Tony Award nominee Mary Beth Peil made her Broadway debut in the 1984-85 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I and was the last actress to star as Mrs. Anna opposite Yul Brynner's iconic King of Siam. She recounts what it was like to join him in the production during the last two years of his life.
Brynner was born July 11, 1920. The date would have marked his 96th birthday.
Peil, recently seen in the Broadway premiere of Kander and Ebb's The Visit, was the final actress cast opposite Brynner, having joined him on the road during what became his "farewell tour." The production ultimately reached New York, where it played a six-month engagement at the Broadway Theatre. Just three months after the revival ended its run, the seemingly unstoppable Brynner succumbed to lung cancer.
The Show That Changed Her Life
"It was like catching a moving train. That production changed my life. I had been an opera singer for 20 years and discovered musical theatre and had the good fortune of being cast opposite him."
Rehearsing With and Without an Icon
"I had been given a week of rehearsal without him, to follow the footprints of the previous Mrs. Annas and where to sit and where to stand and where to look. Not quite line readings. The first day I met him, I was told not to look him in the eye and never touch him. So I thought, 'Oh, This is going to be really interesting.' So, he came in the room and, of course, the first thing he did was head right for me, give me a big hug and look me in the eye."
Facing Mortality On Stage and Off
"He knew he was ill. So I think his awareness of mortality, his own mortality, made him even more generous and even more open both as a performer and as a friend. I felt very fortunate in that respect. There were so many parallels between Rodgers and Hammerstein's work on that show, facing mortality, and then dealing with Brynner... The fact that [in] the last scene the King is dying and I knew Brynner was dying, Brynner knew he was dying and the audience knew he was dying."
The Tony Awards presented Brynner with a Special Award in 1985. Read more about the production and see photos from the revival in The Playbill Vault.