Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The King and I: A Discography

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The King and I: A Discography This week, I am making JAY's release of the first complete recording of The King and I the occasion for a discography of one of the most beloved and frequently revived pieces in the American musical theatre repertoire. One of the two best (Carousel is the other) Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations, The King and I has been a very frequent visitor to disc. And because it boasts two of the richest and most fascinating central characters in the canon, recordings are naturally led by their Anna and King.
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This week, I am making JAY's release of the first complete recording of The King and I the occasion for a discography of one of the most beloved and frequently revived pieces in the American musical theatre repertoire. One of the two best (Carousel is the other) Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations, The King and I has been a very frequent visitor to disc. And because it boasts two of the richest and most fascinating central characters in the canon, recordings are naturally led by their Anna and King.

The show was brought to the authors by its original star, Gertrude Lawrence, of the ineffable stage presence and maddening performance inconsistency. Decca/MCA's 1951 orginal cast recording preserves the charm, radiance, and sui generis sound of her Anna. And there are only traces of the intonation problems that marred her King and I run, as she grew progressively weaker owing to the cancer that would take her life in 1952. Lawrence's King was, of course, Yul Brynner; while the role is one of the greatest male parts in musicals, it is musically sparse, with just one solo and one duet, the latter preceded by the brief "Song of the King."

As is typical of Decca show albums of the time, the score is severely truncated (it runs just 37 minutes). "Song of the King" is absent, and Brynner's "A Puzzlement," Anna's "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?," "Shall We Dance?," and the overture are among the numbers abbreviated. The doomed lovers are in the hands of Doretta Morrow and Larry Douglas, both up to the exacting vocal standards demanded by R&H.

Brynner made a career, nay a lifetime, of the show, and revived it on Broadway for the first time in 1977. Billed below the title the first time around, he shifted places with his leading ladies to become the unquestioned star of later productions; to indicate this, RCA Victor recorded the '77 production and beefed up Brynner's disc presence not only by preserving his songs complete, but by including large chunks of his dialogue and the final scenes of both acts.

The revival album also includes such non-King numbers as "Western People Funny," the "Puzzlement" reprise, and the complete "Shall I Tell You..." not to be found on the Decca disc. The Anna is Constance Towers, a lovely stage presence but somewhat bland on disc, and with an unconvincing accent to boot. The supporting company is fine, with strong work from June Angela and Martin Vidnovic as the tragic pair, and this disc is the definitive record of Brynner and the full score, minus the 17-minute "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet. In between his two stage recordings, Brynner starred in the 1956 film version and can be heard on the Capitol/Angel soundtrack album. Marni Nixon provided the voice to which Deborah Kerr's Anna was lip-synched, and the album features several songs not in the film. Robert Russell Bennett's original stage orchestrations were adapted by Alfred Newman for a grander, lusher sound.

But there have been American productions of The King and I without Brynner, and two of them produced cast recordings. RCA preserved the 1964 Music Theatre of Lincoln Center revival that starred former opera mezzo Rise Stevens as an overly gushy Anna, and TV's Darren McGavin as a heavy-handed King. This was, however, the most complete U.S. stage recording of the score until '77, and includes half of "Small House." It also has the lusciously sung Tuptim of Lee Venora and a distinguished Lady Thiang in Patricia Neway.

The show was back on Broadway (by way of Australia) in 1996 in a triumphant revival that has just left town. It boasted the sexy, chemistry-laden pairing of the intense Donna Murphy and the vulnerable Lou Diamond Phillips. Varese Sarabande's cast recording correctly offers not the score as heard in its original Broadway form, but rather the version used in this revival: Cut are the overture, "Western People Funny," and the "Puzzlement" reprise; trimmed are "I Whistle A Happy Tune" and "Getting To Know You"; and added are two new dance sequences ("Small House" could not be fit on the CD). There is some dialogue and a good supporting cast, and this is the King and I cast recording for the post-Brynner generation.

And that's just Broadway and Hollywood--King and I has had (and continues to have) a healthy international life. The 1953 London cast album (Philips/DRG LPs) honors the same cuts as the '51 New York set; the stars are Valerie Hobson (Lawrence would surely have taken the show back to her homeland had she survived) and Herbert Lom, who are fine if less charismatic than Lawrence and Brynner. The highlight is the "Something Wonderful" of Muriel Smith, who had earlier won acclaim in Hammerstein's Carmen Jones and as Bloody Mary in the London South Pacific. DRG's LP reissue of the Philips recording boasts a surprising deception: Because of faults in the master, the final "Shall We Dance?" track on the reissue is not the Hobson-Lom rendition (as billed), but is instead taken from a minor Epic American studio cast recording featuring Lois Hunt and Harry Snow. So the devout collector must possess the original Philips issue to have the complete London recording. Another collector's item: Virginia McKenna, the Anna of Brynner's 1979 London Palladium revival, recorded a 12", 45RPM single for RIM, featuring four songs performed solo and in non-show arrangements.

There are two noteworthy foreign-language recordings: The cast album (Spectrum CD) of the 1966 Munich Der Konig und Ich has half of "Small House" and is an excellent account. The '60s Israeli cast (CBS) offers the pleasing Anna of Rivka Raz, also the Hebrew Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Nancy in Oliver!.

Apart from stage cast recordings, King and I has many studio albums. The '50s produced RCA's entry, with opera stars Robert Merrill (King) and Patrice Munsel (Tuptim and Lady Thiang) joining pop stars Dinah Shore (Anna) and Tony Martin (Lun Tha). This one lacks "Shall I Tell You..." and the original show arrangements, and makes no attempt at stylistic authenticity. Of greater interest is Columbia/Sony's 1964 studio set; while the supporting company, including Theodore Bikel as the King, is only okay, Barbara Cook's Anna is the best on disc. Cook received some of the best reviews of her career when she played the role at New York's City Center in 1960; on the recording, even without the original orchestrations (Philip J. Lang provided all new ones), she sings with the intensity she would later display in her concert and cabaret work, delivering a spellbinding "Hello, Young Lovers," and getting to reprise "Something Wonderful" for a finale.

The most elaborate studio King and I was Philips' 1992 disc, with a starry company including Julie Andrews, Ben Kingsley, Marilyn Horne, Lea Salonga, and Peabo Bryson. Perhaps because she had great success portraying two other teacher/governesses-- Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp-- Andrews always seemed destined for Anna. But she waited a bit too long, and here she sings the role carefully, occasionally falling back on her lazy mannerism of talking rather than singing. This set features the orchestrations and arrangements created for the film; the film's "March of the Siamese Children" overture; its abbreviated versions of a couple of songs; and some scoring not created by Rodgers. The Philips disc must be accounted a missed opportunity at a definitive recording.

There are at least five full-length British studio recordings, the most notable two '60s Music for Pleasure LPs; their Annas are Australian opera and theatre star June Bronhill, whose delivery of the phrase "suddenly I'm bright and breezy" leaps off the record, and film and stage veteran Jessie Matthews. And there are several additional American studio discs, of little interest in such a wide field. Also note that RCA's original cast recording of the 1989 Broadway revue tribute Jerome Robbins' Broadway features most of "Small House," while Varese Sarabande's Lost in Boston, Volume I includes "Waiting," cut from the show in New Haven.

Which brings us to the new JAY set. There's no need to compare its contents to the earlier recordings; quite simply, it has everything musical that was heard in the original Broadway version. In addition to the first complete recording of "Small House" and the entr'acte, there are any number of incidental pieces never before committed to disc, and cuts restored to the overture and several numbers. As a result, a score that, up to now, had to be collected in pieces from all of the above recordings can now be found in its entirety in one place.

A natural for Anna, opera/operetta leading lady Valerie Masterson is elegant and, unlike many recent Annas, authentically British. Horror movie star Christopher Lee sings pretty well, better in fact than most post-Brynner recorded Kings. Tinuke Olafimihan is a good Tuptim, Jason Howard a somewhat strained Lun Tha, Sally Burgess a fine Thiang. Alec McCowen is heard uttering a few of Sir Edward Ramsay's lines.

JAY series conductor John Owen Edwards has the advantage of leading everything unabridged and in the original orchestration. One could debate the merits of preserving a good deal of underscoring without the words that it was fashioned to accompany, but, as has been the case with each entry in the series, no other recording of the score is as useful a reference. And much as I loved the recent revival, there's something to be said for hearing the score as audiences first heard it in '51.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com