Movie Musicals: The King and I

Welcome to the first of my new series documenting my attempt to improve my knowledge of musical theatre. Whilst every attempt will be made to see the shows performed on the stage, this series will put a spotlight on the successes and failures of the movie musical.

As a great lover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, The Sound of Music, I had high hopes for the 1956 film version of their 1951 hit, The King and I. Unfortunately, I was mildly disappointed with an enjoyable film let down by decisions made in the transfer from stage to screen.

Based on the 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, the musical details Anna Leonowens’ journey to Siam to be a governess for the King’s many many children. What follows is the development of a complicated and often amusing relationship between Anna (played by Deborah Kerr) and the monarch (Yul Brynner). Undoubtedly the plot is remarkably similar to a later work of the infamous musical duo, the aforementioned The Sound of Music, although without quite such a Kodak ending. Its a story that has been criticised for patronising Siamese culture and it isn’t hard to see why. Quite simply the plot features a young English woman educating and improving a culture depicted as sexist and antiquated. Nevertheless, we must not forget this film was made in 1956, not 2016, and if one can put aside these concerns, The King and I is an enjoyable and amusing musical experience.

Cinematically the production is splendid: the palace sets are quite extraordinary in their size and colour, brilliantly encapsulating the extravagance and opulence of the Siamese monarchy on film. In this way, the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ sequence towards the end of the film is especially notable. However, if I were being picky I would have to say this scene is rather too long and ends up distracting from the story. One wonders whether, to maintain the film’s flow it could have been shortened without sacrificing the intent.

When it comes to the performances, Deborah Kerr’s portrayal of Anna is reminiscent of Julie Andrews in its poise, elegance and gentility, ensuring that the lead character is consistently likeable – although Anna’s insistence on wearing such an extravagant dress, even when called to the King in the middle of the night, seems slightly absurd at times. You wouldn’t know from the editing but Anna’s vocals were actually provided by Marni Nixon, the woman behind the voice of Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza and Natalie Wood’s Maria. Nixon’s voice is undoubtedly stunning and fortunately the dubbing isn’t jarring but it certainly seems a shame that they couldn’t hire somebody who could embody the role and perform the vocals.

It is at this point that I became disappointed with the film and where my general reservations regarding movie musicals come into play. The West End and Broadway are both undoubtedly unaffordable for many. In my opinion, the movie musical is a way of democratising theatre so I am often disappointed when screen producers choose actors who cannot sing (Mamma Mia! comes to mind) and remove well-known songs. Indeed, this film production of The King and I features just 9 musical numbers whilst the original stage musical contained more in just the first act. Allowances must be made for time restrictions but the consequence is that the final product feels lacking.

Anyway, back to the performances: Yul Brynner, who won an Academy award for his performance as the King of Siam, is undoubtedly excellent in this challenging role. Both imperious and authoritative whilst simultaneously embodying the naivety and humour of the King – its an assured standout performance.

As for the music, whilst many numbers were cut from the film, the songs that remain are undoubtedly excellent. ‘Shall We Dance?’ has to be a standout scene both visually and musically not just in this musical but in all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work. Another favourite has to be ‘Getting to Know You’ which might be sickly sweet but it has an undeniable charm that reminds me of ‘Do-Re-Mi’.

Ultimately, The King and I is a beautifully captured film with wonderful performances but unfortunately many of the decisions made for the adaptation have become shortcomings. There aren’t enough songs to give it the buoyancy and joy that a musical should have and the knowledge that the lead actress isn’t even singing diminishes the performance in my eyes. Fortunately, these are mistakes are mostly avoided in the adaptation of The Sound of Music that followed in 1965. Meanwhile, The King and I is one to watch, but I for one was expecting more and hope to catch it next time its on stage.

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