The first question most people ask when they hear about a musical revival is: who’s in it? But the starting point for the production’s interpreters is the book and the score. When it comes to a Rodgers & Hammerstein show, few people know more about those textual materials than Bruce Pomahac, the longtime director of music at Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company (formerly The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization).
I interviewed Pomahac for this blog on the occasion of Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of South Pacific, in 2008. He told me how he and his team of experts go about restoring a musical’s score – how they do the painstaking job of reconciling conflicting information: a score might be performed one way, but its original written-down information might say something else.
When I arranged to speak with him the other day about The King and I, I had planned to concentrate on the recent restoration of that show’s score, a subject we did cover. But our discussion branched out much further into the history of The King and I and to the Rodgers & Hammerstein legacy in general.
“It usually takes us three or four years to restore a score,” Pomahac said. “First, we have to locate all the original material. Luckily, with a Rodgers & Hammerstein show we have so much of that.” He added: “The next big step is getting everything in the computer. Then we have to do the editing.”
The restored The King and I score was premiered at the Lyric Stage, in Dallas, in 2009. “They have a wonderful, big orchestra,” Pomahac said, “of a size you tend not to get in a Broadway house other than at Lincoln Center Theater.” The Dallas production highlighted the success of the restoration, and I have no doubt it will be heard to advantage at LCT, though if you’ve been reading this far to find out exactly what material will be used for the Vivian Beaumont stage you will have to wait until after the holidays: rehearsals, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, and with musical direction by Ted Sperling, begin in late January.
Pomahac told me that, pre-restoration, The King and I script was based on the stage manager’s script for the London production. (The Broadway production opened on March 29, 1951, and the West End version on October 8, 1953.) “They made changes in London,” Pomahac said. “For example, during ‘The March of Siamese Children,’ one of the kids came out with chocolate on his face and fingers. It was an idea of a naughty Victorian child that apparently made Londoners giggle.”
In my memory of the 1956 movie of The King and I, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, I think of the children, naughty or not, as somewhat peripheral to the story of Anna and the monarch. Pomahac reminded me otherwise. “Rodgers and Hammerstein knew that we might not always be able to solve the world’s problems, but maybe our children will get it right. The King and I story moves toward the succession of the oldest prince, and suggests the ways in which he will do things differently from his father.” He added: “It’s easy to remember the show as a love story between Anna and the King. In fact, they have a tragic relationship. They can’t exactly work things out, but tried to work it out for the next generation to do something.”
Pomahac continued with this theme of social context. “Rodgers and Hammerstein seemed to write exactly in relation to what was going on in their world at the time. Oklahoma!,” he explained, “was written early in World War II, when people needed a celebration of Americana to be reminded of what we were fighting for.” Carousel premiered at war’s end, “when many people had lost someone, and the notion of a community of the dead was powerful.” South Pacific, though set during the war, “is actually about racial prejudice in America. It premiered at a time when this theme was moving slowly toward the forefront of America politics.”
“The King and I,” said Pomahac, is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cold War musical. “You have two ideologies, trying to deal with each other. The creators are saying: we are going to have to learn how to love each other or destroy each other.” A key expression of this theme is the song “Getting to Know You.” “The song provides no concrete answer,” Pomahac said. “Some people like to pigeonhole Rodgers and Hammerstein as the ‘happily ever after’ team. But in fact their songs rarely provide definitive answers to the question of happiness.”
My discussion with Pomahac of larger thematic questions wound down and we returned to more precise matters of The King and I’s musical shaping. Here’s just one example. Pomahac said: “If you consider the original orchestrations of ‘Hello, Young Lovers,’ you will notice something about Gertrude Lawrence.” [Lawrence was the original Anna, the show having been conceived in part as a vehicle for her.] “She was not well at the time. So Robert Russell Bennett, who did the orchestrations, gave her some help. When she was stage left, the orchestra on that side played the melody. When she moved stage right, the melody moved to that side of the orchestra. And when she moved toward the song’s crescendo, the full brass section comes in, to help get her up there.”
I look forward to providing you with millions more such details in the coming months.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.