“Shall We Dance,” “Getting to Know You,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune” — Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I features more than its fair share of classic musical theatre numbers.
But some would argue that 67 years after its Broadway premiere, it also comes dragging some dated cultural baggage with it, in its presentation of a lush and exotic Eastern location (the kingdom of Siam, today’s Thailand) seen through a white Western gaze.
Bartlett Sher, director of the Lincoln Center’s acclaimed revival production visiting Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre this summer, is having none of this line of argument — or at least, he finds it very limiting.
“If I went into an art gallery, would I say these pictures are dated because they don’t represent how we see the world? Of course they don’t,” he explains. “Our history is not how we see things now, but that doesn’t disqualify us from approaching it.”
Sher, speaking on the phone from London, England, doesn’t deny that questions of “Orientalism and exoticized East” are “crucial” to consideration of The King and I. The issue is how you go about staging it: “One has to be careful that you are not exploiting [the material], but investigating the history of a king in 1862 who is struggling with outside forces and colonialism, his traditional culture and modernity.”
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He aspires not to judge the show. Rather, “I ask what is the immediate significance of this musical right now,” and in his famously intense rehearsal process undertakes research in which he explores “text, history, the context.”
This approach has borne fruit. Already well-regarded for his productions of new plays and musicals, Shakespeare and opera, Sher’s career cranked up to the next level when, in 2008, he staged Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, considered by some to be creaky in its depiction of cross-cultural romance on a tropical island during World War II.
Sher’s production brought new perspectives to the material. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley raved that Sher’s South Pacific was “as if a vintage photograph had been restored not with fuzzy, hand-coloured prettiness but with you-are-there clarity.” The production won seven Tony Awards (including Best Production and Best Director for Sher), and toured extensively, including to Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre in 2010.
He further built his reputation as a master director of American Golden Age musicals with Broadway productions of Fiddler on the Roof (2015) and, this year, My Fair Lady, starring Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under. When I spoke to Sher, he was in London preparing this production of The King and I for its UK premiere on July 3, featuring its Broadway stars Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe. (The London Independent’s Paul Taylor called it “the most emotionally satisfying and culturally cogent account of this musical I have seen.”)
In the touring production visiting Toronto, the role of Anna Leonowens — the widowed English schoolteacher who travels to Siam to become tutor to the King’s many children — is played by Elena Shaddow, with whom Sher previously worked on the musical version of The Bridges of Madison County. Shaddow is “an exquisite singer and great actress — as good as we have, and very special,” says Sher. Seasoned New York performer Jose Llana plays the King.
Sher, originally from San Francisco and from 2000 to 2010 the artistic director of Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, is now resident director at New York’s Lincoln Center. Amongst the many projects he has on the go is a new musical called Millions, based on the 2004 Danny Boyle film, which he’s developing with composer Adam Guettel (the grandson of The King and I’s composer Richard Rodgers) and Bob Martin, Canadian co-creator of The Drowsy Chaperone. He’s also the director of the controversial new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin, which opens on Broadway in December.
New work and classics, at home and abroad: how do the many areas of his work inform each other? Sher laughs wryly. “It would be wonderful if there was a great master plan.… Different forms of expression require different kinds of skills. I try to balance it. There are always a lot of balls in the air.”
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The King and I plays at the Princess of Wales Theatre from July 10 to Aug. 12. Tickets and info at Mirvish.com, 416-872-1212, or 800-461-3333.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2