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The King and I

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The Writing of The King and I

King and I Vocal SelectionsNoel KatzCommentary and writing tips by Noel Katz

An interesting coincidence: while Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing The King and I, George Bernard Shaw died. More than anyone in the English language, Shaw demonstrated that a good and fierce intellectual argument, on philosophical and/or political matters, can be the stuff of fascinating drama. The King and I may be Hammerstein's best book; it proves that a battle of wits can make a great musical.

When a prim schoolteacher from Wales is hired by the interested-in-modernization King of Siam, they're on a collision course in many areas: he's a polygamist who mistreats his female slaves; she insists a woman be treated as an equal. His is the wisdom of the East, and of cherished traditions; hers is traditional Western book-learning. She must amend her ways (and, literally, bend) to show proper respect to a King; he must change in order to honor a promise she holds him to. And so, they argue.

In a subtext that goes unstated but is understood by the audience, they fall in love, while arguing in the most amusing and enlightening ways. Because of their positions in society, they cannot state their feelings, and people in love who cannot state their feelings had been a major source of the success of two previous Rodgers and Hammerstein hits, Oklahoma! and Carousel. The King and Mrs. Anna don't get to share a duet, but they do get to share a dance.

It's breathtaking. The audience, watching their debates and their growing respect for each other is, by late in the second act, yearning for any display of affection. We're given it in the form of a polka lesson, and when the King points out that he's observed dance partners draw each other a few inches closer than Anna has demonstrated, our hearts overflow.

That's a sterling example of a librettist's craft. Hammerstein's built a love story out of subtext that's going on during a series of arguments. While The King and I may not be Rodgers' strongest score, it's instructive to look at how he evokes far-away South Asia using Western instruments and harmonics. The "March of the Siamese Children" rises on a familiar arpeggio before landing on the flat fifth. The accompaniment of "Something Wonderful" throws together triad chords we don't normally hear together. None of this is the authentic music of Thailand; it's just a suggestion of the place that, musically, places us there.

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The King and I DVDThe King and I (DVD) from Amazon.com 1956 film version starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.

Cast Recordings

King and I Original CastThe King and I (Original 1951 Broadway Cast) from Amazon.com Starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. Original recording remastered and reissued. Songs include: Overture, I Whistle A Happy Tune, My Lord and Master, Hello, Young Lovers, March of the Siamese Children, A Puzzlement, Getting To Know You, We Kiss In A Shadow, Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?, Something Wonderful, I Have Dreamed, and Shall We Dance?

King and I Revival CastThe King and I (1996 Broadway Revival Cast) from Amazon.com Starring Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips. Songs include: Overture, I Whistle A Happy Tune, Royal Dance Before The King, My Lord And Master, Hello, Young Lovers, The March Of The Siamese Children, A Puzzlement, Getting To Know You, We Kiss In The Shadow, Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You, Something Wonderful, Finale To Act One, I Have Dreamed, Hello, Young Lovers (Reprise), Song Of The King, Shall We Dance?, Confrontation, Procession Of The White Elephant, The Letter, and Finale

Sheet Music and Reference Materials

King and I Vocal ScoreThe King and I (Score)  by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II OR The King and I: Vocal Selections - Souvenir Edition

"I Whistle A Happy Tune" from Musicnotes.com Instant digital download sheet music.

"Shall We Dance" from Musicnotes.com Instant digital download sheet music.

"I Have Dreamed" from Musicnotes.com Instant digital download sheet music.

The English Governess at the Siamese Court : The True Story Behind 'The King and I' from Amazon.com The memiors of Mrs. Anna Leonowens upon which the musical The King and I was based.

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