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Getting to Know The King and I on BroadwayHD

Lincoln Center Theater's lavish revival plays every day, at an hour of your choosing.

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe starred in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of The King and I, directed by Bartlett Sher, which has been captured on film at London's Palladium Theatre and is available through BroadwayHD.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Few musicals better encapsulate the splendor of the Golden Age of Broadway than The King and I. Between Richard Rodgers's swooning melodies, Oscar Hammerstein II's clever lyrics, and Hammerstein's sensitive yet economical book, it has everything you would want from a Broadway musical.

Like a lot of people who grew up far away from Broadway, my first encounter with this musical was through the 1956 film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. But the advent of BroadwayHD makes the actual stage show available to you in your home, no matter where you live. In case you're looking for something to do for the next three to 30 weeks, this is a grand use of two and a half hours.

The story takes place in 1860s Siam (present-day Thailand), where British widow Anna Leonowens (Kelli O'Hara) has accepted a job teaching the children of the King (Ken Watanabe). The two immediately clash; but because he is so surrounded by fearful handlers, he comes to value Anna's habit of putting it her way (but nicely). This becomes especially important when a powerful British diplomat (Edward Baker-Duly) steams into Bangkok, eager to learn all he can about Siam and whether or not it needs the empire's "protection." The King is dead-set on leaving an independent country for his son and heir, Chulalongkorn (Jon Chew). Meanwhile, Tuptim (Na Young Jeon), who was "gifted" to the King from this counterpart in Burma, declares her own independence. Finding inspiration in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she looks for a way to escape the court with her lover, Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson).

The King and I was recorded at London's Palladium Theatre during the 2018 West End transfer of the 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival. Director Gary Halvorson (who is the primary director for the Metropolitan Opera's live HD broadcasts) captures the operatic grandeur of stage director Bartlett Sher's production. Michael Yeargan's imposing yet uncluttered set and Catherine Zuber's vibrantly detailed costumes come together to support a staging that evokes Broadway's golden age, while also borrowing from other styles and eras: A transition scene depicts the King's chief wife, Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles), and the Kralahome (Takao Osawa) conspiring in a hallway of the palace. Lighting designer Donald Holder facilitates this by creating hanamichis of light, down which they cautiously pace. The production is a visual feast that never stops serving new courses, all of which is beautifully captured on film.

Kelli O'Hara's Tony-winning performance dazzles: Her shimmering voice, her warm presence, and her fiery anger come through on film as much as they did onstage. O'Hara's Anna lives by the lyrics of "I Whistle a Happy Tune": She is obviously intimidated by this whole situation, but she puts her best foot forward and persists.

Watanabe's King is also plagued by internal struggle, and somewhat exhausted by having to be right all the time. His delivery of "A Puzzlement" is a delight, and his diction is much clearer than I remember in the initial run.

But the stand-out performance comes from Miles, who had every reason to decline participation. In March 2018, Miles was struck by a car while crossing the street with her 4-year-old daughter, who was killed. Remarkably, she was onstage in London by August of that year, reprising the role that won her a Tony in 2015, but with the added accessory of a cane. The walking-stick adds an extra layer of authority to an already commanding presence, and it is so well-integrated that those encountering the show for the first time are likely to assume it is written into the script. Her rendition of "Something Wonderful" is a high point of the production, and Miles glides into it on the word "live" like a figure skater moving across perfectly smooth ice. I had chills the first time I heard Miles sing this song, and I got them all over again.

While I'm thrilled that I can rewatch it at home, it is tempered with slight disappointment: I wish this show had been captured when it was at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theater, rather than on the West End. The unique thrust and cavernous depth of the Beaumont made for some of the most striking moments in Sher's production, like when Anna's boat from Singapore sailed over the orchestra and straight toward house left. That coup de théâtre had me hooked from the outset when I first witnessed it. Unfortunately, the effect is not nearly so breathtaking within the Palladium's proscenium arch. Other aspects of the production that utilized the Beaumont's amphitheater seating have been restaged for a more conventional theater, resulting in a production that feels smaller and less enveloping. I wish I could still see it in the theater for which it was originally imagined.

Who knows when we'll next see something as grand as The King and I on a Broadway stage (and really, who knows when we'll be allowed to enter a Broadway theater again)? So I'm glad we can enjoy it on BroadwayHD. But if anything good comes out of this terrible time, I hope it is a greater enthusiasm for capturing great shows on film so that they can still be enjoyed by those for whom physical presence in a Broadway theater is not an option.