Getting to know the Annas
Updated on 5 February 2024
Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical The King and I has a long and rich history dating back to 1813 with the birth of Anna Leonowens. Her memoir, ‘The English Governess at the Siamese Court’ documented her time spent in Siam, tutoring the children of King Mongkut, and was later fictionalized in the form of Margaret Landon’s best-selling novel, Anna and the King of Siam.
A timeless story of love, connection and understanding as well as identity and a collision of cultures, The King and I has experienced an abundance of revivals and adaptations, the latest of which is currently playing at London’s Dominion Theatre, starring the phenomenal Helen George. She is, however, far from the only star that has taken on the iconic role, so stick with us as we explore some of the famous faces, both past and present, who have embodied the illustrious Anna.
Actress Gertrude Lawrence will be forever ingrained in the history of the show. In 1950, Lawrence and her attorney approached Rodgers and Hammerstein proposing a musical adaptation of Landon's novel in which Lawrence would star, of course. Whilst reluctant at first, the pair eventually agreed, with the show making its Broadway debut the following year.
Born of humble origins in 1989, Lawrence began performing as a child as a means of supporting family. An undeniable talent, she went on to star in some of London’s most successful theatrical productions, one of which caught the eye of esteemed playwright, Noel Coward who would become a life-long friend and collaborator. Gertrude went on to enjoy a long and lustrous career in theatre, performing to troops during the second world war and later crossing the threshold into film, radio, and television. With the rise of the big screen, it was not long until a film adaptation of Landon's book was playing in cinema’s which is what inspired Lawrence to propose the musical that we all know and love today. Debuting in 1951, the show was a tremendous success and Lawrence was commended for her unrivalled charisma. However, in a tragic turn of events, her health began deteriorating during the show's run leading to her death shortly after. A veteran leading lady, the original Anna of the musical and a critical part of the show's evolution, Lawrence's legacy lives on with every performance.
The dearly departed, but ever-remembered Angela Lansbury was yet another golden-age girl to take on the role of Anna. From classic films like 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to modern day Disney favourites like Nanny McPhee, Dame Lansbury did it all. Add to this, the fact that she was Broadway royalty with a staggering 7 Tony awards to her name and it was almost inevitable that Anna would find her at some point.
In 1977, actor Yul Brynner who played the King on Broadway for an extraordinary 35 years found himself in need of a holiday (understandably so). Because of this, his less famous co-star and understudy was given the role temporarily, leaving producers with concerns that sales would dwindle without a big-ticket name. To compensate for this, they offered the role of Anna to Lansbury who more than did it justice, earning herself a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress and remaining one of the best-loved Anna’s to this day.
In 1976, child actor, Jodie Foster was catapulted into stardom at the tender age of 12 after appearing in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. From then, she went from strength to strength with acting roles in 1976’s Bugsy Malone, 1991’s Silence of the Lambs and this year's True Detective, whilst also making waves as a director with 2011’s The Beaver and episodes of both and Black Mirror and Orange is The New Black.
The fourth film adaptation of Anna’s adventures, 1991’s Anna and the King was directed by Andy Tennant (best known for Grease) and starred Foster alongside Hong Kong actor, Chow Yun-Fat (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) as the king as well as a tiny Tom Felton (Harry Potter) as her son, Louis. Whilst the film received mixed reviews, it was a box office success and has accumulated a small cult following over the years. Filmed on location in Thailand and Malaysia, Foster learnt Thai for the role and sported a custom-made Victorian style corset which we imagine was less than comfortable. Nonetheless, she received high praise for her portrayal of a more complex and conflicted Anna, once again proving herself as an actor of outstanding talent.
Deborah Kerr/ Marni Nixon
Born in 1921, actress Deborah Kerr CBE is yet another distinguished performer who gave us her own version of Anna in the 1956 musical film, The King and I. British-born and known for her elegance and poise, Hollywood took notice of the rising star in 1947 after she delivered a spine-chilling portrayal of a troubled nun in Black Narcissus, offering her roles in a variety of US blockbusters as a result. Having established herself within the film industry as a rare and sought-after talent, Kerr made her Broadway debut in 1947 with Tea and Symphony, for which she received her first Tony nomination, firmly cementing her triple threat status.
Whilst a few different actresses were considered for the role of Anna, it was the show's lead both on stage and screen (who was still Yul Brenner) that campaigned for Deborah, eventually convincing producers to offer her the role. The film was an enormous success, receiving 9 academy award nominations and earning Kerr a Golden Globe for best actress. Safe to say, producers had nothing to worry about.
It is at this point that we must draw your attention to an honourable mention - the all-singing unsung hero, Marni Nixon who worked closely with Kerr to provide her singing voice. Despite this, as was the convention at the time, Nixon’s role in the film went uncredited and would have been largely forgotten were it not for Kerr’s efforts to publicize the fact. Sadly, this was not always the case for Nixon who also provided vocals for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, neither of which she was credited for. This did, however, prompt her to speak out on the rights of ghost singers, with Time magazine dubbing her ‘The Ghostess with Mostest’ Which she absolutely is!
And so, we come to the latest, but by no means the last Anna, the lovely Helen George. Best known for her role in hit series, Call the Midwife as the vivacious Trixie, George is also an accomplished vocalist, having studied musical theatre at the Royal academy of Music and worked as a backing singer for Elton John.
Having fallen in love with The King and I as a child, George was eager to take on this iconic role, seeing it as an opportunity to play a strong and empowered Anna in this latest phase of the show's evolution. Accompanied by breathtaking costumes, elaborate sets, and an ensemble to rival all others, you can catch Helen George as Anna in this glorious production at the Dominion Theatre now.
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See Helen George as Anna for a limited time only!