The King and I

 Presented by John Frost and Opera Australia, April 19, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane.

LISA McCune has probably never sounded or looked lovelier. As Anna Leonowens in The King and I, McCune has all the sweet-spot songs – Hello, Young Lovers, I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? – and gets to sing them wearing Roger Kirk’s ravishing gowns. She is the calm, commanding centre of the piece and a joy to behold.

This is not unexpected. McCune is a music theatre veteran despite still looking as dewy fresh as a teenager and she has something of the sexy primness of the head prefect about her – perfect for the role of a Western governess in the Siamese court in the 19th century.

Lisa McCune in South Pacific. Photo: Brian Geach

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Photo: Brian Geach

In 1862 the exceptionally adventurous Leonowens, a widow, went to what was then called Siam to teach the multitudinous wives, consorts and children of King Mongkut, a man who apparently prided himself on his English-language skills and wanted his court to learn them. A wise move, as the West’s roving eye meant great vigilance was required. Leonowens wrote two memoirs full of vivid detail about culture, art, religious practice and her combative relationship with the monarch, books that inspired the 1944 Margaret Landon novel that is the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical.

It’s clear from Leonowens’s writing that while there were many practices in Siam she abhorred, she found much to admire in her pupils and in King Mongkut. Rodgers and Hammerstein were socially progressive too – think of the plea for racial tolerance in South Pacific – and while there’s an element of condescension in their portrayal of the Siamese court, so exotic to 1950s Western eyes, there are nevertheless Asian characters that claim the audience’s understanding. The secondary figures of Lady Thiang, Tuptim and Lun Tha aren’t given a lot of stage time and aren’t integrated into the musical entirely satisfactorily, but they are highly sympathetic.

Most crucially the musical within the musical, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is full of riches. In a narrated dance piece lasting about a quarter of an hour – an audaciously long interruption to the main body of the musical – the unhappy Tuptim, one of the king’s concubines, presents a fervent and touching distillation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, putting it into a Buddhist context. It is an act of protest on her part, beautiful but dangerous. At this point Jerome Robbins’s choreography (reproduced in this production by Susan Kikuchi), Brian Thomson’s design, Rodgers’s Eastern-inflected music, Hammerstein’s inspired writing and the performances of Jenny Lui (Tuptim) and the ensemble work together to create unforgettable magic.

I can’t help wondering to what degree The King and I’s earliest American audiences would have been reminded of their history of slavery at a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

In The Small House of Uncle Thomas Rodgers’s music quotes from It’s a Puzzlement when referring to the slave-owner Simon Legree – a rebuke to King Mongkut. There are also a couple of phrases from Hello, Young Lovers, linking the plight of the runaway Eliza and her lover George to that of Tuptim and her secret love, Lun Tha.

It’s a pity that a song that previously opened the second act, Western People Funny, was excised from this production for length reasons – the production, not the song – before it went to Broadway in 1996 and has stayed excised. In it Lady Thiang and women of the court criticise Western attitudes towards them. They have been asked to wear Western dress, and this is what they have to say about it: “To prove we’re not barbarians/ They dress us up like savages! … Western people funny/ Of that there is no doubt/ They feel so sentimental/ About the Oriental/ They always try to turn us/ Upside out and inside down!”

In Christopher Renshaw’s staging while this song is missing we do see Mongkut’s wives trying on vast hooped skirts. And, very regrettably, flashing a bit of bare bottom.

The King and I is far from being a work that casually dismisses Asians as childlike and amusing, although directorial choices can take one in that direction if they do not take into account changing attitudes. An audience today will look at the musical with very different eyes from those of 63 years ago when it premiered, and even from 23 years ago when this production was first staged – that’s a whole generation.

I was surprised last Saturday night that a production I had much enjoyed when first seeing it in 1991 now felt so heavy-handed, McCune excepted. Memory is a treacherous thing but I don’t recall Thomson’s design looking quite so gaudy with its riot of red and gold accessorised with a tsunami of crystals and multitudinous points of light. The look brought to mind the bold colours and outlines of a child’s picture book. And the opening scene when Anna and her son arrive in Bangkok – was it really that unsubtle in its tawdry depiction of a bustling Asian port and the gradations of power between court officials and minions?

The casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes commercial sense after his music-theatre debut in South Pacific as Emile de Becque, a role that needs a fine bass baritone. Rhodes’s singing of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine added great lustre to South Pacific. That he and McCune, who starred as Nellie Forbush, are now off-stage partners is presumably also a factor.

He is, however, not ideal casting for the role of the King of Siam. Most obviously, he is not Asian. Leaving politics aside (that’s a whole other and very large subject), it’s not convincing theatrically. It’s not even as if there’s an imperative to have the King played by someone who has been operatically trained.

Rhodes’s key gift isn’t needed here, although I admit it was fun to hear him make It’s a Puzzlement sound as if it actually has a melody. The King was originally played by non-singer Yul Brynner (triumphantly) and at one point late in his life by Rudolf Nureyev (disastrously), and the role has minimal musical commitments that can be negotiated by speaking in rhythm and occasionally going up and down. As for the acting requirements, Rhodes is allowed to give a one-note performance for most of the musical’s length. Much stomping and arms akimbo suggest childish petulance rather than a mature ruler’s implacable authority, although at the end Rhodes unleashes anger that at last feels authentic.

The more ambitious music is given to secondary figures, here cast from strength. Shu-Cheen Yu’s Lady Thiang, Lui’s Tuptim and Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha are all sung superbly, with Yu’s Something Wonderful a standout. The looser-than-ideal structure often grates, but it also allows room for The Small House of Uncle Thomas, with its radiant dance inspired by the classical Siamese tradition. And for this gift I can forgive quite a lot.

Brisbane until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1. Rhodes will appear in the Sydney season of The King and I but is unavailable for Melbourne, where Jason Scott Lee, an American of Chinese-Hawaiian descent who sang the role opposite Elaine Paige in London in 2000-2001, will appear with McCune.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

In March 2008, when I was still on staff at The Australian, I wrote a piece about musical theatre ahead of an Opera Australia production of My Fair Lady. With OA and John Frost opening The King and I in Brisbane, with Melbourne and Sydney seasons to follow, I pulled it out of the vault.

THE golden age of musical theatre started quietly. A young man was heard offstage – it was March 31, 1943 – extolling the joys of life and of that day in particular. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” he sang, a cappella. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …” Oklahoma!, and a new era, was under way.

The show was the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and its opening is one of the most inspired, and concise, pieces of scene and character setting in all musical theatre.

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, and with those first eight words (of which two are definite or indefinite articles) established an indelible image of open farmland on a sunny morning and, by association, the pleasant, optimistic nature of the man who notices such things. The rhythm of the line is clear and uncomplicated, and Rodgers supports it with a sweet melody that strolls along as easily as an old-fashioned country boy.

All this takes perhaps 10 seconds to get across.

Oklahoma! has a perfect structure and the score is one of the greatest light music scores ever written,” says David King, head of musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Most of the competition for greatness comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, with Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music coming from the pair in the space of 16 years. But they didn’t entirely corner the market. The dream run in the 1940s and 50s included Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, remarkable for the quality of their source material (from George Bernard Shaw, Damon Runyon and Shakespeare respectively) and the brilliance of their music and lyrics. More recent musicals might have one or two hit songs; shows in this group string them together like well-matched pearls. Expensive ones, too. If you’d invested $1000 in the original Oklahoma! your return would have been $2.5million.

That Oklahoma! has enduring appeal more than 60 years after its premiere attests to its quality: in 2008 there would be about 500 productions worldwide, including one at Perth-based WAAPA. But it goes further than mere popularity. Rodgers and Hammerstein set the standard and style for an era. The shows created in the space of little more than two decades, from 1943 to 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened, are the undisputed classics of the genre.

Writer Peter Stone [explains] Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove.

Gerald Bordman, author of American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, heads his chapter on this period The American Musical as a Conscious Art Form. What would become the musical started in the mid-1800s and developed out of popular theatrical traditions including operetta, melodrama, burlesque and revue.

Most commentators nominate 1866 as the start of the native art form, when a touring French ballet company found itself without a theatre and enterprising producers combined the talents of the danseuses with a melodrama that did have a theatre, The Black Crook. The young women of the ballet weren’t the only ones with legs, and the show ran and ran.

In the post-war 1920s the taste was for entertainment; in the 30s theatregoers wanted either escape from the Depression or socially relevant drama because of it. There was, however, a cluster of supremely talented people working in New York who would bring the light and shade together.

Hammerstein is a pivotal figure. His grandfather was a New York theatre district pioneer and, with Jerome Kern, he wrote the groundbreaking Show Boat (1927). With its racially integrated cast and a troubling theme of miscegenation, it foreshadowed the kind of work Hammerstein would do when he joined forces with Rodgers 15 years later. He was also an important mentor to Sondheim, who would much later reign over the high end of the market.

And Hammerstein was a lyricist of exceptional and subtle gifts. In their book Broadway: The American Musical, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon quote writer Peter Stone on Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove. In Carousel it’s If I Loved You, in Show Boat it’s Only Make Believe, in Oklahoma! there’s People Will Say We’re in Love.

Just how different Oklahoma! was from its immediate predecessors is illustrated by something that quickly passed into music theatre legend. A talent scout for the critic Walter Winchell went to New Haven to see a show, at that stage called Away We Go, which was having its out-of-town tryout. He cabled to Winchell the following assessment: No legs, no jokes, no chance!

The audience saw it differently, happy to view work that not only entertained and thrilled but often challenged as well. Oklahoma! became the first music theatre phenomenon, running for more than 2000 performances on Broadway.

The new breed of creators didn’t shy away from themes such as gang warfare (West Side Story), racism (South Pacific) and dispossession (Fiddler on the Roof), but it was in the context of well-made theatre that also provided the popular music of the day: Maria, Some Enchanted Evening, If I Were a Rich Man.

The genius, says Andrew Greene, who conducts My Fair Lady for Opera Australia in June, lies in the fact that “in (the classic) musicals it’s about the team: wonderful music, words, book and great choreography and direction, all coming together to create a wonderful night in the theatre”. No longer was the piece designed to revolve around a big-name star who sucked up most of the oxygen. Everything had to be in the service of the whole.

When a [Cole] Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Michael Grandage, director of the Donmar Warehouse production in London of Guys and Dolls, which is being staged in Melbourne, points to the detail and cohesion of its book. “From a directorial point of view, you’re able to approach a musical like Guys and Dolls exactly as you would one of the most perfectly made plays,” he says.

As with most classic periods, the golden age of the American musical was created by a relatively small number of people. They included composer and conductor Bernstein, the youthful Sondheim (as lyricist), producer David Merrick and director Hal Prince. The stellar Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote words as well as music: when a Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Crucially, dance became a force for concentrated storytelling, often psychologically revealing, for which Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins can take much of the credit. De Mille’s dream ballet for Oklahoma! and another for Carousel were so influential that she perhaps never received quite her due: soon everyone was doing what she did.

Robbins and de Mille came from the classical ballet world and didn’t see it as slumming from their duties at American Ballet Theatre. In fact Robbins, a forceful character who directed as well as choreographed, got the idea that became West Side Story while studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where Marlon Brando was among his peers. The exhilarating Act I Mambo in the re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet isn’t there for colour and movement. It reveals the depth of rivalry between the Puerto Rican and American gangs and, in the setting of a social dance, brings Tony and Maria together.

The porous divide between high art and the commercial theatre was manifest in a version of Aida, using Verdi’s music but translated to an American Confederacy setting and called My Darlin’ Aida. Obviously it didn’t enter the pantheon, but it does point to a general taste for music written for a more classic tradition of vocal training. Opera singer Ezio Pinza had huge success as Emile in South Pacific, and My Fair Lady called for a gifted soprano and got one in Julie Andrews. Rising opera star Taryn Fiebig will sing the role for Opera Australia.

OA’s chief executive Adrian Collette says the strong book is central to the appeal of My Fair Lady. It’s adapted from “a tough and polemical play by George Bernard Shaw … what the music unfailingly brings to it is the potential for romance. It keeps its essential ambiguity to the very end, but overlays it with this wonderfully romantic music.”

Greene says American musicals have been part of the lighter repertoire in European opera houses for many years, and is pleased to see OA tackling My Fair Lady after many years of Gilbert and Sullivan (OA has also staged Fiddler on the Roof).

“[Frederick] Loewe was amazing. He was a direct descendant of a 19th-century lieder composer of Austrian descent. We find him not only being able to write wonderful romantic-style pop tunes. He was able to [write in the manner of] the British music-hall style for My Fair Lady – Get Me to the Church on Time, With a Little Bit of Luck – and also something like They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon. He was a musical chameleon.”

Like all movements, this one was finite. Times, tastes and methods changed. A show such as Cabaret (1966) mostly presented its songs not as rising out of ordinary activity but within the context of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally Bowles worked. A Chorus Line (1975) stripped away all the trappings and was a more or less plotless show about people trying to get into a show.

The bubble had very much burst by the Broadway season of 1967-68. William Goldman in his book The Season saw everything that year. There were 14 new musicals and only one hit: the endearing but chaotic Hair. To come: the rock musical, Sondheim (a kind of one-man style), the British “popera” invasion spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Disneyfication and the jukebox musical.

It’s hard to see anything other than Sondheim lasting another 50 years but that doesn’t stop people from trying, year after year, to write the next hit. King says the New York Music Theatre Festival each year premieres about 40 new musicals – “there’s an enormous amount of stuff written” – and a few composers, Adam Guettel (Rodgers’s grandson) and Michael John LaChiusa chief among them, are writing works of note.

And a Broadway that can offer, simultaneously, musical versions of Frank Wedekind’s wildly controversial 1891 play dealing with youthful sexuality, Spring Awakening, and the perky Legally Blonde – King calls it imaginative and witty – is far from being dead, no matter how much people hanker for the glory days and start reading it the last rites.

The King and I, presented by Opera Australia and John Frost, QPAC, Brisbane, until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1.

THE BEST OF THE BEST FROM THE GOLDEN AGE

Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1943

On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, developed from Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre, 1944

Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1945

Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin, 1946

Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter, 1948

South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949

Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, 1950

The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1951

My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1956

West Side Story, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1957

The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1959

Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1959

Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1964