One of the many pleasures of last night’s opening of The King and I was being able to stand outside the Beaumont, before curtain, and chat without having to wear an overcoat. The show’s rehearsal period had taken place during the most merciless of winters, and the cold continuing during a month of previews meant that cast members had to pay particular attention to protecting their health. But now it was really spring, and the gala had arrived at last.
Out on that pre-curtain plaza, Catherine Zuber, the production’s costume designer, told me that there were at least 250 costumes in the show. “I estimate that there are at least 5 costumes for each cast member,” she said. There are 51 actors, so it wasn’t hard to do the math.
Backstage, before curtain, it felt as if there were at least 250 opening-night gifts floating around as well. In addition to the presents heaped on a long hallway table as if it were Christmas morning, many cast members were scurrying around giving additional tokens of affection to colleagues. As I walked past the dressing room of Ken Watanabe, who plays the King, Kelli O’Hara, who plays Anna, was making sure that he had received one of her offerings.
Such spirit of giving pervades the Beaumont these days. Showbiz movies and musicals tend to focus on the supposed backbiting that takes place; every dressing room contains a viper poised to strike. In fact, if intramural squabbling were the norm in a cast as vast as that of “The King and I,” then the production would have collapsed in previews. Spend a little time backstage at the Beaumont and you will witness the real story: the constant exchange of food, good-humored stories, and wellness tips – an almost never-ending expression of concern. Gifts don’t just come on opening night, and they don’t need to be wrapped in glittery paper.
The post-performance party at Avery Fisher Hall, which took place on three levels and featured chicken and beef and an explosive-looking shrimp cocktail on the buffet, featured another kind of giving: the gift of song. It was not only opening night: it was Kelli O’Hara’s birthday. Cast members and guests and her family members, including her son, Owen, born during the run of LCT’s previous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, serenaded her appropriately.
Before this group singing spilled onto a party that included such guests as Ethan Hawke, Cherry Jones, Neil Patrick Harris and Lucy Liu, I had a chance to speak with Adam Guettel. He is the composer and lyricist for The Light in the Piazza, the musical that debuted at LCT in 2005 and that is, for many of my friends and acquaintances, their favorite new American musical of this century.
Guettel is also, of course, the grandson of The King and I’s composer, Richard Rodgers, so I asked him what his grandfather might have made of this opening night.
“I think he would have been really pleased,” Guettel said. “He would have been thrilled to see the musical values so well-respected. And he would have been happy to see how kingly Ken Watanabe was.” Guettel added: “My grandfather always wanted to make sure that the king embodied a strong masculinity up there on that stage, and Ken does it. It’s acting, but it’s also an inherent gift the performer gives us.”
In other words: Another gift that didn’t come wrapped in paper, but that was one of the many gracing this memorable opening night.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.