Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 'The King and I' Opens at Pantages Theatre in Hollywood

The King and I Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Matthew Murphy

“They were so special. They were the songwriters of the century,” Shirley Jones said of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

On a rare rainy night in Los Angeles, it was metaphorically clear skies on the red carpet at the opening night of The King and I. Shirley Jones, the star of film adaptations of two Rodgers & Hammerstein classics, Oklahoma! (1955) and Carousel (1956), was among those on hand to welcome the musical to Los Angeles. She was joined by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Joey Fatone, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, Gabrielle Ruiz and Lou Ferrigno, among others. The opening night took place at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

Many guests claimed personal ties to the show and the theater, including Modern Family’s Anderson-Emmons, who was in a community production of The King and I last summer, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Gabrielle Ruiz, who performed at the Pantages in a touring production of Evita and was on hand to support her college friend Manna Nichols, appearing in the play as Tuptim. There was an unmistakable air of excitement and camaraderie to the proceedings.

Rodgers & Hammerstein, who dominated the midcentury American theater, still stand tall as stalwarts of the Broadway stage, with their shows being favorites among regional productions and Broadway revivals alike. This Lincoln Center production of The King and I took home the 2015 Tony Award for best revival of a musical and followed on the heels of the success of its previous Rodgers & Hammerstein revival South Pacific, also directed by Bartlett Sher.

Laura Michelle Kelly, who stars as Anna in the production, said the show’s pedigree is what attracted her to the national tour. “I’ve never felt like I wanted to leave my home of New York, but the idea of working with Bart Sher, Jose Llana and this incredible creative team was enough to make me decide to leave behind my creature comforts,” she said.

Cast and audience members alike reflected on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s enduring legacy. “Enduring. What a perfect word for them,” said Ruiz. “Next to the definition of enduring, they should have Rodgers & Hammerstein. I feel like you put on a wonderful winter coat every time you hear the songs of the show.”

“There’s sometimes, once in a lifetime, a combination of a partnership that brings about something as genius as this. And not just this, but many shows before and after,” added Kelly.

For The Middle’s Brock Ciarlelli, it’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s unforgettable music that has made their work perennial favorites. “When you go to see a musical, it’s the music that people people hold onto. It’s the songs that get stuck in everyone’s head that make you remember why you love that musical in particular,” he said. The King and I boasts such classics as “Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “Shall We Dance?”

While Kelly calls Rodgers & Hammerstein “ahead of their time,” her co-star Llana, who portrays the King of Siam, echoes these sentiments, reflecting on their ability to mix exceptional musical scores with prescient and socially conscious storylines. “They take really relevant, progressive, intense subject matter and make it into a family-friendly musical with catchy tunes that everybody remembers and wants to sing to their kids,” he said. “That’s why they are the foundation of American musical theater.”

Working with these masters of the Broadway musical was a rare treat, but one enjoyed by both Jones and BarBara Luna, who appeared in the original Broadway production of The King and I. Both Luna and Jones say they owe their careers to the writing duo. Rodgers & Hammerstein discovered Jones and launched her to stardom when they cast her in film adaptations of their work (“I feel so, so happy to have been a part of their lives,” she said). Luna, who appeared as a child in both the original productions of South Pacific and The King and I, said the men were like fathers to her, paying for her to take diction, acting, singing and dancing lessons.

Luna said that she wasn’t surprised when The King and I became an instant hit in its original run in 1951 because she expected nothing less from Rodgers & Hammerstein, even as a small child. “I didn’t know anything but,” she said. “I was in South Pacific, which was a tremendous smash, so I thought that’s the way it always was.”

Jones can’t pick a favorite memory from her time working with the musical duo on her two films because she said every moment was so wonderful, but she was struck by their unique partnership. “They were very different people,” she noted. “Hammerstein was an incredible man, and Rodgers was very funny, but they were great for each other because they were very different people.”

The King and I is revived less often because its setting in 19th century Bangkok calls for extravagant sets and costumes that require an expansive production budget. “This is one of the ones that doesn’t get done as much because it has to be so lavish,” said Kelly. “This is our generation’s version of the show, and I’m honored to be part of it.”

The show and its lavish accoutrements are not without challenges, though — Deborah Kerr famously lost 12 pounds from the weight of her gowns while making the film adaptation of the musical, and Kelly, who suffers from a bone injury in her ribs, said the costumes are the hardest part of the role. “It’s something they would’ve had in the day, but on an eight-show-a-week [schedule], your body can get put under duress,” she said. “But that’s part of the job. ... That’s what I love about it. It’s the adrenaline, it’s the excitement of ‘Can I even get to the end?’ It pulls greatness out of you.”

For Llana, who took over the part of the King of Siam for Ken Watanabe on Broadway, the tour is a chance to make his own mark on the iconic role and come full circle in more ways than one. “Obviously, it’s the same show,” he said. “But it’s exciting to be able to flex the muscles of this piece and this part in a completely different way than I did on Broadway because we created something together, as opposed to me replacing in the Broadway company.”

Yul Brynner, who originated the role in the first Broadway production, famously demanded dressing-room renovations when he toured with the show at the Pantages Theatre in the 1970s and 1980s, including carpeting backstage and an expansive star dressing room for himself. That makes the experience particularly special for Llana. “It’s so cool to walk around and to know that the carpeting there is for our bare feet because Yul Brynner knew that his company was going to be barefoot for most of the show,” he said. “It makes me feel protected, and I feel like we’re fulfilling this circle that Yul Brynner started at the Pantages with us, and it’s a really sweet thing to know.”

The King and I runs through Jan. 21 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.