BOSTON HERALD, Wednesday, September 24, 1997


Thais say musical adds insult to inaccuracy


Royals: King Mongkut, shown above in a contemporary woodcut, was portrayed in the musical 'The King and I; attacked in Thailand but attended by incumbent Queen Sirikit as the guest of Yul Brynner in 1985.
The Land of Smiles is not amused. "The King and I," which opens tonight at Broadway's most beloved musicals, may pack them into supper clubs in Peoria, may even play to SRO crowds overseas. It may not be performed in Thailand.

The award-wining Rodgers and Hammerstein musical drama, which served as anintroduction to the exotic Orient for countless American audiences, is banned in Bangkok. The musical distorts one of Thailand's most revered rulers and misrepresents his subjects, according to the kingdom's ambassadors to the United States, His Excellency Nitya Pibulsonggram.

"In this age of 'political correctness' it is stunning to sit through a performance of 'The King and I' and to see not only the king, but all the Thai people portrayed via an extreme example of ethnocentricity as childlike, simple and hopelessly unable to cope with the arrival of Westerners," the ambassador wrote, answering a Herald inquiry.

"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.

Credited with many social and governmental reforms, the king's greatest
achievement came in foreign policy. Even as European powers carved up the region, he shrewdly maintained Siam's independence. It is the only Southeast Asian country that never became a colony --- a point of deep Thai pride.

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
the dramatic potential of Landon's story. Their legendary musical opened in March 1951 and ran 1,246 performances on Broadway, but never played Bangkok.

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
director, set and costume designers traveled to Thailand for research, said Chapin, and a Thai dialect coach was hired to work with the predominantly Asian cast.

"They've tried to be as authentic as possible staying within the theatrical
confines of the show," Chapin said.

It's not enough, Nitya said.

"It is unfortunate that the exquisite music and the beautiful production of this
play do not have a less dated and offensive script," Nitya concluded. "I can imagine a more sophisticated one in which the meeting of two cultures is explored with wit and humor --- but of course that would be another play entirely."

Despite 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 cancer.
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
was under the impression we did make some movement in that regard."