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Does 'The King and I' have something to say to modern audiences?

The national tour of “The King and I” arrives in West Palm Beach with quite the pedigree.

The show, with music by Richard Rodgers as well as a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was a monster hit right out of the gate when it debuted on Broadway in 1951. No less than Jerome Robbins did the choreography. This revival was first staged at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2015 under the helmsmanship of director Bartlett Sher (“The Light in the Piazza,” “The Bridges of Madison County”). That production, which will appear Nov. 7-12 to the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, got rapturous reviews and went on to win four Tony Awards.

The story is set in 1860s Bangkok and follows the lively relationship between Anna, a British school teacher and the King of Siam. The king brings Anna to the royal court to teach his many children and gets more than he expects when the two differ on modernization in the kingdom. “The King and I” includes show-tune classics such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting To Know You,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance,” “I Have Dreamed” and “Something Wonderful.”

Ted Chapin, president and chief creative officer of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, recently spoke to us about the show. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

It’s been 66 years since the show debuted on Broadway. Do you think “The King and I” still resonates with a 2017 audience?

You have the story of a man who is the quintessential male-chauvinist pig, but he comes by it honestly. And here is this teacher with all kinds of new ideas that he brings in to not only educate his children, but his many wives, as well. And history tell us that [the real king] Mongkut did that. He also wants to understand the West. He doesn’t want to be conquered by the West. So he believes, “If I can figure out how these people think, maybe I can keep from being conquered.” It is also about a woman going to a foreign country, putting herself at risk. And she quietly, gently and then firmly says to this guy, “You made me a promise to have a house separate from the palace and you owe me that promise.” You have an interesting male-female thing going on. She’s being rather feminist, frankly. She stands up for herself. It’s resolved in the first act in a beautiful and emotional way. He ends up saying, “I do respect you, and you can have your house.” And the songs are good. A musical has staying power if the story is good and the songs are good.

What did director Bartlett Scher bring to this revival?

What he showed with his “South Pacific” production and, frankly, repeated in this production is his ability to look at Oscar Hammerstein’s libretto and dive into that world and see what he says that people might have overlooked or pushed aside. For example, the whole relationship between Lady Thiang and her son, Prince Chulalongkorn. It is first set up when she is introduced and says, “I am the head wife.” She is the mother of the crown prince, and at the end of the show, he becomes the king. She always keeps an eye on Chulalongkorn. [Bartlett] says, “This is an interesting relationship. Let’s never lose it.” It’s not like he found something that wasn’t there. He just decided to heighten the dramatic moments like that to make the story more interesting. Now, the audience can say to themselves, “That relationship has always been there, but it never occurred to me to follow that story.” When a director has the ability to do that, the material is there to help.

Tell us a little about the history of the show.

It started with [Anna Leonowens’] actual diaries, which Margaret Landon novelized into “Anna and the King of Siam.” Then, it was a movie with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunn. [Rodgers and Hammerstein] thought it was a very good story, and a lot of the ideas from the movie are in the musical, so clearly they had a relationship with the people at 20th Century Fox. And then, Fox grabbed the film rights of the musical, so everyone was happy. And then, it was fairly simple. This one came together pretty easily, pretty quickly. One thing, though, was to find a way to make the king sing. The [character] doesn’t seem to naturally be a guy who would sing. The fact that [Rodgers and Hammerstein] ended up with “A Puzzlement” as a soliloquy is rather brilliant. [The king] is stepping out of this show to explain to the audience a dilemma he has.

James Hammerstein, who is the son of Oscar and one of my bosses who is no longer with us, told me that when he was in college, he went to see “The King and I” out of town [before the show debuted on Broadway in 1951]. He said that people thought Gertrude Lawrence, this big star for whom the show was created, was an embarrassment because it was all about the king, played by Yul Brynner. Gertrude just wasn’t that good. But his dad said, “Just wait until we get to New York.” James said [during] the first previews [on Broadway], she swept onstage and took it all by herself. She was a theater star who knows what she’s doing. She just didn’t know what to expect from Yul Brynner. She took the out-of-town shows to size him up, how to pitch her performance opposite of him. And they both ended up winning Tony Awards.

“The King and I” runs Nov. 7-12 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets cost $33-$99. To order, call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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