I am holding in my hands a Playbill for The King and I from the week of Monday, April 23, 1951 – a month after the musical premiered at Broadway’s St. James Theatre. Next to this program sits a Playbill for April, 2015: the month that the LCT production of The King and I opened at the Vivian Beaumont.
The most obvious difference between the two guides is that one is printed in black-and-white, the other in color. The older program carried a photo of Gertrude Lawrence, the original Mrs. Anna, while the LCT version displays a lovely artwork by James McMullan for which Kelli O’Hara, the current Mrs. Anna, served as a model.
Also dissimilar: no tobacco ads in 2015 versus their profusion in the 1951 Playbill. A decade before the Surgeon General’s report, cigarettes remained tokens of glamour. Those hawking cancer sticks include Camel’s Marguerite Piazza (“star of opera and television”), Dorothy Collins (“The Sweetheart of Lucky Strike” – and later Sally in Sondheim’s Follies), and, my favorite, Joan Fontaine for Chesterfield (“they’re MY cigarette”).
Both Playbills are awash in ads for cosmetics and cars, although the size of 2015’s Lexus is more modest than that of 1951’s Buick (“Fireball power!”) and the name of the 1951 perfumes are naughtier (“My Sin, by Lanvin”).
In fact, the older program is altogether more charming, if politically suspect, in its assumption that theatergoing was the province of the sophisticated. An ad for Yolande clothing promised that its travel togs afforded “first- class comfort on land, sea or in the clouds.”
Even lovers of silken loungewear, however, needed reminders about proper behavior. On the 1951 Playbill’s inside main-cast page, we read: “Thoughtless persons annoy patrons and distract actors and endanger the safety of others by lighting matches during the performance.” Then: the glow of a flame. Now: the glow of a cellphone.
Just when I had decided that the 1951 audience was a mite old-fashioned I ran across a program essay called "Enter Juliet, With Mustache.” The writer, Eugene Burr, discusses gender roles in the age of Shakespeare with a frankness that, mostly, would not be amiss in the age of Caitlyn Jenner. I say “mostly” because Burr must occasionally nod to the tender sensibilities of the mid-century reader. “It must be noted,” he says, “that most actor-actresses of the Elizabethan age were by no means effeminate fellows; they were lads seriously bent on a stage career, as swashbuckling as any of their contemporaries.” The female-playing Nathaniel Field, he assures us, “was a very great favorite with the ladies.”
The 1951 program was not merely an education in attitudes; it brought me knowledge. I did not know, for example, that an album of The King and I songs featuring stars of the day was available at the show’s Broadway outset. It featured Dinah Shore singing Mrs. Anna’s tunes, Robert Merrill essaying the King, and Patrice Munsel and Tony Martin voicing the Tuptim-Lun Tha numbers. (Miss Munsel is still alive, by the way.)
Who would be their equivalents today? I can’t speculate about the stand-ins for Anna and the King but I’m quite sure that those soaring, young-lover duets would be taken by Gaga and Groban. Yes, I know that the latter has described himself as “a high lyric baritone.” But he has also said that he is “a tenor in training.”
No better training than Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.