The 'King' and Donna Murphy

Special Features   The 'King' and Donna Murphy


How many different ways can you sing "I Whistle a Happy Tune"?

At least one more, according to Donna Murphy.

After the experimentation of Michael John LaChiusa's 1994 Hello Again and starburst of Stephen Sondheim's Passion, which won her the 1994 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical as the tortured, ugly, lovestruck Fosca -- who'd expect her to do a revival of a seeming warhorse, The King and I?

At first, Murphy said, she thought the same thing. "When they first talked to me about it I wasn't exactly jumping up and down," she said in her oboe-like alto, quavering as it rises to a point. "I mean it was wonderful -- I was very flattered by it. And yet I wasn't excited at the prospect of doing a quote-unquote revival."

Directed by Christopher Renshaw, King is now in previews, and scheduled to open April 11 at the Neil Simon Theatre with Murphy playing Mrs. Anna opposite Lou Diamond Phillips as the King.

Fitting with her philosophy that "Nothing's a mistake, everything's for a reason," the closing of Passion after just seven months led to the fulfillment of her dream to work in many different media. During 1995 she touched nearly every base.

The year began with the final Broadway performances of Passion and its filming for TV. Murphy then went into rehearsals for the Hollywood film thriller Jade, and into the off-Broadway revival of Lapine's Twelve Dreams. During the summer she participated in a Toronto workshop of the forthcoming musical Ragtime, and shot the pilot of the TV series Murder One, on which she now plays the recurring character of Francesca Cross (nee Romano). In the fall she played the lead in an HBO special Someone Had to Be Benny, scheduled for cable casting just around the time The King and I opens.

Murphy also recorded the CD Leonard Bernstein's New York with Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald, Hello Again co-star Judy Blazer, and others. It, too, is expected out in April. Late in the year, she was contacted by Andrew Lloyd Webber's Råally Useful Company about taking part in Larry Gelbart's new adaptation of A Star Is Born, which will have a score drawn from the Harold Arlen songbook. She's done everything except launch her own Website on the Internet.

So where in all this new work does she fit the King and I revival?

"The Dodgers [Dodger Productions, The King and I's co-producers] don't like that word [revival]," Murphy said. "They were quite clear about the fact that that's not how they were dealing with this production."

Renshaw's lavish, sometimes almost surreal, production originated in Australia, with Haley Mills as Anna Leonowens.

Referring to the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which zealously guards the rights to the team's properties, Murphy said, "The R&H people didn't know much about the production but they went over to see it as a matter of policy. [Composer] Mary Rodgers [Richard's daughter], as I understand it, was blown away by this production. She then called [R&H director] Ted Chapin and said 'Get over here!' She thought it was the most beautiful production she'd ever seen, both physically and interpretively. "

Most importantly, from Murphy's point of view, "Mary said it was so fresh, that the story was back to what its original intention was, which was to focus on Anna."

The original 1950 The King and I is based on both the non-musical film Anna and the King of Siam and on the central character's autobiography, An English Governess in the Court of the King of Siam. The latter title summarizes the culture-clash story, which was musicalized for star Gertrude Lawrence with a score that includes "Shall We Dance," "Something Wonderful," "I Have Dreamed," "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello Young Lovers," "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?," and many others.

Most of the songs are sung by Mrs. Anna. Yet, somehow, when people think of The King and I, they think mainly of the King, and not much of the "I." Those not familiar with the score will be surprised to read that the King has only one solo, "A Puzzlement," and shares a duet with Mrs. Anna on "Shall We Dance." That's it for the King. Yet such was the power of the original King, Yul Brynner, who repeated the role on film and for hundreds of performances on the road, that people still think of the show as the King's vehicle. The project was initialized by Lawrence and written for her, but she was suffering during most of the run with the cancer that would eventually claim her life.

With no disrespect to her own King, Lou Diamond Phillips, Murphy said the production will try to shift the balance of power back to its narrator.

Murphy said she met Renshaw and first discussed the part over a four-hour dinner in California during the filming of Jade. He began by describing a trip he had made -- like Anna Leonowens, by boat -- to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand (Siam) in the late 1980s. With the smell, the dirt and the overwhelming strangeness of the place, it was genuinely frightening. The musical's opening scene -- the "I Whistle a Happy Tune" scene -- need not be, as Murphy described it in a plummy, traditional, Mrs. Anna accent, "'Oh Lewis, you silly little boy, don't be frightened, let's sing a song!' -- it was truly frightening to both of them."

As Renshaw described the scene, Murphy said, "I thought, this is a man who is dealing with not only the realities that existed as we know them in this story, but the realities of that time and telling the story in its time. He's not changing it with some flashy directorial concept, but trying to deal with certain truths as we know them, and not backing off of what's dark, what's uncomfortable."

She said Renshaw also has no plans to cut any songs or to interpolate deleted ones. She said the script will undergo only minor changes, if any.

During the run of Twelve Dreams, Mary Rodgers Guettel visited Murphy backstage and asked her if she had made up her mind about playing Anna. "I said, 'I'm not sure. I'm leaning towards it, but I need to be convinced that I have something specific to give to it.' And she said, 'How about just wonderful acting?' in that very wry Mary way. And I said, 'It won't be that if I don't feel that something.'"

Murphy said she was also concerned with the show's racial issue "of a Western woman going to the East and 'taming those savages.' The great white hope thing. It's really a tough issue." She said Renshaw is dealing with the problem by emphasizing the fact that "It's not just what she teaches them. It has to be things that she learns about herself."

Murphy said the real break came when Chapin gave her Leonowens' books to read. In addition to the source of the musical, there was Siamese Harem Life.

"As I read these books, " Murphy said, "I was so blown away by this woman and the risks she took in that time -- in any time. She seemed to be fearless. I was really very inspired."

And then Renshaw's literary assistant began digging into the real Anna's life, particularly writing involving her son Lewis when he was grown. They began to discover that Anna's memoirs may have been something of a whitewash.

"We opened up a Pandora's box about what Anna's background actually was," Murphy said. The records show that, far from being an aristocrat born of a highly ranked officer in the British army in India, she came from a very modest family in which she was abused by an alcoholic stepfather, which caused her to leave home while still in her early teens and travel about the colonies as the unchaperoned protege of a much-older male clergyman. Her husband's name apparently was not even Leonowens, but simply Owens.

After his death, "She had a very unstable life," Murphy said. "The one thing we know for sure, which is intimated in the original production, is that she was in Siam because she really didn't have anywhere else to go. The King keeps slapping her down and breaking promises. She fusses -- but she stays there."

These revelations only intrigued Murphy more. "She simply reinvented herself. Chris Renshaw, who's British, has said that's a very common thing in the British culture if you don't come from a certain class you aspire to. I guess it's common here in America as well."

As a result, the new Mrs. Anna is a little tougher, a little more desperate. She has more on the line and is likely to be far less prissy. But will this Mrs. Anna be a little too gritty?

"Ted Chapin said, 'How could anyone not like the person who sings 'I Whistle a Happy Tune' in the first scene?' And I said, 'Well, good. Knowing that that's there, let's not be afraid to push the boundaries around that.'

"So I have a very full plate of possibilities and I have a director who's giving me lots of room to play."

Murphy had found her "voice."


[A longer version of this story appears in the spring issue of Show Music magazine.]

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