The King and I was last seen at the London Palladium in 2000, with Elaine Paige as Anna, the governess to the children of the King Siam in the late 19th Century. Anna and the King form a relationship marked by conflict and a love that neither will admit. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical premiered on Broadway in March 1951 at the St James Theatre, there are rumours that the production will return to the Palladium in 2018.
I have never seen this production in any form and recent revivals such as Miss Saigon have shown there is an appetite for productions people missed during earlier runs. The King and I’s London history is particularly long, debuting in 1953 with Herbert Lom as The King and Valerie Hobson as Anna.
There are many interesting aspects to this play. The role of King has always been overshadowed by its original actor Yul Bryner, who is and will remain associated with the role as he came back to it over 20 years after his debut for an international tour and giving his last performance four months before his death. Anyone playing Anna also must compete with not only previous revival performances but the silver screen adaptation starring Deborah Kerr. For audiences revivals are superb, for actors it feels a bit like a poisoned chalice.
The recent yellow face controversy in London theatres means there can be no liberties with casting. This is a production that has East Asian characters and should be cast as such. My dream would be to see the London revival take a page from Broadway’s casting book. Japanese actor Ken Watanabe headed the 2015 Broadway revival and became the first Japanese actor to be nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. With such great access to many actors and actresses of East Asian descent, we should be showcasing them as much as possible.
It also has a memorable soundtrack, successful revivals of musicals (I believe) do well because of familiarity. ‘Getting to Know You’ and ‘Shall we Dance’ are numbers ingrained in the general public’s brain, even if they are unaware of their origins.
Diversity casting is more common than when The King and I made its London debut, with Aladdin, The Lion King, Motown, Dream Girls and Kinky Boots being amongst those to lead the way with diverse casts and sell night after night. I would not only love to see this production revived but revived to reflect its setting but also the diversity of its London audience.
As much as London needs to embrace and encourage new musicals sometimes familiarity is welcome too. I hope that the rumours are true and we can look forward to The King and I returning to the London Palladium in June 2018 for a limited run.
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