Christopher Renshaw's Tony Award-winning production of The King and I is not so much a revival as a reconsideration of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. In addition to telling an unconventional love story, the musical is also about a clash of ideologies and cultures, of East versus West. Intentionally or not, previous productions have implied a sense of western superiority. But Renshaw, who is British, lived for awhile in Thailand (formerly Siam), and his knowledge and love of the country permeate and inform the entire production, putting East and West on an even playing field.
"I can confidently put onstage an image of a culture that isn't 'Oriental' in that patronizing way," says Renshaw. "I think that in the original production Thailand was thought of as being somewhere 'out there.' But I was able to particularize the culture, and I treat it with great respect. I even put some of the script into Thai. It gives the show a basis of reality. And it's easier to weigh the notion of East meets West when you can believe in both sides."
The King and I, which stars Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips, is based on Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam, which, in turn, was inspired by two rather unreliable memoirs by Anna Leonowens, who was a governess to the children of Siam's highly educated King Mongkut in the 1860's. Renshaw first staged the show in 1991 in Australia, where it was seen by Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers's daughter. "I was dazzled," she says. "I actually thought that Chris had changed and improved some lines. But he hadn't changed anything. He'd just found how to emphasize certain things."
The sumptuous, $5.5 million production, with exquisite sets by Brian Thomson and gorgeous costumes by Roger Kirk, conveys a feeling of authenticity and a respect for Thai culture. For the first time all the Asian roles are filled by Asian actors. Minutes before the orchestra plays its introductory notes, four actors enter the mezzanine boxes and perform a Thai prayer ceremony.
The entire scenic design is inspired by actual Thai images and locations. "We saw things that looked wonderful and theatricalized them," says Renshaw. "For instance, in the 'Shall We Dance' sequence we use a blue gauze with flying Buddhas that's taken from a little part of the ceiling in the temple of the Royal Palace. There's a detail around the temple of the Emerald Buddha that we used for the wall in the 'I Have Dreamed' scene. Two doors from the Royal Palace became the screens that start the show. The mural in back of the king when he sings 'Puzzlement' is taken from a mural that's about 150 yards long and goes around the courtyard of the palace. This detail tells the story of an ancient king god, and in this production it's meant to represent the old order, when kings were gods, as opposed to the king in our show, who becomes human."
The costumes, most of them made with Thai materials, are facsimiles of authentic Thai clothing, modified and glamorized for the stage. "The gold costume that the king wears in his first scene is a copy of the real king's coronation garb," says Renshaw. "His hat, with a slight alteration, is a replica of the Thai royal crown. It was made by the royal hat maker for the Australian production, and we copied the copy for Broadway. We made the alteration because to make an exact duplicate would have been an insult to the real king."
When Renshaw first directed The King and I in Australia, he refused to read the published version. Instead, he had the show typed out without any stage directions. "This way it looked like a new play, and I was able to discover everything for myself," he says. Traditionally, the king's death occurs off to the side as Prince Chulalongkorn takes center stage, symbolizing the emergence of the new world. But Renshaw's grasp of Thai culture led him to stage the scene with the king in the forefront. "The king's death is very important to me," says Renshaw. "Thai people have two souls, whereas western people have only one soul. One of their souls is called the kwan, which is your selfness, your self-confidence. They believe that if you lose your self-confidence, your kwan, it would leave from the top of the head. That's why the people have those top knots, and that's why our king has some hair on his head: to try and keep the kwan in. If you lose your kwan, you're in danger of death. When the king is unable to fulfill his duty because of his complication with Anna, he loses his kwan. And there is no way out for him but to die. To Thai people this is totally logical. So I've not avoided the issue: He dies in order for the country to continue on the path that he has chosen for it."
One of the most electrifying decisions made by Renshaw occurs in the reprise of "Shall We Dance." "That number is an amazing expression of sexual desire in dance," he says. "Instead of saying that these two people are on the verge of making love, Rodgers and Hammerstein came up with the brilliant idea of putting it into dance form. It gives the audience goose bumps. In our production when they are about to dance again, they nearly kiss. That's the kind of adjustment that happens after 40 years. You can bring a different kind of sensibility to the show, but the material still works. It's timeless."