Many musical theater cognoscenti maintain that The King and I is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s overall strongest show (though Carousel is frequently regarded as leader on score and “feels” fronts). I will admit that for years its charms eluded me. Partially because my mom was never particularly fond of it (or Deborah Kerr), so the movie didn’t play a part in my childhood. The only live production I ever saw was a semi-professional affair that some friends were in that I mostly remember for its ugly unit set and length. The only cast recording at my disposal growing up was the Original Broadway Cast, and that disk vanished from my collection a decade ago (and didn’t get much play while I had it because of my distaste for Gertrude Lawrence’s singing).
A few weeks ago I was alerted to a promotion on amazon that offered a digital download of the 2000 London Cast Recording (starring Elaine Paige) for $5, and have since been bitten by a The King and I bug. Over the course of the next several weeks (months?), I will be hunting down and exploring any recording of the score I can get my hands on, film adaptations (the original 1956 classic and the 1999 animated curiosity), as well as its source (Margaret Landon’s biographical novel Anna and the King of Siam) and its film adaptations. Though a chronological exploration would make the most sense, I will probably take things in as they become available via inter-library loan and other sources. In talking about each item, I will credit all the principals, but will likely only comment on the most notable element(s) of each recording and let it be assumed that unmentioned performances were appropriate.
If the 2000 London Cast Recording seems like a rather arbitrary place to begin this journey, it’s two chief attractions perhaps explain why this recording triggered this new found appreciation on my part. First, this is a notably comprehensive recording. It includes the complete 17-minutes “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in addition to a few lushly underscored book-moments (the First Act Finale and Anna’s reading of The King’s final letter),allowing the recording to tell a good deal of the story and rendering it an emotionally impactful presentation of the score.
The recording’s greatest asset is Elaine Paige’s wonderful and accessible Anna. Elaine Paige brings a clear belt to much of Anna’s traditionally legit-soprano music. One of the reasons I’ve had trouble connecting to the show before has been a perception that the role of Anna is a bit stuffy musically. And though my appreciation for the warbling soprano that was more popular in the early-to-mid twentieth century has grown in recent years, I think I needed to hear Paige dust the cobwebs off the role to recognize how much humor and warmth is present. If Paige’s vocal stylings are probably not strictly period-correct, she gives a smart performance that finds the import in every line. Her “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” is wonderfully layered. (The King: Jason Scott Lee. Tuptim: Aura Deva. Lun Tha: Sean Ghazi. Lady Thiang: Taewon Yi Kim)