Arts

Say goodbye to ‘The King and I’: ill-written relic should be left in the past

A new incarnation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I" stopped recently at the Overture Center in downtown Madison. Image By: Photo Courtesy of the Overture Center

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” might take the cake when it comes to virtually fossilized, ethnocentric and downright offensive pieces of American theatre. Maybe its “white savior” narrative and hyperbolic representation of Thai culture were considered all fine and dandy when this show debuted in 1951. But in our wanting-to-be-woke society of today, there was no justifiable reason for this show’s revival tour and subsequent stent at the Overture Center from Feb. 26 to March 3. 

The musical is a fictionalized interpretation of a fictionalized interpretation (the book “Anna and the King of Siam,” by Margaret Langdon) of an already questionably-true memoir (“The English Governess at the Siamese Court”) by Anna Leonowens, who detailed her own real life encounters with King Mongkut of Siam.  

Through the telling and retelling of Anna’s story, details have been grossly blown out of proportion; in fact, the caricatured representation of the Thai monarchy caused the musical and movie adaptations to actually be banned in Thailand, which makes it even more problematic that we blindly present this misrepresentation in the U.S.

"This story line perpetuates the 'white savior' trope used relentlessly in modern media to paint western white culture as the standard and goal."

If it were presented as a completely fictional story, this show’s storyline alone would raise eyebrows. Presented as it is, using names of real people and places to pose this as a factual historical allegory, this show is completely unacceptable.

“The King and I” presents the King of Siam as a complete barbarian and his subjects as helpless and naive until Anna, equipped with her western European knowledge and sovereignty comes to save the day. This story line perpetuates the “white savior” trope used relentlessly in modern media to paint western white culture as the standard and goal.

Most of the jokes are at the expense of Thai characters’ mistakes as they are taught western ideas and the English language. This whole theme adds to the idea that the western way is the default, so that it’s actually comical to us that anyone wouldn’t fully understand or subscribe to its education and communication systems.

Angela Baumgardner plays Anna Leonowens - an unfortunate continuation of the "white savior" trope that has existed in American media.

Angela Baumgardner and Pedro Ka’awaloa portrayed the two main characters, Anna and the King, well, but neither were the most noteworthy performances of the show. Baumgardner’s tone was a perfectly boring and unoriginal recreation of Julie Andrews’ in “The Sound of Music.” 

Ka’awaloa had the misfortune of portraying a terribly written character whose solo song “A Puzzlement” was the low point of the show. The song was slow and featured nothing but the loud lower-register of Ka’awaloa’s surely impressive Broadway-trained voice.

Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein threw in a historically unfounded starcrossed-lovers subplot for that requisite romantic angle, and impressively Dongwoo Kang and Paulina Yeung as Tuptim and Lun Tha, the pairing that was doomed from the start, were quite possibly the most impressive singers in the show.

There were other high points of the production, regardless of its unfortunate history and implications. For example, “The March of the Siamese Children” was an astounding number featuring the talent of the many child actors who breathed youthful energy into this relic of a play.

The march involved each of the King’s dozen-or-so children approaching Anna in their own specific and hilarious way. Needless to say, it was off-the-charts adorable. Throughout the musical as a whole these child performers were impressively focused, talented and professional; overall a complete delight to watch.

Next up in the not-so-bad category is “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. This fifteen minute dance performance during the second act outshone the rest of the musical tremendously.

"Thankfully this performance allowed performers of diverse backgrounds to shine."

The ballet is a sort of meld of Siamese and western culture as this group of Siamese performers show their version of the story of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The main character Eliza, played by Akina Kitazawa, had unmatchable grace and endurance. Considering that for almost the entirety of this number she was hopping on one foot, she remained remarkably stable, elegant and composed.

Another positive note for this specific performance of “The King and I” is the impressively diverse cast. This has been a historically whitewashed show, so it’s noteworthy that thankfully this performance allowed performers of diverse backgrounds to shine.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had no reason to resurface and re-frame the story of Anna and the King of Siam in the first place, and there is absolutely no reason for the return tour of “The King and I" this year.

The musical is a disgrace to the Thai government, and the fact that it’s easily accepted within American culture should be a disgrace to us. The fictitious story has no business claiming its bases in “fact,” and its narrative of western sovereignty does more harm than good. It’s time for “The King and I” to undergo a massive re-write or to be abandoned to fade into a distant memory in the history of American theatre.


 Emma Hellmer is the theatre columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here. 

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