The fleet is in, but I’m here to tell you that they’re not all at On the Town. That 1944 musical about sailors on leave may be the show of choice for bell-bottomed boys who want to see a mirror image of themselves, but the more adventurous venture elsewhere. Yes, I’m here to say that at least one sailor docked in New York as part of the U.S. Navy’s week of Memorial Day festivities wandered uptown to see The King and I.
I wasn’t at the Beaumont on Wednesday night to give him a Lincoln Center-sized welcome. I met him later, at a gin mill on Amsterdam Avenue. Anyone who knows me knows that such places aren’t my usual haunt, but a young friend had invited me there as part of his birthday celebration. By midnight, the pub, and my friend’s party, had been infiltrated by servicemen, giving the joint just the musical-comedy touch it had hitherto lacked.
The Navy-man-in-question was named Michael Brown. He is from Texas, and a petty officer third class. I asked him why he decided to come see The King and I. He gave an unassailable answer: “Because someone gave me a ticket.” The prospect of a freebie wasn’t Brown’s only motivation: “I had done some reading about Broadway shows before we came to town,” Brown explained, “and The King and I was on my list of things to see. But it seemed sold-out so I thought I’d end up at On the Town with everybody else.” (I met two sailors at the gin mill who had just seen that show and enjoyed it – as did I.)
What did Brown think of King? “It was great,” he replied. “I loved seeing the boat at the beginning. It made me think about how much longer it took to sail to faraway places in the 19th century.” He added: “Sometimes, onboard our ship we complain about the accommodations. But compared to The King and I boat we’re on a luxury liner.”
I asked Brown, who has been in the navy for 8 years, whether he’d ever been to Bangkok, where The King and I takes place. “Yes,” he said, “I was there once after high school. I bummed around the world before I joined the service. You know the old saying: ‘I joined the navy to see the world. And what did I see? I saw the sea.’ Lucky for me I got around a bit before I ever got on a ship.”
Brown told me his favorite part of The King and I was “The March of the Siamese Children.” Why? “I was in a few plays when I was in middle school,” he said. “And I was always so nervous. I was impressed by how poised those kids were up on stage.”
In the middle of my discussion with Brown, he got yanked away by a friend to meet – surprise! – a young lady at the bar. I thought I’d never see him again, but later, as I was making my way for the exit, he zoomed over to mention one last thing.
“Please tell Kelli O’Hara how much I enjoyed her performance. When I was in high school, I had a girlfriend named Kelli. After watching The King and I tonight, I got to wondering what ever happened to my Kelli. A little while ago, I looked her up on Facebook and sent her a message. She just messaged me back.”
“Will there be a romantic reunion the next time you’re in Houston?” I asked.
“No,” Brown replied. “She’s married with two kids. But she has a sister.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.