The King and I: 'The story of people from different worlds fearing each other but finding commonality is always going to be timeless'
- Kelly Apter
- 19 September 2019
The team behind the new production of the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical tell us more about the show
Ever since it premiered on Broadway in 1951, The King and I has been a firm favourite with musical theatre fans. The tale of a British schoolteacher who becomes governess to the Siamese royal family, the show is packed with top tunes, gorgeous costumes and clever wit. We meet some of the team helping to bring this new production to audiences across the UK.
Lead actors Annalene Beechey (Anna Leonowens) and Jose Llana (the King of Siam)
It's almost 70 years since the show first opened, and over 150 years since the real Anna Leonowens headed to Siam – why do you think the story still has such appeal?
Jose Llana: 'I think there are two reasons – number one it's just good, the writing is really well done. But I also think the story of people from different worlds coming together and fearing each other at first, but then finding commonality is always going to be timeless.'
Annalene Beechey: 'And it has the most wonderful score. It's full of classic songs that are still popular – there's a dating programme on TV at the moment that's using 'Getting to Know You'. And we have 'Shall We Dance', 'Hello Young Lovers', 'I Have Dreamed' – beautifully written musical theatre songs that stand the test of time.'
One of the things this show is most famous for, is the dress you wear for the 'Shall We Dance' routine, which has a circumference of 40 metres and weighs 40lbs. What's it like dancing in that?
AB: 'It's very heavy! Thankfully, I wear a corset so that takes the strain off my back, but by the end of the week my hips and knees are very sore from the constant impact on my joints.
But also, when I stop dancing it keeps moving! So I have to really ground my feet apart, because if my feet are together the weight of the dress would just take me with it – I'd be like a spinning top and eventually fall over. Jose is really good at managing me, though so if I drift slightly he pulls me in.'
JL: 'I've taken ballroom dancing classes, and that training kicks in. But it's really just about acknowledging that the dress has a lot of weight and when we move, it's going to move with us a second later – and I think we do a pretty good job. It's scary when people attempt it who don't have the training – I've seen people fall over.'
You've both played some big roles in big shows, how does playing Anna and the King compare?
JL: 'It's a joy and an honour to play. There's a legacy with The King and I – you know you're following in the footsteps of many people who have played the part to great acclaim, so there's a lot of responsibility.
But it's also a gift to go home every night knowing you've given a full tank of gas. In some jobs you don't, but this is a full-tank show, so I'm a bit of a monk and try not to talk very much during the day. Rarely do you feel as if you've earned a curtain call as much as you do in this show – when you take your bow, the relief is so strong – "we did it again!".'
AB: 'It's quite a challenge for me in many ways, and eight shows a week takes its toll – vocally more than anything. I'm in most of the scenes and there's a lot of singing and shouting, so that's quite tough.
But the character of Anna is an honour to play – she's feisty, smart, funny and very brave. I can't imagine, even in this day and age, doing what she did back then on her own with her young son, it's very courageous. When I'm getting dressed, because I have so many layers to put on, I feel like I'm putting on hiking gear to conquer Everest! Especially on a matinee day, so I always have a short nap in between the two shows – I set my timer on my phone, put a sign on the dressing room door and roll up with my cushion and blanket. But I normally drop off about 5 minutes before my alarm goes off.'
Jose, you've performed this show on Broadway – have you noticed any differences in how the audience responds there and here in the UK?
JL: 'Yes! I'm reminded every show that for two and a half years I performed this production for a bunch of Americans and tourists – but now we're on home turf so the British jokes, which are often about language, tend to land better here. Also, because Anna is British, the audience instantly sees Siam through a British person's eyes – as opposed to in America, where to the audience both Anna and the King are foreigners in a foreign land. So that's interesting.'
This particular production of The King and I has been especially lauded. Why do you think that is?
AB: 'I think it's a fresh approach – they've gone back to the original draft of the script and put some things back in. I also think it doesn't shy away from some of the political issues, which it perhaps may not have done before.'
JL: 'And it's a dream creative team, who have taken something that's been revised a few times, but gone back to the original inspiration and fine-tuned it in a way that's relevant for today.'
Choreographic Assistant, Yuki Ozeki
Jerome Robbins' original choreography for the show is so iconic. You've got a connection with Robbins that has helped you work on this production – can you tell us about that?
'I've worked on a number of different King and I productions over the years, and a while back I had the privilege of learning the choreography for this show from Susan Kikuchi, the daughter of Yuriko Kikuchi who played Eliza in the original Broadway production in 1951. And actually, Yuriko came into rehearsals one day when I was being taught by Susan – so I had a direct connection with somebody who had actually learned this choreography from Jerome Robbins.'
In what way has the choreography evolved over the years, since Robbins created it?
'I think, because it's so iconic, Robbins' choreography for the show has always been maintained – most choreographers who work on it want to keep that integrity. However, the technical ability of dancers has evolved quite a bit compared to the 1950s, so Christopher Gattelli wanted to pump up the production's choreography – asking performers to jump a little higher or turn a little quicker. But it still stays true to Robbins' original choreography.'
You've had to work with performers wearing Anna's equally iconic dress – how have you handled that?
'We always joke that there are three people dancing that polka – Anna, the King and the dress. It's about striking that balance of how much the King supports Anna and pulls her around – they have to find the right momentum and force together, so that the dress works with them not against them. It weighs so much, it's a big job to just wear that dress, and then you have to dance the polka. A weekly massage helps!'
There are lots of amazing and beautiful costumes in The King and I – 300 individual items, plus 80 wigs worn by 40 performers. Some of them must be tricky to dance in?
'You can learn the choreography, but then then once you put the costume on, you kind of take two steps back. Because suddenly you can't raise your arms as high as you thought you could, or the headpiece is a lot heavier than you thought it would be, or you can't see as well. But then you take those steps forward again and get used to doing the choreography in that costume. On the flip side, the costumes help you get into that mode of performing Thai dance.'
Robbins injected an Asian influence into his choreography, which dancers in Thailand and Cambodia learn from childhood – how easy is it for performers in the show to learn?
'It's very different from what we're used to dancing when we're growing up, taking ballet classes. Robbins combined western and the eastern styles, fusing ballet, modern and also a couple of classical Thai dances, changing the hand shapes or making things very linear, which is characteristic of Thai dancing. Some people have naturally double-jointed fingers, some just work as hard as they can to maintain that shape.'
Malcom Forbes-Peckham, Assistant Musical Director
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the music and lyrics for The King and I in 1950 – and people are still singing those songs today. Why do you think that is?
'It's true classic musical theatre composition at its best – and you put that score with Hammerstein's genius lyrics and it just lives on. The songs are so iconic, there are melodies in the songs that people recognise instantly.
We're so lucky on the UK tour to have a 13-piece orchestra, to play the brand new orchestrations for this productions, which have retained the epic lusciousness of the original score. And as a response, the audience just gets immersed in this overall sound world. When I'm conducting, sometimes I'm less than a metre away from the front row of the audience, they're right behind my head and you can actually hear them singing along.
But even if I can't hear them sing, I can feel them breathing in as they think "oh yes, there's another song I know" and that applies to all generations.'
The show is set in 19th century Siam (now Thailand) – how did Rodgers and Hammerstein inject that Asian influence to the score, yet retain the melodic style that western ears are more attuned to?
'A lot of the compositions are very simple in that you'll have an introduction to a song that's just one or two chords, and then you'll get a really surprising chord that catches the ear. They integrated little Asian flavours here and there, with tunes and melodies and harmonies that are very easy for the audience to listen to.
Then part-way into Act Two, there's an extended 15-minute dance sequence – a lot of the music for that is credited to Trude Rittmann – and you get even more of the Asian flavour in there, which just transports you that that part of the world. But it's always in a way that steers back towards something the western ear can relate to. It's very cleverly done.'
The King and I tours the UK until May 2020.