“The King & I”

Gazette665’s theme of the month for Friday blog posts in August 2018 is History On Broadway: A New Look At Musicals. Ever wondered if there was historical fact and truth behind some of Broadway greatest musicals?

I’m looking forward to sharing some of my favorite musicals with you and uncovering some of the real history behind the fabulous entertainment. Today, we’ll feature the Roger and Hammerstein musical The King and I.

Warning… Spoilers ahead!

1951 – scene from “The King & I”

A Brief Plot Synopsis

In 1862, Anna Leonowens and her young son arrive in Bangkok to accept a position teaching the children of the royal family. Anna is a widow, well educated, and unafraid; she immediately comes into conflict with the court, the king, and eastern traditions. She brings western education and culture to the court, eventually befriends the king, and comes to love the culture of Bangkok and the its people. The king relies on Anna to help plan a grand entertainment for the British ambassador and the evening includes dancing, but the moment is spoiled as the king reverts to his harsh ways and attempts to punish an unhappy, runaway wife from his harem. At the end of the play, the king dies, but his son takes the throne, promising to embrace ideas of equality and freedom which Anna had taught him.

Original show poster

On Stage

In 1944, a novel about the life and experiences of Anna Leonowens was published. Six years later, Gertrude Lawrence – a British actress in need of a career boost – had her agent approach the musical writing geniuses Rodgers and Hammerstein. Wary, the team decided to give the story a chance. Crafting music with an eastern flair proved challenging, along with the story line.

First produced on Broadway in 1951 and starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. The show became the fourth longest run on Broadway up to that time, featuring 1,246 performances by 1954, before national tour.

Musical hits include:

  • I Whistle A Happy Tune
  • Getting To Know You
  • Hello, Young Lovers
  • Shall We Dance?

Anna Leonowens

So who was the real Anna?

Some of the facts of her life remain mysterious or clouded by the memory accounts she wrote, but enough historic details appears to give a glimpse into the life of this remarkable woman. Born in 1831, Anna Harriet Emma Edwards’s father served in the British military in India and she spent most of her youth at the far edges of the Empire. In 1849, she married Thomas Leonowens, a childhood sweetheart and civilian clerk.

Anna Leonowens, 1905.

During the next few years, the little family moved around Southeast Asia and Australia; Anna had four children, but only two survived infancy. In 1859, Thomas died, leaving Anna to support herself; she opened a school for the children of British officers in Singapore and gained a reputation as a good and capable instructor.

The King of Siam requested a governess to teach his children English and western ways, and in 1862, Anna sent her daughter to school in England and took her son with her to Bangkok. For almost six years, she taught the royal children and regularly came into conflicts with the king who described her as a “difficult woman.” Anna was in Britain in 1868 when the king died, and was not invited back to the kingdom, though she remained in friendly correspondence with the prince/king for the rest of her life. She moved to New York City, opened a school for girls, wrote, and lectured. Eventually, Anna moved to Canada to be near her daughter, continued her work and interest in the sufferage movement, and, influenced by her experiences in the East, spoken out against slavery and in favor of women’s rights until her death in 1915.

King Mongkut

Who was the King?

King Mongkut in his royal apparel in 1851.

Born in 1804, King Mongkut was the fourth monarch of Siam (Thailand), ruling from 1851 to 1868. With the British Empire controlling much of Southeast Asia, Mongkut is remembered for his work to modernize his country while keeping independence.

As emphasized in the musical, he did spend his youth as a Buddhist monk and spent years studying world languages, culture, and religions. After he became king, Mongkut signed the Bowring Treaty with Britain which launched a wave of economic prosperity and opportunity for his country and also introduced and necessitated the adoption of some western practices. He fostered the adoption of western geography, educational reforms, and social changes, including reduction of slavery and concubinage.

At the end of his life, Mongkut successfully calculated the moment of a solar eclipse, inviting British representatives to view the natural phenomenon with him; the king contracted malaria during the excursion and died of the illness in 1868.

Inspired By History

Although The King & I is based on a novel, it is also based on historical facts. Anna Leonowens really went to Thailand at the request of an “enlightened” king trying to introduce some western ideas to his country, while still holding on it the nation’s traditional heritage.

The Broadway musical took many liberties, pushing aside historical facts to write fantastic music and “better” story. Still, for many audiences, Anna and The King on stage are an introduction to the lives of these historic individuals and their important roles in east/west history, women’s history, and the struggle for social justice.

The Palace at Bangkok as it appeared in the 1860’s

Rodgers and Hammerstein gave us a light, entertaining look at the story, but did not shy away from address themes of slavery and cultural violence in their adaption. Personally, I see The King & I as a story of change and learning to see the value and beauty in other cultures. Through the songs, lines, and entertainment of the musical a positive theme and historical shadows emerge, reminding us that echoes from the past can inspire and amuse in many different ways.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in Women's History and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “The King & I”

  1. Wonderful article, Sarah. Have always loved this musical. I had the privilege of seeing the King’s palace in Bangkok many years ago. It is magnificent but not nearly as big, light, and airy inside as those movie sets, which never seem to have ceilings for some reason. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Tea With Sarah: Favorite Classic Musicals! | Gazette665

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