Gifts play a regular role in backstage life: to mark an actor leaving, or an actor arriving, or a birthday, or a birth. Of all the presents to be exchanged during the long run of The King and I, I suspect that none will be as large as those presented on opening night by the four members of the stage management team to the members of the cast: two elephants.
“We wanted to do something special for everyone,” said Jennifer Rae Moore, the production stage manager, the other night before curtain. “And elephants are mentioned in the musical, so we figured as a gift they would be show-specific.”
Moore and her team did some research on elephants in Thailand: white elephants are considered sacred there and a symbol of royal power. “We couldn’t find a suitable elephant preserve in Thailand,” Moore said, “but we did find one in Kenya.” It is called The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and it is an orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program.
The stage management team arranged to foster two elephants there, and on opening night presented them in language appropriate to the show: “We beg to put before you…Lasayen & Mbegu. The foster Elephants of the King and I Family.”
“When we started fostering them, six months ago,” Moore said, “Lasayen was a month old, and I think Mbegu was six weeks. They’ve grown a lot, but they are still very young.” Moore continued: “We fostered them on an annual contract, and I’m sure that at one year we will re-up.”
Once a month, Moore and her team receive updates about the Trust and its elephants, which they share with The King and I family. The sharing consists of a big sign, placed on the stage management door, with photos of Lasayen and Mbegu and information about them. “A lot of what we learn,” Moore said, “is how much they like mud, and playing around in the red soil of their habitat.”
Cast members and LCT backstage personnel enjoy keeping up with their foster charges. One employee has a personal connection to their news. “After we announced the gift,” Moore said, “Rheba Flegelman” – the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s house manager – “came by and said, ‘You’ll never believe this. I’ve been to that preserve!’ It’s true. She’s been to the place in Africa where the Sheldrick Trust has elephants. I’m sure that a lot of other people around here would like to go visit, too.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.