Who is the Kralahome? That is one of the things I discussed before curtain the other day with Paul Nakauchi, who plays the role in The King and I. We are told in the first scene, by Captain Orton, that the Kralahome is a kind of Prime Minister. But was he? The King in 19th-century Thailand was an absolute not a constitutional monarch – there was no Parliament with a majority-elected party to produce a proper prime minister.
“The Kralahome,” said Nakauchi, “was the King’s confidante, his right-hand man. He was someone the King could trust.” For modern audiences, the word “monarch” conjures Queen Elizabeth II, a head of state with limited power. “We forget what an absolute monarch was,” the actor said. “He had supreme decision-making authority.”
Surrounded by deference, an absolute monarch can easily lose touch with life outside the palace. “The Kralahome isn’t an automatic yes-man,” Nakauchi said. “The King looks to him for a more realistic view of things.” Part of that trust is based on the fact that the Kralahome, while not a member of the royal family, belongs to Siam’s aristocratic class. “That’s part of why the King can trust him,” Nakauchi said.
In the LCT production, some material involving the King and the Kralahome was restored: Bartlett Sher, the director, researched the origins of the musical and made that decision. Nakauchi commented: ‘Dialogue was added in the Throne room scene when you first meet the King. It shows that the Kralahome is the one person that has the status in the court that the King actually allows to discuss pertinent issues of the realm. Two scenes later, the King laments to the Kralahome of his dilemmas about encroaching European powers who want to colonize southeast Asia, as well as his own personal issues with one of his wives, which the Kralahome dismisses. This is an inconvenient truth that the King’s own masculine pride cannot entertain.”
Archival investigations into The King and I would also turn up the fact that the song “Something Wonderful” was originally written not for Lady Thiang but for the Kralahome to sing to the King. Nakauchi’s thoughts? “It would have been nice if in this production Bart actually gave the song back to the Kralahome, On a purely selfish note, I would have gotten to sing! The secondary decision to give it to Lady Thiang I’m sure was influenced by the morality of the 1950’s. Lyrics like ‘A man who needs your love can be wonderful...’ would have upset audiences with its perceived homosexual innuendo. Today, I think audiences would find it more intriguing and certainly a unique statement on the balance of power in reference to gender. Lady Thiang asking Anna to help the King is understandable viewed through the lens of the Victorian era -- the Kralahome asking Anna really upsets the whole patriarchal foundation that nations are built upon, which would add a whole different layer to the story. Perhaps a future revival will tackle those issues!”
As such analysis suggests, Nakauchi is very familiar with The King and I. Having grown up in Los Angeles, and studied voice at Cal State/Northridge, he made his professional debut, in Los Angeles, in the ensemble of the last production of The King and I that starred Yul Brynner. He has gone to play Lun Tha, and starred as the King opposite Elaine Paige in a 2000 staging in London. He has also had quite a career voicing video games.
Nakauchi points out the importance of The King and I for Asian-American actors. “It has given a lot of us a leading role with many sides to it. Often, we are cast as the comic sidekick, or as someone without much power or sexuality. The King has both those things.”
At this point, Nakauchi and I moved onto a discussion of how Hollywood movies continue to cast Caucasians – recent examples are Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange and Emma Stone in Aloha – in Asian or Asian-American roles. A recent Hollywood Reporter story on the topic quoted Daniel Dae Kim, currently the King in the LCT production. “How can we rise through the ranks to leading roles if we are not even allowed to play ourselves?” Nakauchi asked.
It’s a great question, and one that I intend to take up with Kim in a subsequent blog posting.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.