I always think twice before going to see a performance of Gypsy or Kiss Me, Kate or Annie Get Your Gun: I know it will take me at least a month before their tunes leave my brain. These shows are filled with what the neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his book “Musicophilia,” calls “earworms,” which are, he writes, a clear sign of “the overwhelming, and at times, helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music.”
But what happens when your job requires daily exposure to earworms? Do you eventually come to resent them? I emailed the cast of The King and I, asking them about the show’s songs, and I can now report that there is not the slightest resentment about the music’s memorable nature. To be fair, I didn’t pose a question about liking or not liking daily exposure to the same music. I asked the cast what song from the show they hear playing in their heads most often when they are not at the theater.
In the course of reading their responses I realized that their attitude towards the music in general is so overwhelmingly positive because Rodgers & Hammerstein’s score is so good. I was reminded of why Ingmar Bergman thought making a movie of The Magic Flute was the best time of his life: “You can’t imagine what it is like to have Mozart’s music in the studio every day.”
So what song, for The King and I actors, has the greatest memorability? The answer, by a mile, is “Shall We Dance?” Paul Nakauchi, who plays the Kralahome, said that the song “is in a perpetual loop in my head. I have gotten used to it, however. It has become the soundtrack that I live with, punctuating my daily life.”
Kristen Faith Oei, a member of the ensemble, wrote me, “Just as I was reading [your] email, while on the subway, I had ‘Shall We Dance?’ playing in my head! Even though we hear the songs every show, I honestly don’t mind it. With Kelli [O’Hara] and Ken [Watanabe] being the sweet and loving people they are on- and off-stage, it makes me happy to see and hear them playing the scene and dancing around in my head.”
And the song runner-up? “Getting to Know You.” It was an especially popular choice among the younger members of the cast, perhaps because many of them are in the number itself. Jake Lucas, who plays Anna’s son, Louis, said, “When I’m not at the theater, I still see Kelli in my head performing it (like when we’re onstage each night) and it makes me laugh because I think of how all of the ladies and girls hum or sing it constantly when we’re backstage. It’s just a happy song with happy memories and it makes me smile when I hear or think of it.”
As for my own The King and I earworm, it varies. During previews, I seemed to wake up every morning hearing “I Have Dreamed,” which made literal sense because when you wake up you have just dreamed. After opening, in April, the earworm turned, and it was “Something Wonderful,” which I attributed to the fact that, after a harsh winter, the weather had softened. Now, the songs from the show have become a kind of mash-up – although even as I write this sentence I realize that “Shall We Dance?” is jangling around in my head. Never underestimate the power of a polka.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.