Mercoledi Musicale

…. but on a Thursday

A few personal things got in the way of the rehearsals for this week’s opening of the Music Tent summer stock production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. But I think after last night’s dress rehearsal we’re ready to set sale for Thailand with Mrs A.

Gertrude Lawrence as Anna in The King and I – 1951.

In 1950 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were approach to write a show based on Anna and the King of Siam for Gertrude Lawrence who was as big as star as you could find on two continents. Initially both the material and the star gave the duo doubts. Lawrence had not been in a musical since 1943 and her limited range was diminishing and her tendency to sing flat increasing. They came to grips with the episodic nature of the novel quickly and any doubts about their star were immediately erased at the first rehearsal. Lawrence was still the same magnetic performer that she had been since she first took centre stage in the 1920s.

The musical opened to rave reviews for the star, the show and Yul Brynner, a relative newcomer who played the King. It was to run for over three years and spawn many revivals – both on Broadway, the West End and around the world. The story of Anna Leonowens was highly fictionalized both in Margaret Landon’s novel and Hammerstein’s show book and today there are many elements that are politically questionable. Modern productions now, appropriately, feature Asian performers and shifts in the take on many of the scenes. The production I saw back in 1959 at the Music Fair starred Ruth Warwick and would have been very much of its time. Warwick became better known as Phoebe Tyler on the long running soap opera All My Children.

There are a meriad of well-known songs from the show: “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, “We Kiss in the Shadows” and the well-known “March of the Siamese Children”. It would be nice to highlight all of them but time, space, and your tolerance limits me to just a few.

Amongst the many songs from the show was the charming number when Mrs Anna begins lessons with the many children and wives of the King. Here is Gertrude Lawrence in the original cast recording.

In Hammerstein’s book the King is more sympathetically portrayed than in Landon’s book and part of that comes from the devotion of Lady Thiang, his chief wife. DeAnna Choi appeared in the National Company of the Lincoln Center revival in 2018.

Despite the obvious chemistry betwen the King and Mrs A she is less than tolerant of his nature or his culture. Again here is Gertrude Lawrence – wayward of pitch but damn even in the studio she comes across as the presence she was as she imagines what she should have said to the King.

Yul Brynner’s career was launched with The King and I and his name became synoymous with the role. From 1951 until just before his death in 1985 he played the part 4,625 times. His national tour in the 1980s was a constant sellout and he returned to Broadway in January 1985 for a final run.

Though the King has very little to sing his one solo number was a gift from Rodgers and Hammerstein to anyone playing the role. Here is Brynner in the 1956 film.

In August 1952 Gertrude Lawrence collapsed at a matinee performance and died shortly after of undetected liver cancer. She was buried in the gown she had worn in Act 2 when she proposed that she and the King dance. That gown, designed by Irene Sharaff, become almost as iconic as the song it is performed in.

In 1956 Brynner appeared in the film version with Deborah Kerr, dubbed by the incredible Marni Nixon, and once again Sharaff was the designer. There are several versions of “Shall We Dance” on Youtube but this one is still the best. The chemistry and the energy between Kerr and Brynner is said to rival that between Lawrence and him.

nThe real Mrs Anna was on home-leave when the King died and never did return to Thailand. She ended up in Nova Scotia where she was a teacher, suffragist, and co-founder of what is now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She moved to Montréal and was a lecteurer on Sanskrit at McGill University and taugth into her 78th year. She died in 1915 and is interred at Mont Royal Cemetery.

The word for June 30th is:
Meriad /ˈmirēəd/: [1. noun 2. adjective]
1.1 A countless or really great number.
1.2 A unit of ten thousand.
2. Countless or extremely great in number.
Mid 16th century (in myriad (sense 2 of the noun)): via late Latin from Greek murias, muriad-, from murioi ‘10,000’.

Memorial Musicale

Margret Whiting, who died this week at the age of 86, began her career in the 1940s and was still going – perhaps not as strong as ever but still going – in 2006 when she gave her last performance. From pop to country, Broadway to cabaret she had a style that was instantly recognizable: clear, steady but not brassy with a touch of naivety and as she grew older an ever growing sense of communication. In many ways her life was out of a fairy tale but a fairy tale in which the lovely Princess reached her happily ever after by hard work and talent. I won’t go into the details of her private life, the obituaries in the main stream and gay press cover that sufficiently, but thought I would post a few videos of her doing what she did so brilliantly.

Her first big hit was this Rogers and Hammerstein number from State Fair. In the recently released Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim writes critically, and with wit and affection I might add, about his own work and that of other lyricists and composers. Of his mentor and strongest influence Oscar Hammerstein II he writes:

Hammerstein is usually thought of as the Norman Rockwell of lyricists: earthy, optimistic, sometimes ponderously bucolic, a proponent of small town American values, a purveyor of generosity and kindness toward the world and his fellow humans and of empathy for their small sufferings and dreams. And like Rockwell he has been both underestimated (for his craft) and overestimated (for his philosophy).

Stephen Sondheim – Finishing the Hat
Collected lyrics (1954-1981),
with attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
Virgin Books – 2010

Here she is singing, what was to become her signature tune, It Might As Well Be Spring. This may be bucolic Hammerstein but Ms Whiting gives it a slight wry twists that removes the ponderous!

Though she hadn’t appeared on stage since 2006 Margaret Whiting’s voice was heard on the soundtrack of the 2009 movie Julie & Julie doing another standard that was earmarked as hers. Time After Time was written in 1947 by Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne and though oft recorded I find this has to be “the” version.

Ms Whiting was a life-long friend of composer Johnny Mercer – after her father died he became a surrogate and mentor. In the past few years she had done much to keep the Mercer songbook alive and a vital part of the music scene. Here she is with Mercer doing a song that sounds perfect for the sort of weather my North American friends have been experiencing.

Fortunately Margaret Whiting has left behind a legacy of recordings charting her career and her place in the musical world of an era. Its a treasure chest worth opening.

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