? THE KING AND I at Toby's
To all accounts, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were dragged somewhat reluctantly by their wives into the project that became The King and I (1951). And when Rodgers and Hammerstein did become involved, they focused more on the piece as a vehicle for the talents of Gertrude Lawrence and for lovely songs and spectacle than scoring points in any serious national discussion. But sometimes the discussion finds you.
The excellent revival of The King and I at Toby’s Columbia provides an opportunity to reexamine a show most of us think we know. Viewed from 60 years on, the musical seems like a logical next step, after South Pacific (1949), in the authors’ consideration of racial privilege and segregation, a topic then coming to a boil in the United States. (Truman had integrated the Armed Forces only three years before, and some of the cases shortly to be consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education were already wending their way through the courts.) Broadway held a much bigger place in the popular culture and the national discourse then than it does now. So Rodgers and Hammerstein could not possibly have failed to weigh their contributions to that discourse, or to be ignorant of the impact those contributions would have.
Just like South Pacific, The King and I addresses the American racial discussion only by indirection. In the earlier work, the focus is on miscegenation, and the “other” race is Micronesian (the planter’s children) or Vietnamese (Bloody Mary’s daughter), in neither case African American. In The King and I, the focus is on privilege, and the un-privileged “others” are women, Southeast Asians, even whites – in fact everyone who is not the King himself is in a non-privileged status at some point vis-à-vis the King. Even the King, it emerges, is un-privileged and suspect next to the monarchs of the European colonizing powers.
In this drama that turns completely on group identity and privilege, U.S. race relations are explicitly dragged in only as a critique of gender relations in the Siamese court, via the Uncle Tom’s Cabin pantomime and ballet. But every status disparity, whether between men and women, Thais and Burmese, a king and his subjects, Simon Legree and Eliza, or Queen Victoria and King Mongkut, is shown an enemy to human potential and happiness. It is hard to imagine a musical in which the baneful effects of privilege are more fully limned and pilloried.
The relevance and power of this denunciation could hardly have been lost on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contemporaries, no matter how indirectly it was expressed.
As the world knows, The King and I is built around the tale of Anna Leonowens, a British governess hired by the King of Siam in 1862 to teach some of his wives and children. Leonowens (in her two memoirs that were the source of Margaret Landon’s novel about her, which in turn was the source for The King and I) presented herself as a symbol of British breeding and enlightenment, bringing civility and a progressive view of gender roles to an utterly patriarchal court. Even historically, this was a slight gloss; Leonowens was of mixed Indian and English parentage, and of low birth – facts she was at pains to conceal. But her feminism was real, realer in fact than Rodgers and Hammerstein gave their character credit for.
What Rodgers and Hammerstein gave us was your grandmother’s feminism (well, many grandmothers’ feminism): female freedom defined primarily as the freedom to cleave to a man of one’s own choosing, after the relationship derives value from a conventional romance. Some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest songs, all in this show, extol that kind of love: HELLO, YOUNG LOVERS, MY LORD AND MASTER, and I HAVE DREAMED. The King’s unsentimental view of gender relations seems more perceptive in some ways, and probably nearer what the historical Leonowens would have appreciated, but it denies women the right to choose a mate. And the horrifying treatment of Tuptim, the Burmese concubine whose lèse majesté consists simply of insisting on romantic autonomy after having been given to the King, makes clear that this freedom is nonetheless fundamental and indispensible, akin to Eliza’s and Uncle Tom’s need not to be slaves. It may not be the whole cause, but the cause is lost without it.
The King may revel in the tyranny of his privilege, but it is still Rodgers and Hammerstein’s choice not to make a villain of him, any more than they would want to demonize the segregationists who bought tickets to sit in their audience. They may enshrine an Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet in the heart of the dramatized debate, but they are not about to present the King as a latter-day Simon Legree.
Instead, the King is given many allowances, because he is striving to better his country and is in some ways as much a prisoner of patriarchy as his concubines. That is the burden of his chief wife Lady Thiang’s song SOMETHING WONDERFUL. I do not think any modern musical could present that song that way; it would sound like an abused wife singing a paean to her spouse. But within this 1951 artifact of a show, it works. Likewise, the King is softened by Rodgers and Hammerstein; in the end, he cannot bring himself to lash Tuptim though according to his received ways he should (by contrast the Tuptim in Anna’s memoir was publicly tortured and then burned alive – after Mongkut had first promised Anna he would spare her).
The conflict of progressive and retrograde messages in this show (How much love can you give a well-intentioned oppressor? Is it feminist to fight for the right to choose a man whose regard is vital?) gives rise to a powerful temptation in modern stagings, which is to sweep all those 20th-Century conflicts under the rug, and simply tell a powerful story of love affairs and children and pluckiness, shot through with heavenly music. And this particular production, directed by Shawn Kettering, does succumb to some extent.
Fortunately, the show has a way of forcing these issues back to the fore, most notably in the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, here choreographed beautifully by Tina DeSimone (based on the Jerome Robbins ballet seen on Broadway and in the 1956 movie). In the ballet, patriarchy and racism take on an urgency that is not to be gainsaid.
In any case, even seen merely on a superficial level, the show connects, when presented well. And this production, as I said before, is excellent. David Bosley-Reynolds’ portrayal of the King especially holds the attention. (Half the time he sounds uncannily similar to Yul Brynner who originated and inhabited the role for many years.) Whether soliloquizing or dancing the polka with Anna (Heather Marie Beck, whom I admired in Xanadu), he leaves you hanging on every word and gesture. Beck carries the tunes well, with perhaps just a hint of shrillness, and swings a mean hoop skirt. Julia Lancione’s Tuptim and Jeffrey Shankle’s Lun Tha (Tiptim’s lover) harmonize beautifully and look lovely together. (Look out for Lancione's powerful high notes.) And Crystal Freeman makes what can be made of the aforementioned SOMETHING WONDERFUL. Dancer Tegan Williams is exceptional as Eliza in the ballet sequence. The costumes by Florence Arnold are lavish and eye-catching.
Do go. But when you do, and the conundrums of race, class, and gender that lie just beneath the surface beckon to you, think about them; do not drown in the sentimental wash, although, especially at the end when the King lies dying and a roomful of desperate tykes beg their teacher not to desert them, drowning will be difficult to resist. Rodgers and Hammerstein designed the ending to reduce you to tears, and they knew what they were doing. Resist anyhow. Think instead.
The King and I, music by Richard Rodgers, Books and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Shawn Kettering, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044, through March 25. Tickets $41.40 - $48.50. www.TobysDinnerTheatre.com. 1-800-99TOBYS.