27 August 2007 | bkoganbing
So Many Happy Tunes
The King and I has been my favorite Rodgers&Hammerstein show for many years. I love the score and the only real criticism I have of this film version is that it did not contain the entire score from the Broadway show. It also did not contain the magical performance of Gertrude Lawrence in her final role. But that was beyond the scope of 20th Century Fox and Darryl Zanuck.
The versions of The King and I that we usually see performed give emphasis to the role of the King. As Gertrude Lawrence was dying in 1952 she made a deathbed request that the billing on the show be changed and that Yul Brynner be given top billing instead of whatever female would be replacing Lawrence as Anna Leonowens. That was done and it has remained so ever since.
The role of King Mongkut of Siam became like Dracula was for Bela Lugosi, a part that no matter what else he did, Yul Brynner couldn't escape from. The air of authority he establishes as the King holds you and binds you to every move he makes in the part. I'm told that as good as this screen version is, to see him on stage was the real deal. The critical acclaim he got from the Broadway run no doubt led to him winning an Oscar as Best Actor for 1956.
Standing in for Gertrude Lawrence quite ably is Deborah Kerr who got one of her several nominations for Best Actress for this film. Unfortunately her voice is dubbed by that well known vocal stand-in Marni Nixon as is Rita Moreno as Tuptim and Carlos Rivas as Lun Tha the second romantic leads. The part does call more for an actress than a singer. Gertrude Lawrence was the very best of both.
So many popular standards come from this score, more than any other score Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II wrote. From philosophical tunes like Getting to Know You and I Whistle a Happy Tune and such romantic ballads as Hello Young Lovers, We Kiss in a Shadow, Something Wonderful and Shall We Dance will be done forever. Somewhere now on planet earth there is some theatrical company doing the King and I and performing these great songs. You can't also forget those that didn't make the cut here like I Have Dreamed and My Lord and Master.
The most interesting song that Dick and Oscar wrote is the solo for the King, A Puzzlement. It's very similar to the Soliliquy in Carousel where the song explains all the character motivations of Billy Bigelow. King Mongkut, a very real historic figure who wanted very much to move his country into the modern era, but his entire upbringing fights against his desire. A Puzzlement is a wonderful number that goes into the problems of governing and not just for monarchies. Listen to Hammerstein's lyrics, they are very much relevant today.
I visited Thailand in 1999 and learned a great deal about the country in those two days. King Mongkut's descendants rule today as constitutional and beloved monarchs. In fact this film which probably did more to encourage tourism to Thailand than anything else is banned in that country. Because it shows the king in what the Thais feel as an irreverent light. It is indeed a puzzlement.
The film has preserved forever one of the great Broadway shows of all time forevermore. Reason enough to see it and whistle its happy tunes.