Getting To Know “The King And I”

The King And I

(c) 20th Century Fox

I expected my daughter to love “THE KING AND I.”  She’s taken three years of ballet, she sang glee and did drama in the after school program, and ever since her early exposure to SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, musicals have been catnip to her.

The surprise was that my son, who’d ruled out watching it because it was a musical, and sat himself down at the computer across the room when I put it on, gradually but inexorably got sucked in.   The March of the Siamese Children, when the the King of Siam’s many, many kids enter one at a time, bow to their father, and greet their new school teacher — some with solemnity, others with warmth and mischievous looks — was intriguing to him.  Maybe he felt a kinship with the King (Yul Brynner), who though an adult, often acts like an impulsive, headstrong eight-year-old boy, turning on a dime from exuberant to petulant to angry, to suddenly vulnerable.  The wide-screen Cinemascope may have caught my son’s attention — this movie doesn’t look like most of the others he’s seen — and the bright Technicolor hues, exotic sets and costumes probably didn’t hurt.  Whatever drew him to leave the computer and cross the room, by the time the character Tuptim (Rita Moreno) and the king’s many other wives put on their part-pantomime, part-narrated play, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” with its artful masks and imaginatively used props (e.g., a white sheet becomes a frozen river), he was utterly mesmerized.  He didn’t stir from the sofa until the movie finished.

By then, my daughter insisted on watching “Shall We Dance?” a second time, marveling at Anna’s (Deborah Kerr) hoop-skirted ball gown and the couple’s whirlwind, prancing dance around the shiny palace floor.  Then it was back to the Scene Selection button for more highlights.  Clearly she’d discovered a new favorite musical in this gorgeously rendered movie adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage classic.  Academy Award (TM) voters back in ’56 found it equally compelling, awarding the film five Oscars, including Best Actor for Yul Brynner, whose portrayal of the king arguably made his career.

King And I Kids

(c) 20th Century Fox

Early on in the movie, when Welsh school teacher Anna Leonowens and her son’s ship has docked in Bangkok, she gives her son a musical lesson in what to do about being afraid.  “Whistle A Happy Tune” is a simple set of instructions tailor-made for kids:  Anna tells her son to whistle a happy tune whenever he feels afraid.  “Make believe you’re brave,” she sings, “And the trick will take you far/You may be as brave/As you make believe you are.”  It’s a neat and handy, compact life lesson, courtesy lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.  That’s probably why Sesame Street’s Grover sang it.   It’s quite similar in spirit to another Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, “My Favorite Things,” from THE SOUND OF MUSIC — and just as musically memorable.

The movie takes place in the 1860s, concurrent with the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who gets a mention, and it’ll make kids curious about life back then as well as life and customs in other countries.  My own kids were surprised the king had so many children and wives, so we talked about the differences between the cultures in the movie.  Right after we watched it, my daughter asked me to show her Thailand on the world map I’d stuck on the bathroom wall.  Then she had to watch that March of the Siamese children one more time, and decide which kid was her favorite (the one who gives Anna the flower).

THE KING AND I is rich stuff indeed to show kids — pageantry, world history, the kind of songs that stick in your mind long after the latest pop song has faded, Siamese dance as filtered and interpreted by Broadway and Hollywood, and the idea that if you only pretend you’re not afraid, you might not be.    It is indeed, “Something Wonderful,” and very much worth “Getting To Know…” (you can show them the trailer here).

THE KING AND I (1956)  Directed by Walter Lang, Screenplay by Ernest Lehman, book of the musical play by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the book “Anna And The King Of Siam” by Margaret Langon, music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.  With Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr (voiced by Marni Nixon), Rita Moreno

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