Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The King and We: Thailand and the Movies

There’s sorrow and some anger in Thailand, where the world’s longest reigning head of state has just died. King Bhumibol the Great, 88 years old at the time of his passing, ascended to the Thai throne in 1946, when he was just 19. I visited Thailand in 1967, staying in the home of a well-connected Thai family, and I can attest to the admiration and affection King Bhumibol and his consort, Queen Sirikit, inspired. He, well educated in Europe, was known to his people as a writer, translator, sailor, inventor, and accomplished jazz musician. His queen was idolized by my host family as someone more beautiful than any movie star. With the king to be succeeded by his less popular son, the various political crises that have plague his nation of late are sure to intensify.

Thailand was a calmer place when I was there. One thing that stands out for me is the fact that everything connected with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical, The King and I, was banned, on the grounds that it was disrespectful to the monarchy. The musical is based on the true story of a Welsh teacher, Anna Leonowens, who traveled to what was then called Siam to instruct the children of King Rama IV, at a time when the kingdom was starting to turn toward the west for new ideas. We westerners have always loved the character of this mighty but troubled king, as portrayed by Yul Brynner on stage and on film. Thais, though, have traditionally felt that this ancestor of the current monarchy was  much diminished in the show’s portrayal of him, especially by the suggestion that a British woman was his intellectual equal and a true power behind the throne.

I don’t pretend to know much about Thai history. But I do know that The King and I is a glorious musical, humane and intelligent as well as tuneful. For my money, it may be the best transfer of a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit from the stage to the screen. (This may be heresy, but I’m not entirely a fan of the Julie Andrews/Christopher Plummer The Sound of Music.) A book I’ve just been reading, Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical, makes a convincing case for  the structural integrity of The King and I as a stage play. Viertel pays special tribute to the “Shall We Dance?” scene, a glorious romp that is covertly almost a love scene between a Welsh widow and a much-married Siamese king. 

One thing that has long fascinated me about The King and I is how creatively the musical team has used Thai musical instruments and dance moves to add an exotic eastern flavor to an essentially western score. During my long-ago trip to Thailand, I remember visiting a young monk who was a relative of my friends. (All young Thai men were expected to serve as Buddhist monks for a year or so before returning to the secular world.) Somehow this young monk had gotten hold of a soundtrack recording of The King and I. It may have been banned, but he was playing it . . . and (in his saffron robes) was happily dancing.

Speaking of which, the phrase “Shall We Dance?” ended up as the title of a wonderful Japanese movie. Released in 1996, it’s the charming story of a shy accountant whose life changes for the better when he secretly takes up ballroom dancing. I haven’t seen the Richard Gere remake, but I doubt this has the heart (and the cultural specificity) of the Japanese original.

This morning I discussed the king’s death with a Thai woman. Though she has lived in California for 20 years, she had to fight back tears in speaking about the monarch who had served as a father to his people throughout her life. She tells me, though, that The King and I (and other versions of the “Anna and the King” story like the non-musical Jodie Foster/Yun-Fat Chow film from 1999 ) are no longer banned. 

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