In building a reputation over the past 37 years as one of America’s top stage directors, Bartlett Sher has directed plays by Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Tony Kushner, August Wilson and many more. “But I believe Rodgers and Hammerstein are in the top five,” he says. “They changed the art form.”
Sher brings his 2015 Tony Award-winning production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” to the Kennedy Center next week for a nearly five-week run. About a third of the final Lincoln Center Theatre cast (including Jose Llana as King Mongkut) are accompanying the show to Washington. Sher, 58, is confident that the show will resonate with today’s audiences as much as it did when it opened, in 1951.
“You have to admire Oscar Hammerstein,” Sher says, “for being attracted to a story about a British single mother traveling to a totally foreign culture when that society was trapped between its traditional history and its growing export economy in a time of colonialism. If you look at the Mideast today, you see cultures trapped the same way and wrestling with the same issues of the status of women and a leader’s absolute power.”
Of course, Sher is quick to point out, our attitudes about other cultures have changed quite a bit since 1951. In restaging the show, the director was careful to avoid “Orientalism,” the tendency to see foreign societies as strangely exotic and less developed. The alterations he had to make, however, had more to do with casting and design than with the script.
“Only two people in the 1951 cast were Asian,” he says. “We would never do that now. In 1951, the set design was a kind of fantasia of what we thought the Far East was like. Now we do more research and try to be more realistic. But the script itself was solid.”
In fact, when Sher researched Hammerstein’s manuscripts, he discovered that the early versions were much franker about politics and sexuality than the versions used on Broadway and in the 1956 movie. During the 1951 out-of-town tryouts, the producers cut references to the king’s relations with his dozens of wives and to the way Siam’s next-door neighbor Cambodia was being colonized by France at the time of the play’s action.
“I restored 50 to 60 lines,” Sher reports. “Those lines give the show more context. I restored a line about the king wanting to put a fence around Siam to protect it from other countries, and when he says it now, the audience just erupts. There’s another line where the king complains that his newest wife Tuptim didn’t ‘honor’ him when they were alone. Hammerstein knew just what he was saying with that line, and so do we today. Today’s audiences are more comfortable with that kind of sexual reference, and it enriches the play.”
The director had the full cooperation of the Richard Rodgers Estate in making those restorations. Sher became good friends with the late Mary Rodgers, the composer’s daughter, after directing the original 2003 version of her son Adam Guettel’s breakthrough musical “Light in the Piazza.” In 2008, Sher strengthened those ties by winning a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for directing the hit revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” He’s now working on Guettel’s new musical, “Millions,” for Lincoln Center.
Any revival of “The King and I,” of course, has to operate in the shadow of the famous 1956 Hollywood film starring Yul Brynner with his bald head and red pajamas and Deborah Kerr with her red curls and voluminous skirts dancing through rooms the size of airplane hangars. Although the leads of the current production, Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly, are better singers and more nuanced actors, they still have to compete with our movie memories of their charismatic predecessors.
“The ’56 film is actually quite helpful in seeing the musical now,” Sher insists. “They’re coming in already knowing something about the story itself. Because they’re not learning the plot for the first time, they’re more attentive to the smaller details and the newer wrinkles. They’ll see a story they already know, but they’ll notice things they never caught before. It’s the same reason people go to see ‘Hamlet’ again and again.”
One thing that stands out upon closer inspection is how much the script raises expectations and then dashes them. In almost every stage musical, a flirtation in an early scene must lead to marriage or at least romance in the final scene. But the flirtation between the King and Anna remains unresolved at the end. Similarly, the illicit romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha, the man who delivers her as a gift from the king of Burma, is ultimately thwarted — even if Anna saves Tuptim from a flogging. And yet no one is left unchanged by the encounter between the British schoolteacher and the Siamese court.
“The most important quality of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show,” Sher says, “is how much the characters learn and how much they change. Anna has that problem of the West: We think we always know better, but she learns she can’t always apply her values to this other culture, because they don’t always fit. She realizes that her involvement with Tuptim is an inappropriate intrusion into the culture. Meanwhile, the King doesn’t change as much as Anna wants, but he changes enough to do something no other ruler in the region accomplishes: he resists colonialism, and Siam remains independent.”
None of this would matter as much as it does if the dialogue didn’t occasionally burst into song, lifted on the wings of Richard Rodgers’s indelible melodies. There’s a reason that songs such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “Something Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance?” are still sung outside the confines of the show. They boast choruses you can hum the day after the show and rhythms that fit the words like gloves. You don’t find such tunefulness in many modern musicals, Sher argues. The success of “Hamilton,” he adds, is due as much to its tunefulness as to its hip-hop innovations.
“Songs are an exaggerated form of speech,” Sher says. “If you’ve done as much Shakespeare as I have, you’re used to the dialogue changing when it moves from prose to poetry; the language becomes more intense, more emotional, more elevated. The same thing happens in Rodgers and Hammerstein when the shows move from dialogue to song.”
Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.
Dates: Tuesday through Aug. 20.