Daily News from New York, New York on May 1, 1977 · 291
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Daily News from New York, New York · 291

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Sunday, May 1, 1977
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291
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THEATER Whip in hand, King of Siam Yul Brynner is about to discipline Tuptim, one of his wives (played by June Angela), in this scene from "The -King and I." It seems that Tuptim was attempting to run off with a lover, and Anna (Constance Towers) is interceding. At right is palace official Michael Kermoyan. The revival of the 1951 musical opens tomorrow at the Uris. Kong If as! t Siams Jlf test f I By TOM McMORROW QT'S OBVIOUS what happened. The Muse who has the Broadway theater concession got fed up with our gripes about the disarppearanee of the great American musicals, so she waved her hand and back they came this season: "My Fair Lady," "Guys and Dolls," 'Fiddler on the Roof," "Porgy and Bess" and "The King and I" and, to top it off. Mary Martin and Ethel Merman will team up May 15 to do this and that from "South Pacific," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Gypsy." It is a perfect time to pick your all-time favorite. Since a play is a living thing (praise be!) these productions can of course only be measured against each other with qualifications: The recent "Guys and Dolls" was far removed from the original concept being done with a black cast but it was fun, if you allowed for the fact that Damon Runyon, with his great ear for idiom, was writing for a different ethnic group. The Houston Opera's "Porgy." on the other hand, was not as good as the original it was better, the best ever, according to those who were around when Gershwin wrote it. The revival of "My Fair Lady" was virtually on a par with the original, lacking only the superstar trimming of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. The "Fiddler" was a disappointment, its loveliness spoiled for many by the gross clowning of Zero Mos-- tel in one of the great roles of all time. Tomorrow night at the Uris. "The King and I," starring Yul Brynner, gets its turn. This perfect matching of star and role on a par with Clark Gable as Rhett Butler or Ezio I Pinza as Emil deBeq created a show whose 1 f' greatness was not originally recognized. A lovely musical, the critics concurred, the morning of March 30, 1951 but let's face it, "The King and I" was no "South Pacific." One who resented that judgment just as he resented winning the Tony that year for sup-' porting actor was the TV director and one-time circus aerialist who had been hired to play op- posite the star. Gertrude Lawrence. This time, Yul Brynner says he's out to prove that "King" is king of 'em all. " 'The King and I' will remain a classic of American theater when the public has forgotten 'South Pacific,' which was a play of its time," declares this once and future king. " 'South Pacific' was a World War II drama, and inevitably it must become dated. Twenty years from now, a bunch of sailors singing "There Is Nothing Like a Dame' will be a quaint anachronism, but 'The King and I' will still be relevant because it deals in human values." He is in his dressing room at the Uris, with its ankle-deep carpeting and elbow-deep couches and the mirrors refracting you from various angles. Coffee black enough to match his famous Stygian attire is served by the star with the graciousness that the great ones have when they want to turn it on, and he wants this one badly. In 1951, it was Gertrude Lawrence's show; now, it's his. Back then, he wasn't even the second choice for the role of the king. After they wrote it as a vehicle for the fabulous Gertie, Rodgers and Ham-merstein approached Rex Harrison, who had played it in the movie version of the novel. "Anna and the King of Siam." True, Harrison had never sung on a stage, but they reasoned that a performer of his brilliance would overcome that handicap. While they were to be proven prophetic five years later, their daring suggestion was premature. They next went after Alfred Drake, but found he had other commitments, and that reduced them to auditioning people they didn't know. "The first candidate who walked out from the wings was a bald, muscular fellow with a bony. Oriental face," Rodgers recalled in his autobiography, "Musical Stages." "He tarried a guitar. He scowled in our direction, then plunked one whacking chord on his guitar and began to howl in a strange language that no one could understand. He looked savage, he sounded savage, and there was no denying that he projected a feeling of controlled ferocity. When he read for us, we again were impressed by his authority and conviction. Oscar and I looked at each other and nodded. We had our king,' The time lapse of 26 years is one of the principal reasons Brynner gives for insisting: "This is .... .... l.UO.J "; )!! ! VI i gronfira f if not just another rexival: this is n new production of the play. When I first played it. I was 30. playing 56. Now I am 56. and. outside of the fact that nature has become my makeup man, I can see truths in that script that I Jossed oer then. "What the play had to siv about human rights, and women's rights, was an intellectual exercise then. Nothing more. Today it's an emotional issue of the day. front-page news, much more timely than it was in 1951. This production leaves the original far behind likewise the movie, which was a disappointment to me. although I"m grateful for the Oscar I won. Physically alone, we're much bigger; we were always cramped on the stage of the St. James; the Uris stage is enormous and makes it possible for this production to be 10 times more opulent, and to showcase properly Irene Sharaffs costumes." He toured nine cities with the show before bringing it to Broadway. On a personal level, he feels this is important to him in establishing himself as an American actor -although his citizenship remains Swiss). "When they come to New York, they feel that they know me if I've played their hometown," he says. "Kit Cornell told " me that you must tour to develop audience loyalty to you. The Lunts felt that way. too. The saying was "that they wouldn't open a can of beans without taking it on tour for six months lust." He is confident that "The King and I" will come off head-and-shoulders above the other great ones that have been brought back this season. " 'Fiddler' only closed a few seasons ago," he said. "Whit was the point of bringing it back? And. as for 'My Fair Lady,' I loved the revival, and I cheered with the rest of them, but I looked at it with the kind of respect that you reserve for a dignified aging lady. You won't find that with this play. Nostalgia does not apply here at all. And please, It is not a vehicle for me." Maybe he's right, "The King and I" is not a vehicle for him, any more than it was a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, although it was written to be just that. Maybe it just turned out to be our greatest musical. .,, v-, ; ;- j ' .' ?.

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