Rodgers & Hammerstein's beloved musical The King and I opened at Broadway's St. James Theatre on March 29, 1951. Marking the 50th anniversary of that occasion, the Metropolitan Museum of Art gathered several of the original cast members to talk about their experiences in the show. The April 10 program was part of the popular "Sound of Broadway" concert/lecture series at the museum, hosted by June LeBell. Ted Chapin, the executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization joined her in telling anecdotes about the show and asking questions of the guests.
Sandy Kennedy, the original Louis (Anna's son), and Ronnie Lee, who stepped into the role of crown prince Chulalongkorn just three months into the run, were clearly delighted to see each other after so many years. Kennedy spoke fondly of the legendary Gertrude Lawrence, who created the role of Mrs. Anna. She was a "lovely lady" and treated him like a son both on and off-stage. Lawrence was ill for much the run. She had conspicuous vocal troubles and missed several performances due to exhaustion. Although she did not know it, she was suffering from cancer. After a much needed rest during the summer of 1952, when Celeste Holm played the role, Lawrence returned to the show mid-August. She died September 6, and was buried in one of her costumes from the show. Kennedy started to say that he had much less contact with Yul Brynner and Ronnie Lee responded, "Well, he was my father, not yours."
Lee noted that Brynner was a well-respected television director at the time he was cast as the King of Siam, and remembered that the actor used a trick to draw a dramatic performance from his "heir" during the death-bed scene. The scene begins as a curtain (the traveler) moves across the stage, revealing the cast positioned around the King's bed. Each night, Brynner would whisper an off-color joke to Lee, saving the punch line for the precise moment the curtain passed. Lee would hold his stomach, trying to conceal his laughter — and to the audience, it looked like he was sobbing.
Dancer Yuriko, who created the role of Eliza in the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, spoke of working with choreographer Jerome Robbins. "He knew exactly what he wanted" — which in the case of her dancing was a finely-tuned balance of Asian reticence and Broadway energy, and not too much Martha Graham. Yuriko's daughter Susan Kikuchi was a child backstage during the early years of King & I. She said she had grown up with the show, first backstage, then playing a Royal Princess and larger and larger roles in the ballet. She was dance captain for Yul Brynner's final tour with the show. And in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, she danced the role of Eliza. She is now custodian of the ballet, supervising major productions around the world. Also present was Ina Kurland, who danced the role of Simon of Legree. She said that only women danced in the royal court of Siam, so in the original production, the ballet was performed only by women. Although that tradition is no longer followed, a new one has developed. Throughout the ballet, Eliza carries a doll that represents her son, George. Yuriko still has the dolls from the original production and from the film. They are rather fragile now, but on the opening nights of major productions, she will loan "George" to the dancer playing Eliza.
Also present was Marni Nixon. Marni who?, some might ask. Nixon was the singing voice for Deborah Kerr's Anna in the movie. (She also dubbed for Audrey Hepburn in the film of "My Fair Lady" and for Natalie Wood in the film of "West Side Story." R&H buffs will know that she actually appeared on camera as Sister Sophia in the film of "The Sound of Music.") Her description of the dubbing process was fascinating. She explained that she and Kerr would rehearse together — about a week for each song. She would take note of Kerr's pronunciation and the blocking of the scene. Kerr would study the physical requirements of the singing — when a big breath was needed, when a high or loud note would require visible effort. They would shadow each other until they felt that they had each absorbed the others performance. Then Nixon would record the track. When the musical scene was filmed, Kerr would lip synch to Nixon's performance. The reminiscences were complemented with clips from the 1956 "King and I" movie, and live performances by Christine Harrop and Marcus DeLoach, ably accompanied by Thomas Bagwell. The audience was invited to sing along with the afternoon's closer, "I Whistle a Happy Tune."