STAGE TO SCREEN: We Are Siamese If You Don't Please

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: We Are Siamese If You Don't Please If anyone has any problems with "Anna and the King," don't call the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.
Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.
Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. (Photo by Photo by Andrew Cooper)

If anyone has any problems with "Anna and the King," don't call the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.

"We have nothing to do with it, pro or con. We look forward to seeing it, we hope it's a huge success, but that's all," says Bert Fink, spokesman for the organization, which oversees all stage and film productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's works.

Several Thai groups have protested the depiction of Siam, and particularly its king, that Anna Leonowens put forth in her original diaries. These diaries spawned the popular Margaret Landon novel in 1944, which in turn served as the source material for both Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved 1951 musical and "Anna and the King."

Fink concedes that The King & I has met with resistance by Thai officials in the past. "Certainly Rodgers and Hammerstein never claimed they were writing a musical biography. As we have come to understand it, though, the Thai do not appreciate seeing their monarchs depicted in entertainment." 20th Century-Fox has been unable thus far to have the "Anna and the King" trailer shown in Thai theaters; the assumption is that the film will meet with the same fate. Fox representatives did not answer calls for comment on the film's reception among the Thai.

Although the film and the musical are entirely unconnected, "Anna and the King" has a few resonances beyond the familiar characters (which include Tuptim and Lady Thiang) that musical theater fans may appreciate. Chow Yun-Fat, the Hong Kong action star who plays the King in the film, met with Christopher Renshaw about appearing in the 1996 Broadway revival of the musical. Nothing came of that meeting, but Randall Duk Kim who plays a member of the King's inner circle in the film, did appear on Broadway, as the Kralahome. FYI: If you're looking for a more accurate depiction of Leonowens' influence (or lack thereof) on Siam, watch A&E's "Biography" on Dec. 20. The profile features interviews with Patricia Morison, who played Anna in the first national tour of The King & I, and R&H Organization president Ted Chapin. It airs at 8 p.m. and midnight EST.

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Rumors are floating around that director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") is getting close to making the "Phantom of the Opera" movie happen with John Travolta. Part of the renewed interest may stem from a rival project on the fast track: Universal is trying to mount its own film of the Gaston Leroux novel. Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate") is meeting with producers about directing the film, which would be sent in modern-day New York but feature classical opera. If Universal's version gets in front of cameras first -- and Andrew Lloyd Webber films invariably take their sweet time - the musical version could join the "Chicago" and "Rent" movies on permanent hiatus. And Webber appears content to go the videotape route with his filmed musicals lately -- Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamboat has joined Cats as a staged remounting, with Jesus Christ Superstar supposedly next in line. Perhaps the next few months will yield a clear answer.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Tom Stoppard, who has shared screenwriting credit on his last two major films ("Shakespeare in Love" and "Sleepy Hollow"), is once again working solo. He has adapted Robert Harris' WWII spy novel "Enigma," which is scheduled to begin filming in April. ... A few recent program biographies have yielded information about other playwrights shifting their attention to the big screen. Suzan-Lori Parks (In the Blood) just finished a screenplay for Jodie Foster and is working on another one for Danny Glover, and Shelagh Stephenson, who has had two plays produced at Manhattan Theatre Club recently, is adapting the earlier one -- The Memory of Water -- for the screen. And Stephen Jeffreys is turning his play The Libertine into a screenplay for Mr. Mudd, the production company owned by John Malkovich. Malkovich starred in the play when it debuted in Chicago. ... I've given up trying to provide firm opening dates on all the Oscar-eligible films. Basically, if you live in New York or Los Angeles, you can see all of these movies now. If not, you can see a few of them now and the rest in the next month or so. Anyway, watch for Paul Giamatti in "Man on the Moon," Sam Shepard in "Snow Falling on Cedars," Vanessa Redgrave in "Girl, Interrupted," and Jude Law and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

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My Favorite Response: Jan weighs in on some of the other "isms" surrounding the Leonowens/King controversy:

"Is it racist to glorify Anna Leonowens?
"Perhaps, perhaps not. The fact that she was mentioned only once in King Mongkut's memoirs does not necessarily mean that she did not have a major influence on his life? After all, how many women did he mention in the memoirs? He was from a patriarchal society and probably did not want to acknowledge the power of a woman, regardless of whether she was a foreigner. And I doubt that his descendants wished to give credit for their societal transformation to a woman, either.
"Anna Leonowens' story usually brings out charges of racism and classism, but everyone always seems to accept its inherent sexism (I know, too many isms). There is rarely one explanation for anyone's behavior; it is usually a combination of factors. The Web page mentioned in your column seems to suggest that Anna was no gentlewoman, but lower class and a liar (the former leading to the latter). If the King was as enlightened as the Thai Web pages suggest, he probably would have listened to a woman, but then again, who knows?!"

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Your Thoughts: It's Oscar time! Well, almost. Soon we cultureholics will be able to exact our revenge on all those college basketball fans by showing off our movie knowledge in our office pools. So let's warm up by dealing with the theatre-based films of 1999. I realize that many of these haven't made their way to all U.S. cities yet, but based on what you've seen or heard, send me a plausible set of contenders for major Academy Awards (Best Picture, the four acting categories, Best Director and Best Screenwriter) made up entirely of theatrically inclined movies. The main options are: "Anna and the King," "American Beauty" (directed by Sam Mendes), "Titus," "Miss Julie," "Topsy-Turvy," "A Map of the World" (directed by Scott Elliott), "Simpatico," "The King & I" (the animated version), "Cradle Will Rock," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "An Ideal Husband." Am I missing any?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@cmp.com.