January 2, 2012

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and Who”? Or perhaps the question should be “The Who and Who?”

Surely The King and I is just about the most glorious score ever written for, how shall we say this, a leading lady of limited vocal range. It is also one of the best scores ever written for a leading man of idiosyncratic vocal qualities.

Lets deal with the “I” in The King and I first, for that is the role and the original casting for which the piece was created. The legendary Gertrude Lawrence was the star who came to Rodgers and Hammerstein with the request that they write a musical version of Anna and the King of Siam for her.

Lawrence is described by Gerald Bordman thusly: “Although she could not dance well and sang off-key, this graceful, haughty beauty was one of the great stars of the Musical Stage.” Steven Suskin, in his treasure of a book The Sound of Broadway Music (ISBN 0199790841), puts it a bit more precisely: “Lawrence had what might be called a wandering voice, which was strong enough but not necessarily accurate.”

Her last great role was the one Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for her in which she introduced such lush sounding classics as “Getting To Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers.” The original Broadway cast album is available on Decca Broadway’s CD (ASIN B00004T9TE) and it provides ample evidence of her vocal charm as well as of her limitations. She sells the numbers and delivers Hammerstein’s lyrics with all the charm they deserve, but she doesn’t bring out all the musical glories that Richard Rodgers gave the role.

So – if you want to hear her songs sung more musically – what are your options? Plenty. The Cast Album Data Base ( lists 27 recordings of the score. I haven’t heard them all (I’m still ignorant of the Japanese Cast Recording, among others) but some of the most prominent seem to me to be the most promising.

New York revivals have left behind some quality recordings of the score. The most recent was the 1996 revival with Donna Murphy who was nothing short of wonderful, fully deserving of the Tony Award she won for Best Actress in a Musical. Her co-star was a thoroughly satisfying Lou Diamond Phillips, who was also nominated but did not win a Tony. That performance was captured on the Verese Sarabande label (ASIN B0000014ZZ).

In 1964 Richard Rodgers’ own program “Music Theater of Lincoln Center” staged a revival with Rïse Stevens playing Anna opposite none other than Darren McGavin, (the father in the movie A Christmas Story who, if the recording is any indication, tried awful hard to bluster past his own vocal limitations). Sony Broadway has re-released the recording of that production (ASIN B000GPIPUQ).

Of course, you could opt for the soundtrack of the 1956 movie version on which Marni Nixon dubbed the voice for Debra Kerr (Angel Records ASIN B00005A7XC). Nixon’s delivery is superb and her tone rich.

There was also an animated version that offered the delicately lovely voice of Christiane Noll and a hearty Martin Vidnovic as the King (ASIN B00000I92F). This, however, has new arrangements and orchestrations by William Kidd which are understandably better suited to a cartoon than a beautiful Broadway romance.

There are studio recordings of note:

– Julie Andrews lent her distinctively lovely tones to the score under the direction of John Mauceri for Philips Records (ASIN B00000415N). Her co-star was Ben Kingsley who isn’t known as a singer, but who did a competent job.

– John Yap included the score in his Master Works Edition series, producing the only complete recording of the score in a two disc set with Valerie Masterson as Anna. It includes the complete “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet arranged by Trude Rittman (ASIN B000005BHM).

– The 1964 recording available on Sony Broadway (ASIN B0000028YK) features Barbara Cook’s marvelous musicianship, but she sounds somehow American rather than British, and the recording uses new orchestrations by Philip J. Lang. They are fine but no match for Robert Russell Bennet’s glorious original charts. She does have Theodore Bikel as her king, and he sings very well, but not well enough to shake the memory of the original.

Original? Just who was that original? Why, Yul Brynner, of course.

There are many legendary stories of Brynner’s creation of the role of the King of Siam. One, as told by Richard Rodgers himself in his memoirs, is of Brynner’s audition for the role when he strolled on stage in jeans (this, of course, was 1950 when such a thing was unheard of), sat cross-legged on the stage, banged out a chord on his guitar and “gave out with this unearthly yell and sang some heathenish sort of thing, and Oscar and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that’s it.’” It was. The match between actor and part was so strong, and Brynner’s career in the role lasted so long, what with the film and over 4,500 live performances, that as much as any Broadway musical role can be said to belong to one performer, The King is his.

Indeed, it is reported in some circles that Lawrence herself recognized the contribution of this formerly unknown actor, who was listed on opening night not as a co-star with his name above the title next to hers, but as a featured player listed below not only the title but the names of the composer, the lyricist and even the author of the book on which the musical was based. She is said to have asked that he be given the star billing she felt he had earned.

So what is to be done if you want a gorgeously lush performance in the role of Anna and the inimitable personality of Yul Brynner as the King? Simple: buy the 1977 Broadway revival version on RCA (ASIN B000002W40). Brynner comes across nearly three decades after he originated the role as so regally assured with every word of the lyrics sung (or shouted, or grunted or blurted) in a dramatic reading of note but with melody and meter both properly served.

His co-star on this recording is Constance Towers, who seems to offer the best balance of vocal heft, pitch fidelity, emotional singing and a hint of a British accent that fits.

It is a combination that belongs on a well-stocked theater shelf. 

The King and I recordings