The King and I
| By Harriet Wilson
The King and I, currently playing at the London Palladium, is a great production, but a very questionable musical. When I saw the show, I really wanted to be able to enjoy it without hesitation – the staging, the music and the cast are all flawless. But the tone of the show goes beyond just being a bit outdated and, for this reason, I am torn between my enjoyment of the impressive production and my discomfort with the fundament upon which it is built.
The King and I premiered in 1951, but the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it a long time ago does not negate or excuse the fundamentally problematic aspects of the musical. My main issue with this show is its attitude towards different cultures, which is vastly insensitive and often comes across as patronising.
The song Western people funny is a strong example of the issue. In this highly problematic number, leading lady Anna (Kelli O'Hara), dresses the women of Siam in English clothing so as to 'trick' a visiting ambassador into believing that their culture is civilised. The women being dressed are baffled and made to look quite unintelligent as they try to navigate the unfamiliar skirts. Singing that English people “feel so sentimental about the oriental” does not help. This number should have been either radically updated or completed removed for the production.
I was also frustrated by the conclusion of Tuptim's (Na-Young Jeon) story. The way that the show ends means that the issue of Tuptim's enslavement is never addressed head-on, but instead conveniently avoided. Is this so that the audience can still like the character of the King (Ken Watanabe)? And is Tuptim really the only female character in this story who has a problem with her situation? Tuptim could be the answer to the insensitivities of The King and I; but, sadly, the potential of the character is not realised.
I should clarify that these are issues which I hold with The King and I as a musical, and not this specific production. My only criticism of this production would be that it missed a great opportunity to update and improve the show. It is a real shame that this hasn't happened – particularly since the actual production of The King and I is so impressive, with a faultless cast, a stunning orchestra, and the whole of the London Palladium at its fingertips.
I was especially impressed by the ballet scene in Act Two. Sometimes ballet scenes in musicals can seem to have been shoe-horned in, but this scene fits perfectly with the rest of The King and I, and starts to really build tension around the fate of Tuptim, and the other women around her.
Tension is also built extremely well in other key parts of the show, and there is a consistently rich texture to the production throughout. The staging adds a lot to this – from a boat in the opening scene, to artfully placed columns moving to represent different places during different scenes.
In terms of style, The King and I is absolutely what you would imagine a Rodgers and Hammerstein production to be – and I don't just mean that is has a really long overture. It is what I think of as a 'stop-and-sing' type of musical; the numbers in the production are not nearly as integrated as numbers in many more modern shows. And, obviously, all of the women are sopranos (perhaps female altos hadn't yet been invented in 1951).
The structure of The King and I is similar to the structure of Oklahoma and even, to an extent, The Sound of Music. The shows start out light-hearted, there is a ballet in Act 2, and things seem to be drawing to a happy close until a spanner in the works (a runaway, a death, a war) threatens to ruin everything. There is a rushed resolution, and we skim quickly over the 'spanner in the works' in an attempt to return to an uncomplicated, satisfying end to the show.
If you are a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, and if you can take the musical with a large pinch of salt, then The King and I is definitely worth seeing. It's just a shame that such an impressive production is dragged down by some of the contents of its storyline when it could have been vastly improved by being reworked a little and updated.
The King and I is playing at the London Palladium until the end of September 2018. You can book your tickets here.