A group of sleepy students tumbled out of bed early one Saturday morning in April 2015 to board a bus with me from Ithaca to New York City’s renowned Lincoln Center Theatre.
There, thanks to funding from the Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) and the history department’s Polenberg fund, we attended a matinee performance of the famous Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I. Afterwards, the accomplished associate director, Tyne Rafaeli, brought us backstage to see the production up close and to have a conversation with director Bart Sher, who was genuinely interested in hearing our reactions.
Late in 2014, Sher and Rafaeli had contacted me to discuss the historical context in Siam during the 1860s, when Anna Leonowens taught in the royal palace. In January 2015, I walked down Amsterdam Avenue in near-zero temperatures to meet with the vibrant cast and crew of The King and I. For an exhilarating three hours, I spoke with them about the colonial stakes involved for Siam, the life and personality of King Mongkut, and the political significance of women in the Inner Palace. Their eager questions ranged broadly from bodily comportment to Thai language phrases to the details of personal hygiene. High energy abounded, and it was a rare treat to be with a community that wanted to know every detail about nineteenth century Bangkok down to plumbing in the Grand Palace. They also taught me a few things. Most importantly, I learned that the musical held a different value and meaning for them as actors, choreographers, set designers, and producers than it did for me as a historian of Thailand.
For academics, it might seem oxymoronic to be a historical consultant for a musical that is more fantasy than fact. The 2015 revival of The King and I has a labyrinthine genealogy: it is based on Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical, which drew on a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, which in turn used Anna Leonowens’ 1870 memoir, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, as its main source of inspiration. Moreover, the original source, by which I mean Anna Leonowens and her books, have been the subject of some of the most unforgiving criticism, not so much by Thai academics, who (unlike some members of their government and media censor boards) recognize the play as fiction, but by foreign academics who have stridently taken up the shield to defend Thailand’s royal reputation.
Suffice it to say, there is little historical truth to the narrative of The King and I. However, Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut were real people: the king employed Anna for about five years between 1862 and 1867 to teach the women and children who inhabited the Royal Palace. When I ventured to talk to the producer about certain historical inaccuracies in the musical—say, the fact that Anna and the king were not romantically engaged, that King Mongkut would not likely have thrown temper tantrums replete with wild gesticulations, or that Anna was a child of mixed race ancestry—I was quickly but gently reminded that theatre and history are, in this case, two very different creatures. Even the photographs of the real King Mongkut and Jao Phraya Si Suriyawong (“the Kralahom”), which I had included in an article published in the Lincoln Center Theatre Review for distribution at the performances, were discarded in favor of other photographs of consorts from the reign of Mongkut’s son, King Chulalongkorn (LCTR 65, Spring 2015).
These images of the historical individuals were irrelevant. The musical is not about Thailand. Instead, it offers a fable that projects an ideal American identity—one that appealed to postwar audiences in the 1950s when it dominated Broadway, and one that is enthralling viewers again today. Sher’s revival was nominated for nine Tony Awards for a musical and netted four of them for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Leading Actress, Best Featured Actress, and Best Costume Design. The astoundingly talented cast, which is nearly completely Asian or Asian-American, includes the first Asian actor (Ken Watanabe, who made his Broadway debut) in the role of King Mongkut.
The quality of their performances, the choreography, and the set design no doubt account for some of the musical’s appeal, but not for all of it. The musical’s narrative speaks to audiences today for other reasons having, I suspect, more to do with how many would prefer to see their role as Americans in the world today. The King and I offers a salve to those Americans who might feel ambivalent about US military intervention in majority Muslim regions by giving them resolution in the form of an innocent, plucky, well-intended teacher, Anna, who intervenes on behalf of foreign, oppressed women. Sher, who received a Tony in 2008 for his revival of another Rogers & Hammerstein favorite, South Pacific, seeks to play up a resonance he sees between the context of the US in the early 1950s and the world today. Pouring over the original versions of the musical, including the pieces that never made it into the final version, Sher understands The King and I to be about the transition from tradition to modernity, an oft-critiqued binary that nonetheless still has ideological power outside academia. For the director, the developing world today encompasses areas, particularly in Muslim countries, that deny women an education. The import of the musical for today’s audiences, in his view, lies in its link between freedom and women’s education, captured in the moment when Anna gives Tuptim, one of King Mongkut’s newest consorts, a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To cement the link, the Lincoln Center Theatre Review magazine reprinted a copy of Noble Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 speech about education and women in Islamic cultures.
Sometimes the simplicity of an idea—in this case, the idea that the United States is a positive force in the world—regardless of its problematic logic, gives it its legs. Or perhaps it is the impeccable acting and singing and flawless sets. In any case, The King and I has sold out, the Lincoln Center Theatre has extended its run indefinitely, and a national tour will launch in late 2016.
Tamara Loos is an associate professor of history and Asian studies and a core faculty member in the Southeast Asia Program of Cornell’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. This article also appeared on the Global Cornell website and the Southeast Asia Program Fall Bulletin 2015.