THE KING IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE KING! By Peter Filichia
Faithful readers will recall that last week’s column about songs that were dropped during a musical’s Broadway run ended with my notation that I’d have more to say on Yul Brynner’s dropping “A Puzzlement” during his days with THE KING AND I.
According to Ethan Mordden’s magnificent RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN book, Brynner cut the soliloquy 116 times during the original run. In the 1977 and 1985 Broadway revivals, pro-rated, he eliminated it pretty much as often. But for the last engagement there was good reason.
It’s literally been thirty-five years since June 30th, 1985 when Yul Brynner played his 4,625th and final performance as The King in the classic musical that he immeasurably helped to make a classic.
When Brynner dropped “A Puzzlement” in his second return, he wasn’t merely bored or lazy; instead he was succumbing to terminal cancer that would kill him a mere 102 days after the production had closed.
Joshua Ellis was the press agent for both Brynner revivals. “Although Yul Brynner had a very strong will,” he says, “he was deathly ill at the last performance. In the hospital in the weeks that followed, I sat by his bed as he dictated his obituary. It took quite a number of visits, with his edits, additions and subtractions, and input from his agent Robby Lantz.”
Needless to say, that obituary was dominated by THE KING AND I. Has there ever been a role that has given a performer a stronger trajectory from relative obscurity to superstardom?
Yes, before THE KING AND I opened in 1951, Brynner had been the star of a TV series MR. JONES AND HIS NEIGHBORS but it only lasted a season. Besides, this was in 1944 when TV sets were in about 5,000 homes.
In the following six years, Brynner’s TV resume could only boast of four guest appearances. To be fair, however, he spent more time directing and producing a few television efforts.
During these years, Brynner had been in two Broadway plays that had lasted a total of twenty-seven days. Then, in 1946, he appeared in the musical LUTE SONG that only ran four months but changed his life.
Its star was Mary Martin, who, after she did SOUTH PACIFIC three years later, endeared her to Rodgers and Hammerstein for life. After she heard that Gertrude Lawrence had semi-commissioned the writers to create THE KING AND I for her – and that Rex Harrison, Alfred Drake and Noel Coward had turned down the male lead – she suggested Brynner.
Seconds after Brynner started his audition, R&H were mentally drawing up a contract. And thus began Brynner’s slow but steady rise in billing.
Stage One, 1951. The window card of the original production has Lawrence billed above the title. Brynner’s name is below it in the same modest-sized type afforded Dorothy Sarnoff and Doretta Morrow who respectively play Lady Thiang and Tuptim.
Stage Two, 1952. Brynner and Lawrence win Tonys – she for Leading Actress in a Musical but he for Featured Actor in a Musical. (Oh, that ol’ billed-below-the-title bugaboo!) But Lawrence, who dies during the run, makes a deathbed wish that Brynner receive billing in bigger typeface and a line above Sarnoff and Morrow. The translucent plastics on the marquee now have Brynner’s name right under the title, albeit in half the size of Lawrence’s.
Stage Three, 1956. The film version. Deborah Kerr is first-billed but nestled right next to her on the same slate is Brynner. He’s moving up!
Stage Four, 1957. Brynner becomes the first musical performer to win a Tony and an Oscar, besting Judy Holliday in BELLS ARE RINGING by twenty-five days. (He wins on March 27; she on April 21.) He isn’t named Best Supporting Actor, but Best Actor period, and not merely because of billing. By now, Brynner has made clear why the musical’s title listed The King first and foremost (unlike the memoir and film on which the musical has been based: ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM).
Stage Five, 1961. Decca Records decides to give covers of its original cast albums makeovers. For THE KING AND I, it chooses a picture of The King and Anna where Brynner is situated on the left. Because their names are under their pictures, for the first time, Brynner is listed first. But on the back cover, the layout still has Lawrence above and Brynner below the title.
Stage Six: 1977. The revival cast album (now on Masterworks Broadway). For the first time Brynner officially receives top-billing above the title as does Constance Towers, who plays Anna. But her name is in typeface that’s twenty-five percent smaller.
Dominating the record’s logo is a six-and-a-half-inch picture of Brynner’s head. Anna is seen in profile, though — albeit in a two-and-a-quarter-inch drawing where she’s dancing. Not alone, mind you, but with Brynner in “Shall We Dance?”
However, on the window cards, Towers is below the title and Brynner above. As Franklin Shepard sings “Who says lonely at the top?”
Stage Seven: 1985. Brynner again receives sole above-the-title billing over a logo of him and him alone with his arms Evita-style upward. Not only is Mary Beth Peil, playing Anna, shunted underneath the title but the Tony nominating committee also puts Peil in the Featured Actress in a Musical category. Never mind that The King is the centerpiece of two songs and Anna five (including “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” which may hold the record as the show song that takes the longest amount of time to reveal its title: three minutes and forty-one seconds).
Peil goes unrecorded; Towers was luckier. What a charming performance! You can virtually hear her smile when she sings “You are precisely my cup of tea.”
(Did Hammerstein choose this expression as Anna’s way of bonding with the Siamese children, given that was their parents’ beverage of choice?)
This line appears, of course, in “Getting to Know You,” where the children’s chorus sounds so large that we see Anna’s point that The King is the “ram” who’s “wonder of Siam.”
This song, incidentally, was added during the pre-Broadway tryout. Legend has it that Mary Martin suggested that the melody of “Suddenly Lucky,” one of Lieutenant Cable’s songs dropped during SOUTH PACIFIC’s tryout, be used to create a charm song for Anna and the children.
If true, then Martin made two significant contributions to THE KING AND I. Did she ever consider playing Anna in any venue? True, she may have felt she was too big a star then to take on Lawrence’s hand-me-down. And while she did tour as Annie Oakley and apparently wasn’t unnerved that ANNIE GET YOUR GUN was written for Ethel Merman – her biggest rival as First Lady of the American Musical Theater – Martin did take it on the road before she had reached superstar status with SOUTH PACIFIC.
(Nevertheless, can’t you see an in-her-prime Martin playing Anna?)
The 1977 recording is considered to be the best, although it doesn’t offer “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Happily there’s an abridged eight-and-a-half minute version on the 1964 revival cast album with Rise Stevens and Darren McGavin (billed in that order, mind you) and a rendition that’s more than five minutes longer on JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY.
Brynner gets plenty of dialogue on the 1977 recording which included both the final scenes of Act One and Act Two. When he agrees to Anna’s wish-cum-demand for “a house!” he says it in the defeated voice of a too-badgered husband. On the other hand, in “Shall We Dance?” Brynner has a genuine bedroom voice when prodding Anna to get close to him.
(Stereo buffs will enjoy hearing The King and Anna travel from left speaker to right speaker and back again during this polka.)
Needless to say, here Brynner did not drop “A Puzzlement.” Ellis remembers that the star’s first two takes were good, but the third was magnificent. Richard Rodgers was most pleased – and even more surprised when Brynner said “I think I have one more in me.”
“And,” says Ellis, “the fourth one was even better than the third. Rodgers got a little teary-eyed and said “I wish Oscar had been here to hear this.”
You still can.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.