It took me until I was in high school to learn that the Gershwins had written a classic song with this very title, but for me whenever I hear those three words, I always think of The King and I. My introduction to the piece came in early 1995 when I saw the Oscar-winning film adaptation. Up until that point I had no idea Rodgers and Hammerstein did anything other than The Sound of Music and South Pacific. But as a result of this discovery, I started to take special notice of Rodgers & Hammerstein; that same year The Sound of Movies documentary aired on A&E and read Ethan Mordden’s comprehensive coffee table book Rodgers & Hammerstein ad nauseam. It could be argued that that was the creation of this encyclopedic monster known as me.
Looking back, I was staying with a friend for a weekend off school, and our classmate and friend lived next door to him and brought the film with her. She had picked it up, and with little resistance we decided we’d watch too. There we were, three 12 year olds watching The King and I in my friend’s living room. (Once an old soul, always an old soul…)
It was my introduction to Deborah Kerr. I was watching the film and thought, “Who is this gorgeous redhead and how have I never heard of her before?” Checking out the box, I made special note of her name and proceeded to watch as many of her films as possible. I had already seen Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments, and found I liked him much better here. Little did I realize at this time just how iconic his performance was. (Brynner played the role 4, 525 times; he appeared as the King onstage, onscreen and in a short-lived TV series. He won two Tonys and an Oscar for his performance). I enjoyed the score, the story and impressive CinemaScope and Deluxe color (such vibrant art direction, costumes and cinematography, it was such a feast for the eyes). There was Rita Moreno as a doomed Burmese “present” and the little kid from All Mine to Give (Rex Thompson) as Anna’s son.
When the film aired on the Family Channel, I popped in a cassette and wore that out. The TV print was lackluster; color was unimpressive and a few shots had been snipped out for whatever reason. But it was still The King and I. I upgraded to the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection VHS and purchased the soundtrack LP (and have since upgraded to the comprehensive 2-disc DVD and the special edition CD). I have ten recordings of the score, but this particular one though not the most complete, always remains my sentimental favorite.
The film is easily the best of all Rodgers and Hammerstein stage to screen adaptations, with an explicit attention to capturing the magic of the stage show. Though I miss the soliloquy “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and “I Have Dreamed,” the cinematic treatment is resplendent. Kerr, who had no musical experience, worked diligently with the young singer who was going to dub her voice. That person was Marni Nixon, who would go onto a successful career in Hollywood voicing many soprano heroines. The combination of Kerr and Nixon is the best vocal dubbing of any screen actress on film; so successful they were reunited a year later on An Affair to Remember.
But it was “Shall We Dance?” where I really became enraptured. We were all so blown away that one of us reached for the remote as soon as the film was over and watched the musical number over and over again. Throughout the plot Anna and the King have been at odds with one another, with their West vs. East culture clash. However, in Hammerstein’s treatment of the story (based on a heavily fictionalized myth of Anna Leonowens) there is a great deal of chemistry between the pair, which culminates in this particular moment. The back and forth, and the success of their mission to impress the British emissary (and thus save Siam from becoming a protectorate of the Empire) comes to a head as they discuss the idea of a man dancing with a woman (who is not her husband).
In a musical where the two main characters never share anything explicitly romantic, the simple act of dancing a polka with one another becomes, in effect, a consummation of their unspoken feelings for one another. The King becomes playful and flirtatious, they reach a sort of understanding between the two and never is that attraction stronger than the moment when he places his hand on her waist to literally sweep her off her feet. Whenever I’ve seen this live in performance, it has never failed to receive applause. (I used to sell the number to people by saying, “It’s the sex.”) Take unspoken emotions, add subtext, music and dance, and you transcend all.
When I was in college, I was a TA for the American Musical Theatre course for several years. One of the things I enjoyed was when the professor allowed me to either guest lecture in his stead, or to choose various clips for discussion. I was given the choice of eleven o’clock numbers, and I made sure to include this among the three clips (the other two were Bernadette’s “Rose’s Turn” and the 1992 Guys and Dolls “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”). I still recall that Shall We Dance?” seemed to generate the most responses by the students in the classroom. And if I ever teach a musical theatre class again, you can bet that I’m going to include this clip.
In the meanwhile, here’s “Shall We Dance?”
Leave it to Sesame Street and their brilliant writers to come up with this gem. While perusing the Youtube for the clip above, I came across this one. Here’s Monsterpiece Theater and host Alistair Cookie presenting The King and I, starring Grover: