BOSTON HERALD, Wednesday, September 24, 1997
Thais say musical adds insult to inaccuracy
By CHRISTOPHER COX
"The wonderful music and the visual treats of the production camouflage the real insult that lies at the core of the play," added Nitya. who saw the musical in New York.
"Obviously (the Thais) hold their memory of these characters sacred," said Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. "Rodgers and Harnmerstein were not people who wrote historical drams-they wrote musicals."
At the heart of the diplomat's dudgeon is the stage characterization of King Mongkut. The head-strong monarch of the musical clashes continually with Anna Leonowens, a strong-willed English tutor who also instructs him in the niceties of dancing and dining.
Many Thais consider this a denigration of one of Southeast Asia's most enlightened 19th century rulers. Before he became king of Siam, as Thailand was then called, in 1851, Mongkut wore the saf-fron-yellow robes of the Buddhist monkhood. Fascinated by science and geography, conversant in English, French and Latin, King Mongkut was a brilliant statesman by any measure.
many social and governmental reforms, the king's greatest
By all accounts except her own memoirs, Leonowens (1834-1914) was a bit player at the royal palace. She came to Bangkok in 1862, the fourth in a series of English teachers, and left in 1867, a year before King Mongkut died of malaria (contracted while observing an eclipse he had predicted).
Leonowens reinvented herself as a royal adviser and wrote two popular books littered, according to many critics, with falsehoods --- charging, for example, that the king imprisoned disobedient wives in an underground dungeon (an impossibility in marshy Bangkok). Her accounts inspired Margaret Landon's 1944 historical romance, "Anna and the King of Siam"; the fanciful book, in turn, inspired a 1946 film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne.
Enter the songwriting
team, four degrees removed from the facts but sensing
One reason might be the kingdom's strict lese majeste laws. The Thais brook no outside criticism of their royal, especially Cambridge-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has ruled since 1946. A Thai intellectual was once arrested for referring to King Bhumibol, an accomplished yachtsman, as "the skipper."
In its defense,
the Wang production has sweated the cultural details. The
to be as authentic as possible staying within the theatrical
It's not enough, Nitya said.
"It is unfortunate
that the exquisite music and the beautiful production of this
official disapproval of "The King and I," Thai royalty have seen the play.
King Bhumibol's wife, Queen Sirikit, caught a 1985 New York production
at the invitation of its star, Yul Brynner, then terminally ill with lung
It was a memorable night, recalled Susan Lee, the play's national press agent, with a crush of Thai media.
"There was much debate whether the queen should indeed come and see show," said Lee. The queen, in America to promote Thai tourism and folk art and to accept a humanitarian award, attended with an entourage of 45 and "could not have been more gracious," Lee said.
"I though at
the time there might be some softening of the ban," said Lee. "I