Brit Crits Hit "King and I' with Colonialism Charge

Although the British public seems to love the new revival of "The King and I" that opened at the London Palladium Wed., May 4, some critics are complaining about its depiction of colonial Thailand (then called Siam).

The Rodgers and Hammerstein tuner-based on a true story of a British schoolteacher who traveled to Siam in 1862 to teach the children of King Mongkut-stars West End favorite Elaine Paige as the teacher and Jason Scott Lee as the king. It has an unprecedented advance sale of some $11 million (£7 million), and the opening night audience responded with an un-British standing ovation, but a few reviewers zeroed in on its political aspects. The Guardian said it was "a political embarrassment that not even Richard Rodgers' seductive songs can redeem," The Daily Telegraph said its "whole attitude to the exotic East is faintly patronizing," while The Times weighed in with a denunciation of "the colonialist notion that exotic nations should ape the behavior of western lands."

The charges of cultural insensitivity is ironic in some ways, considering the extent to which author Oscar Hammerstein was committed to eradicating prejudice. His lyric to "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" in "South Pacific" was a startlingly brave condemnation of bigotry for its time; the plot of "Show Boat"-or at least, one of the many plots-deals with racial prejudice; and even aspects of "King and I" make it clear that assumptions of Western superiority are specious.

Bert Fink of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Office in New York observed that some of the same questions about imperialism were raised during the show's 1977 Broadway revival, but has not surfaced in subsequent New York productions. He also pointed out that the period of history covered by "King and I" is controversial in modern-day Thailand, where all movie adaptations of the story (including "Anna and the King," the recent Jodie Foster non-musical film treatment) have been banned.

The current London production is an extension of a revival that originated in Australia in 1991 under the direction of Christopher Renshaw. Hayley Mills headlined in Australia; when it moved to Broadway, Donna Murphy won the Tony for her portrayal of the teacher, and the production won a Tony for best musical revival.

The original production opened on Broadway in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the leading roles, and ran for more than 1,200 performances. When Lawrence died the following year, she was buried in her favorite "King and I" costume. Brynner would be associated with the role of a Siamese monarch for the rest of his life, although he was actually Russian-born. He played the part in the film, in a short-lived TV series, on tour, and in two Broadway revivals. He died while on tour with the show in 1985.

The production in London provides work for about two dozen Asian actors, who are finding jobs in shorter supply than usual now that the West End production of "Miss Saigon" has closed.

Another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with an Asian theme and employment possibilities for Asian performers, "Flower Drum Song," will bow at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles next year, presumably with an eye on moving to New York at a future date. It has a newly rewritten libretto by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang.