The acclaimed national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King And I, based on the Tony Award-winning 2015 revival, arrives at the Kavli Theatre this week for a four-day, six-show run, and we thought it might be fun to look at some facts and figures about the original 1951 Broadway production.
- Gertrude Lawrence’s attorney Fanny Holtzmann came up with the idea to commission a musical for Lawrence to star in, a revolutionary idea for its time.
- Lawrence’s first suggestion to write a musicalized version of Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam was Cole Porter.
- Holtzmann ran into Oscar Hammerstein’s wife Dorothy on Madison Avenue and thought that Oscar would be perfect person to write a show with “mellow sentiment and wry humour.”
- Richard Rodgers was less than enthusiastic about writing a musical with one specific actress in mind, especially Lawrence, who had a tendency to sing flat and had a narrow vocal range.
- The first idea to play the King was Rex Harrison, who played the role in film.
- Also suggested to play the King were Noel Coward and Alfred Drake. When neither was able to do it, R&H began scheduling auditions for the part.
- The first actor to audition for the King was Yul Brynner, a 31-year-old Russian actor who shaved his head to play King Mongkut of Siam. At his audition, Brynner scowled, sat down on the stage, cross-legged, and plunked a whacking chord on a guitar, beginning to howl in a strange language that no one could understand. His controlled ferocity convinced R&H to hire him on the spot. Brynner went on to play the King for 4,625 performances in various runs of the show.
- The King And I was budgeted at $360,000, the most expensive R&H production to date. Gertrude Lawrence’s take was 10% of the gross and 5% of the profits.
- Keeping Lawrence’s limited range in mind, Rodgers wrote simple melodies for her to sing including “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” and “Shall We Dance.” The more demanding songs (“Something Wonderful” and “We Kiss In A Shadow”) were given to professionally trained singers Doretta Morrow and Dorothy Sarnoff.
- Lawrence’s seven costumes weighed 75 lbs., each constructed with of steel hoops that bruised her legs every time she tried to curtsy to the King.
- The show opened March 29, 1951. The novel’s author, Margaret Landon, was not invited to the premiere. The show as an instant hit.
- The pace became too demanding for Lawrence, who began to suffer severe weight loss after only six months playing Anna for eight shows a week. In each performance she was required to walk and dance for 4 miles during the show’s 3 1/2 hour duration. By the beginning of 1952, she weighed in at only 110 pounds.
- By May 1952, Lawrence’s performances were suffering and audiences began booing her. She refused friend Noel Coward’s plea for her to leave the show.
- In August, Lawrence fainted after a matinee performance and was diagnosed with hepatitis.
- On September 6, 1952, Lawrence died of a mysterious cancer that had gone undiagnosed but had taken over her liver. She was 54 years old. She was buried in the ball gown she wore for the “Shall We Dance” number.
The King and I opens December 27 at the Fred Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks. See our interview with Angela Baumgardner, who will be playing Anna Leonowens, in this week’s Acorn newspaper. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.