The stories behind the greatest songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
For over 800 years, The Kingdom of Siam sat alone at the head of The Gulf of Thailand, located between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea in Asia. The citizens of Siam lived under a form of rule known as Dynastic rule. This meant that the King of Siam and all successors came from the same family line. A King ruled with absolute authority, setting laws by royal proclamation. A King ruled until death, at which time his eldest son would automatically assume the throne and all the authority that came with it. It was all very well organized and all very patriarchal.
One of Siam’s proudest claims to fame was that they could boast of being the only Asiatic country never to have been occupied by colonizing forces. The British Empire was well entrenched in neighbouring India, with the French occupying Vietnam and Cambodia on Siam’s eastren flank. In the middle of it all sat Siam. Because of its geographic position amid all of these colonized nations, Siam often found itself at the centre of international political intrigue as nations (particularly England, France and China) threatened and cajoled Siam in equal measure, attempting to gain access into the region. It was against this historical backdrop that the musical The King and I was based.
The King and I was a Broadway musical written by the famed duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1951…a mere six years after the end of WWII. As you may know, World War II concluded with the surrender of Japan after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In those pre-Internet days, many North Americans knew little about the countries that constituted the Asian continent. But, because of the War being fresh in the minds of everyone, interest in Asian culture grew, and therefore many movies were produced and books written about Asia. Some of them were based upon fact but many were not. Into this environment strode Rogers and Hammerstein with their musical The King and I, which was, as they declared, inspired by real events.
The real events that Rodgers and Hammerstein referred to were contained in a novel called Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which, in turn, was inspired by the memoirs of a woman named Anna Leonowens, who was an English governess brought into Siam by King Mongkut in the 1860s. As mentioned earlier, in the real world, Siam found itself pitted against rival nations, all of whom wished to exert their influence over the region. King Mongkut was a pragmatic ruler. He understood that a political balancing act was necessary in order for Siam to retain its sense of independence as a Kingdom. So, one of the decrees he issued was that members of the Royal Court, along with every government official, had to be fluent in English. The reason for this was that English was the accepted language of international trade. King Mongkut speculated that one of the ways he could keep foreign powers at bay was through a series of competing trade agreements that, at their core, mandated Siam be in control of their own affairs, resources, ports of entry and so on. As part of the King’s decree, teachers of English became in high demand. Anna Leonowens was one of those teachers who came to Siam at the behest of the King. Her memoirs were one of the world’s first peeks inside of the secretive Kingdom. One of the shocking things that her memoirs revealed was that the King of Siam practised polygamy. The truth of Anna Leonowens job was that she was to instruct King Mongkut’s 82(!) children in English language studies. As it turned out, King Mongkut had numerous “wives” who, in reality, were young women given to the King as “gifts” in exchange for favourable rulings or as payments for debts that had been incurred. This form of sexual slavery left a bitter taste in the mouth of Anna Leonowens. One of those inspired to turn her memoirs into a story was Margaret Landon who wrote her novel Anna and the King of Siam, upon which Rodgers and Hammerstein based much of the story that forms their musical, The King and I. The whole aspect of polygamy and slavery came to form the critical dramatic core of the musical and is what today’s song choices are all about.
The main characters of The King and I were the King, played by Yul Brynner (in a role that earned him a Tony Award for Best Actor, as well as an Oscar for Best Actor when the musical was made into a Hollywood movie a few years later) and Anna, the governess, played by an actress named Gertrude Lawrence. While these roles provided the dramatic structure to the play, as a whole, it was the introduction of two lesser characters that gave this play its heart. Tuptim is a beautiful young Asian woman who arrived at the Royal Court as a “gift” for the King, just as Anna arrived as a teacher. Tuptim becomes one of the King’s many wives and, as such, falls under the terms of the decree that says she must learn to speak English. This brings Tuptim and Anna together. While Anna is teaching Tuptim and the others, she notices that a young man named Lun Tha has taken a shine to Tuptim and has fallen in love with her. Needless to say, seeking to start a romantic relationship with a wife of the King is not usually a wise decision. But Anna, who has taken a strong stand with the King against the practice of having concubines, decides to stay silent when it comes to the budding romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha, and so she becomes a willing co-conspirator. The song “We Kiss In a Shadow” is sung between Tuptim and Lun Tha as they acknowledge the futility of their forbidden love.
Anna decides to take a more proactive stance against the King’s policy when a political opportunity arises. Word of the King’s harem has leaked out beyond the borders of Siam and is being used by the English as, perhaps, providing them with cause to invade the country and take it over in order to end this “barbaric” practice and restore decency to the country. An English government representative is set to arrive to “inspect” the Kingdom for traces of indecency. The King seeks advice from Anna as to how best to put on a proper public welcome for this English official. Anna gives advice that includes hosting a banquet that serves English food, and, for entertainment, puts on a play based upon a book she has loaned to Tuptim who, in turn, has created an English language play that will be performed. The book Anna has given to Tuptim is a real book about slavery called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The King is unfamiliar with the book but is delighted with the idea of showcasing his wives speaking proper English to this official, so he agrees to Anna’s idea. All the while, Lun Tha and Tuptim have agreed to use the play as a diversion that will provide them with the chance to escape together and live out the life they have been dreaming of ever since they first met. It is while making these plans that they sing “I Have Dreamed” to each other.
So, the official shows up. The banquet is held. The play proceeds, and, as it does, the King realizes what the play is about and rages against the public humiliation he has had to endure. Just as he calls for Tuptim’s head, he is informed that she and Lun Tha are missing. At this moment, their plan becomes clear to the King, as does Anna’s role in helping bring it to fruition. If you have not seen the musical nor the movie, I will spare you the details as to what happens next. However, I will say that the musical ends with the King on his deathbed. As his heart beats for the final time, he asks for Anna to be brought to him so that he can seek forgiveness from her for how he has acted and for the decisions/laws he had made that angered her so much along the way. As they meet for the last time, the song “Something Wonderful” plays in the background. This song first appears in act 1 and is sung by the King’s “head wife”, who sings it to Anna as she tries to justify the King’s polygamy laws by saying that, in his heart, he actually was a good man. The use of this song as the play closes speaks to the nature of history and how often it is re-written to suit a particular narrative which is, after all, what The King and I is really about.
In the real world upon which this musical is based, when King Mongkut lay on his deathbed seeking absolution, one of the promises he made was to issue a final decree. That decree was that as his son’s first act as the new king, he would end the policy of “Kowtowing”, or blind obedience, that had guided the politics of Siam for centuries. While this may have brought King Mongkut a certain amount of emotional relief, his act opened the door just enough to empower those who held politically opposing views. As a result, the last century has seen Siam fall victim to coup after coup. Eventually, after one military coup, the new leader decreed that Siam was to be no more, and from that day forth, the region has been called Thailand, which, quite literally, means the land of the Thai. The Thai people form a majority of the population as far as ethnicity goes. Whereas Siam recognized all ethnic groups under the rule of a dynastic king, the new military government officially declared the majority Thai as the official ruling class, with all others falling under their thumb. As you read these words, official history books in Thailand state that the country of Thailand has always existed, going back over eight centuries. This proves one of the most basic truisms regarding the notion of history…those in power get to tell the story. As George Orwell so aptly said in his seminal book, 1984 … “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future”.
History matters, folks. But, what matters even more is viewing history with a critical eye.
The songs chosen for this post all play a critical role in advancing the moral heart of the musical. They first came to my attention way back in the 1980s…not through having watched the musical or the movie, but because I bought a CD from the Columbia House Record Club. Because of how the Columbia House Record Club worked, it was possible to buy a number of CDs at very little initial cost, and so it became a way for me to indulge myself as I moved through various phases in my musical education. I have written here before about Radiohead, Catherine Wheel and about opera, too, all being pivotal moments in my life as a music lover because of Columbia House. Therefore, it should not be surprising that I had a Broadway musical phase, too. One of the CDs I bought from Columbia House Record Club at that time was Barbra Streisand’s terrific Broadway album. On this album, Streisand sings a whole host of standards using that beautiful voice to make each song uniquely her own. With The King and I, she put together a medley of all three songs mentioned in this post. For me, I cannot hear any of these songs except in her voice. So, in the links below, I will link to her version of these songs that she sang in medley form. If you wish to view characters from the musical perform these songs, then I know YouTube has many videos for you to look at.
The link to the video for the songs “We Kiss in a Shadow/I Have Dreamed/Something Wonderful” as sung by Barbra Streisand from her Broadway album can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical The King and I can be found here.
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