Revivals of classic musicals on Broadway can sometimes be a tough sell on Broadway when audiences already have strong associations with what the musical is “meant” to look and sound like. For The King and I, audiences were most familiar with the stage and film version starring Yul Brynner, who played the King of Siam over 4000 times on stage. However, the current production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater has managed to succeed in that aspect where other revivals have failed. BroadwayCon presented a panel about how the creative team relaunched the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic featuring director Bartlett Sher, choreographer Christopher Gattelli, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Scott Lehrer, scenic designer Michael Yeargan and costume designer Catherine Zuber (who won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design for The King and I).
Moderator Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization, began the panel by detailing how long it takes to organize a production like this. He detailed the timeline of how the pieces came together to bring Sher, Ken Watanabe (who played the King from March to July 2015 and will be returning to the role this March), Kelli O’Hara (who plays Anna), and Lincoln Center together, which started in 2011 even though the production did not open until April 2015. It was a long road, but the production has been extremely successful, winning the Best Revival Tony Award and finally bringing O’Hara the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Sher had wanted to do The King and I for a long time with his team (including regular collaborator O’Hara) and already had an established relationship with the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization and Lincoln Center (Sher directed the most recent revival of South Pacific), but he said the challenge was finding the right king. Sher said he flew to Vancouver to meet Watanabe on the set of “King Kong” (Note: I’m assuming he actually meant the recent Godzilla reboot). Once Watanabe agreed, it was then a matter of coordinating schedules.
Other challenges that followed including designing the production for the Beaumont, one of the most spacious Broadway stages. Sher, who serves as the Resident Director of Lincoln Center Theater, noted that “The general acoustics at the Beaumont are terrible.” Lehrer spoke about how classic musicals were usually originally performed without microphones, so he had the opportunity to make the sound “three dimensional” with the new production. Later in the program, Sher noted that unlike other technical aspects of a production, a sound designer can’t really start fine-tuning the sound until the first night of previews. Sher also pointed out that sound designers have the most difficult job when a show goes on tour because they have to find the best sound for every venue.
Chapin then read a letter from the Rodgers & Hammerstein archives about the set of the original production to introduce scenic designer Michael Yeargan. Yeargan primarily spoke about taking advantage of the incredible depth of the Beaumont. He focused on building the ship that Anna arrives on, which is actually a three-piece apparatus. He also shared a funny anecdote about an early front-row preview audience that started to leap out of their seats because the ship comes so close to the audience that they thought it was malfunctioning and was going to crash into them. Sher noted that it’s actually the floor that moves, not the ship.
On the other hand, lighting designer Donald Holder said the size of the Beaumont is both a blessing and a curse. However, his main concern is thinking about why the lighting changes, particularly, “What is it trying to say?”
Towards the end of the panel, Sher mentioned that he was proud of how diverse the cast was. In the original production, only two of the seventy cast members were Asian — and obviously Yul Brynner wasn’t one of them! That goal was one of the answers to questions he asks his team before tackling any productions: “Why should we do this show now?” and “What is it telling us now?”
Considering the success Sher’s revival of The King and I, it seems his team found the answers to those questions.