When the new Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical, The King and I, opened March 29, 1951, at the St. James Theatre, the expectations were high. After all, it was a tall order: the follow-up to the most award-winning musical of its time, South Pacific. And most critics couldn’t help themselves—they compared the new show to South Pacific—and most said it wasn’t as good. Time has ruled, however, and The King and I is considered the equal to South Pacific, if not slightly better.
It was the first time Rodgers and Hammerstein had written for a star—and it was she who brought the project to them. Initially she got star billing, alone, above the title. Gertrude Lawrence. And when the show went out of town, on a line below in which four featured players were listed, the first one was Yul Brynner. Really? THE KING (billing buried below) AND I (alone in big, bold letters above the title). An imbalance? By the time the show came to New York, Mr. Brynner got proper featured billing below the title. And of course years later, Brynner was in Gertrude Lawrence’s spot, alone at the top of the poster.
The show went on to win five Tony Awards, for Best Musical, Best Featured Actor (Brynner), Best Actress (Lawrence), Best Scenic Design, and Best Costume Design. And the 1956 film adaptation, starring Brynner and Deborah Kerr, took home five Academy Awards, including one for Brynner’s performance.
The King and I was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical I ever saw—at the now sadly defunct Music Theater of Lincoln Center. I was dazzled by its opulence, passion, wisdom, and pageantry. I am still dazzled by all of those attributes.
James Hammerstein told me a story that when he went out of town to see the original production, he was dazzled by the creature named Yul Brynner, but was sorely disappointed by the performance given by the leading lady. His father Oscar told him not to worry, and when James attended the first preview in New York, he saw a completely different performance from Gertrude Lawrence. She was a star, make no mistake about it. Oscar explained to his son that no one—Lawrence included—had any idea what Brynner was going to bring to the role, and when he established quickly that he was a force of nature, Lawrence just wanted to “take in” what she would be playing opposite. If it took her the out of town engagement to figure that out—well, that was how stars operated. She knew she would ultimately be better off playing opposite a King who was ready to match her, moment for moment.