BWW Feature: RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN MAKE SIAM GREAT, AGAIN! at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre
Advice I received in my youth was to "know my roots." Contextually, this referred to my limited knowledge of punk rock, which spanned the not-fundamental years of 1995-2003. But "knowing your roots" can be more broadly interpreted. Understanding cultural history, including personal and family narratives, can inform identity. Knowing what came before you--and, more importantly, understanding the social climate that inspired what came before you--is a critical component to comprehending the nuances of current society.
In this mindset, I recently "discovered" an eye-opening piece of American theatrical history in the 65-year Broadway darling: Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I.
How far we've come...?
The King and I is a musical that pits Victorian values against those of the exoticized Oriental peoples. It's 1863, and the King of Siam, sensing the inescapable reach of Western culture, hires headstrong English widow Anna to teach English and European culture to the royal harem and children. The king's motives are dictated by both governing acumen and vanity--he desires to bring Western culture to Siam to maintain a foothold of power in the rapidly globalizing landscape; he also harbors personal concern that Western culture will view him as weak, expendable, conquerable. Based on the Margaret Landon novel and the Anna Leonowens memoir, The King and I's portrayal of King Mongkut of Siam's desire to incorporate Western values into his kingdom is historically accurate. In fact, Mongkut's knowledge of the West allowed him to maintain his national sovereignty while areas around him fell to European protectorship in the mid/late 1800s.
Anna arrives in Siam and immediately asserts herself as a strong, modern woman who won't be taken advantage of in her business dealings with the King. The King is offput, and hides her away in the classroom with his wives and numerous children. Anna and the King maintain their strained, but ultimately benign (though the potential for an unrequited attraction is apparent), relationship until finding a common goal in impressing a visiting English diplomat. Anna and the King team up to throw a proper Western party, which involves teaching the ladies of the palace to walk in hoop skirts, speak English properly and politely, and adhere to Western norms during the evening meal and ensuing ball.
I'm not spoiling the end when I say that they pull off the party, but the festivities of the evening are sullied when a runaway concubine is captured, and the King is expected to punish her, despite Anna's pleas for leniency. His heart (literally) gives out mid-whipping, and Anna is horrified to realize that she hasn't truly converted him to Western decency. The savage, Oriental instincts still hold strong in his personal identity, despite the fact that she taught him to polka pretty damn well. Disillusioned, she decides to return to Europe. The king dies, leaving the rule of Siam to his heir, who makes proclamations that clearly illustrate his indoctrination into Western culture. The audience is left with the feeling that the last King of true Siam, along with the cultural practices of his nation, has passed into history.
As with any play written in the pre-civil rights/pre-women's liberation era, there are bound to be some moments that seem cringe-worthy by current social standards. The King and I does feature complex female characters (one even writes a subversive meta-play about the evils of slavery--which is, unfortunately, a lengthy and uncomfortable pidgin rendition of Uncle Tom's Cabin); however, the show's condescending treatment of the Siamese, and by extension, Asian people and cultures in general, is a stark reminder of Western culture's seemingly interminable distaste for other races. The people of Siam are shown as malleable and unsophisticated. Though the play is set in Siam, little about the nation's culture is revealed beyond childish notions (they particularly like fireworks and boat racing) and social practices considerEd Salacious and lewd by Victorian (and, frankly, by current) standards. The tension of the show rests on whether or not the leading lady, the impeccable example of Western propriety and charity, can train the King of Siam to sit, speak, and dance. The only thing she doesn't train him to do is fetch a ball.
This show is considered a classic, and the purpose of this examination is not to take issue with narrative cohesion or production value--this is a professional tour at the Pantages Theater with a talented cast, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera .... And theatre is performance literature, so looking at plays from an earlier era through a modern social lens can certainly vilify authors as insensitive, even though they were representing the accepted values system of their time. What concerns me is the fact that this show is still being produced.
The King and I has been a staple of American theatre since its premier. Its most recent Broadway revival is a Tony-winner. Despite relatively unremarkable music and a predictable narrative, audiences continue to flock to this production. I suspect the comfort of seeing a "safe" play prevents viewers from noticing and rejecting the patronizing themes being portrayed.
This is not a vendetta against old plays, nor is it call to ignore these classic shows, shows on which many of us cut our theatrical teeth; it's instead notice to be wary of "safe" theatre. "Safe" theatre like The King and I subverts social progressiveness by concealing racism in the dramatic swirling of Anna's glorious gown as she dances, triumphant, with her king. These plays, from times when America was "great," are uncomfortable reminders of an American culture that simply will not be made to accept "the other."
Maybe that America is now. Or, perhaps people are just swallowing without chewing, simply enjoying Rodgers and Hammerstein's show for its singableness and its spectacle.
Either way, The King and I at The Hollywood Pantages received a standing ovation.